{Essay} Geisha by Liza Dalby (Reading, Berkshire: Vintage 2000, 1998, pp 357)

02 Apr
Български: Традиционно облекло и прическа на г...

Български: Традиционно облекло и прическа на гейшата Deutsch: Typische Nacken-Schminke English: 2 Maiko (apprentice Geisha) conversing near the Golden Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Parts of the kimono and the special make-up are clearly visible. Français : Deux maiko arborant le kimono, la coiffure et le maquillage traditionnels. Türkçe: Tipik ense makyajı Русский: Традиционная косметика и причёска гейши (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dalby’s Geisha is referred to by her as ‘an interpretive ethnography’[1] in which she has two main aims. Firstly, to make the geisha world understandable to people from different cultures not merely by describing the customs of this group, but by explaining the cultural meaning and significance of events and objects that, if taken out of context, or out of order in this book can appear at first sight to be unrelated to the group, such as the Buddhist festival of Bon (the Feast of Lanterns).

 Her second aim is to answer the question of what it means to be a geisha in contemporary Japan by using her own knowledge, experience and observations. It is the second of these two goals that makes the book have particular significance in this field of study: Dalby is frequently referred to as ‘the only foreigner to have become an actual geisha’[2][3] as one Geisha community whom she was studying encouraged her to join them for a year so that she could experience life from an insider’s perspective as opposed to that of an external observer. Furthermore, as a result of living in Japan for several of her teenage years, Dalby was bilingual in Japanese, which allowed her to interact fully with all people she encountered whilst a geisha. This has resulted in the greater part of Geisha being written in the first person. Dalby tells the reader from the start that they ‘will not be permitted to forget that his understanding is being shaped by Ichigiku [the geisha name she took on joining the geisha world]’[4]. It is arguably this unique perspective that makes this work so important as Dalby has gained an understanding of geisha which she has been able to link to Japanese culture without exoticising either, a trap that other authors often fall in to.[5]


Although Dalby’s specialization in Anthropology had been cross-cultural studies, Geisha revolves around geisha within Japan with no attempt made to compare it to similar groups from any other culture, although Dalby names several that share similarities as her main goal was to ‘explain the cultural meaning’ of all that she encountered in the geisha world. She often makes a point of explaining the differences between geishas’ behaviour and customs not only compared to those of Japanese non-geishas, but also between geisha from different geisha communities. In order to do this, Dalby leads the reader straight into an eight-chapter section (the first of three-such sections) on relations; those of the geisha community as a whole before dwelling on those between the people from the teahouse she worked in as a geisha. Dalby then goes on to explain the history of geisha from the sixteenth century until the time she was in Kyoto as a geisha. She also mentions several traditions, such as mizu-age[6] that have shaped geisha history and tradition.


The second section deals with differences between geisha from different communities as well as discussing what Dalby claims is the main factor that unites all women who choose to become geisha both at the time of writing and historically: ‘an inclination towards the arts’[7] and to what extent the training and emphasis on each geisha’s ‘gei’, literally ‘art’[8], but in this case taken to mean the branch of artistic study they chose to perfect as it is that that makes up ‘the walls of their world’.[9] The final section is much shorter and deals in much more detail with ‘gei’, kimono etiquette and the place of geisha in contemporaryJapan.


The layout of the book and use of the first person and anecdotes, combined with facts and insights into the cultural mind-frame make the book more and more readable as one goes along. Whilst the history of how geisha came to have their current role in Japanese society is essential, the sheer volume of information combined with understanding the geishas’ mentality, particularly in the first section can feel overwhelming at times. Dalby has included a lot of illustrations in the form of maps, photographs and wood-block prints that are related to each section of Geisha, which are interesting and informative. She has also included pie-charts to illustrate some of the findings from her own research, which, coupled with quotes from some of the responses to her questionnaires, shows where her research was limited or her earlier conclusions had been proven wrong and in what way they were.


For the most part, Dalby chose not to hypothesise on the behaviour of geisha and their world, and instead to draw conclusions from her observations and experiences. As a result, the book feels much more fluidly written than it would probably have been, had it been based on a particular question, as opposed to illustrating the ‘flower and willow world’, or ‘karyukai’ as it is called in Japan and trying to understand what it means to be a geisha. Each section leads on to another and illustrates not only this world, but also contextualises it within Japanese society, for example the section on the position of Japanese wives in Japanese society.


One of Dalby’s conclusions (from the 1970’s) was that geisha were going to continue to exist into the 21st century as they are a part of Japanese tradition, even though their numbers would inevitably decline. This is true as there are 700 or so geisha inJapan. Dalby writes convincingly and authoritatively on the subject


In conclusion, Geisha is an important addition to ethnographical texts about geishas as it understands their place in Japanese society and their culture fully and is able to explain these behavioural patterns and beliefs succinctly, making them clear to the reader. As a geisha, she experienced their world in a way that few observers could hope to and has been able to note fascinating incidents and conversations that would be nigh-on impossible for someone who did not participate in this world to. It seems that had it not been for Dalby’s ‘deepening involvement in the geisha world’[10] and her American upbringing, she would not have been able to understand or explain so thoroughly her observations to the Western reader.


Word count: 1,028


Primary Text

Geisha, Liza Dalby,Reading,Berkshire: Vintage 2000, 1998, pp 357


Secondary Texts

 Geisha: The life, the voices, the art, Jodi Cobb, Knopf:United States, 1995, pp 115

 The Gei of Geisha: Music, Identity and Meaning, Kelly Foreman, Ashgate: SOAS Musicology, 2008 pp 158


[1] P. xvi

[2] Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha, who has rekindled Western interest in geisha by writing about their world in such detail and with such understanding. Dalby acted as a consultant for both the novel and the film of Memoirs of a Geisha, although she felt that they ignored most of her advice.

[3] Fiona Graham, fromAustralia has also completed geisha training; however her frequent disputes with other geisha from the community she works in has cast some doubt as to whether she has done this training in order to promote her own ethnographical research.

[4] P. xvii

[5] Jodi Cobb’s Geisha: The life, the voices treats geisha very much as a throw-back to previous centuries and misunderstands the place of older geisha, placing an emphasis on the desirability of younger geisha. According to Dalby and to men who frequent tea-houses a good geisha is one with wit and character, something that younger ones are still working on building (as a result, this makes them less desirable as older ones).

[6] The sexual initiation that was needed for a woman to become a geisha after years of being an apprentice or ‘maiko’

[7] P.223

[8] From which the term ‘gei-sha’ is said to be derived

[9] P. 222

[10] P.199

1 Comment

Posted by on April 2, 2012 in 12 in 12, Books, Support your Library


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