You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Call to Service

A few years ago, in her best-selling book, Sex Secrets of an American Geisha: How to Attract, Satisfy, and Keep Your Man Positively Sexual, the Korean-American writer Py Kim Conant offered a piece of advice for female readers in search of a husband: find your inner geisha. The doll-like child-woman wrapped in her silk kimono and broad tight obi, with her scarlet lips, plucked and penciled-in eyebrows, white make-up, black, lacquered hair, and exotic sexual technique, provides many lessons for (in Conant’s words) “American women who want to be married soon, to their good men.”

Conant’s how-to book is not discussed in Yoko Kawaguchi’s exhaustive history of the East-meets-West romance, whose apotheosis is, of course, Puccini’s magnificent opera. But it would surely enrage Kawaguchi who, growing up in America, was “greatly irritated” by stereotypes of the geisha as mincingly passive and sexually voracious. She wrote this book to show that the “dream women that haunt the western imagination” reveal more about the West’s neuroses than about the geisha—and Asian women in general—and that the geisha “reflects changing western anxieties regarding female sexuality in general.” So far, so good. Except that this book did not arise merely from a grudge. It is, in fact, one of a gazillion children of Orientalism, Edward Said’s study of how Europeans misrepresented the East in literature and art to justify colonizing the region.

One problem with the book is its scope. Whereas Orientalism limited itself to nineteenth-century Western writers and artists representing the Other, Kawaguchi includes Western fantasies, historical accounts, music videos, plays, photographs, death masks, and real women. Kawaguchi never met a geisha she didn’t like. And yet for all the book’s inclusiveness, there are some odd omissions. Lafcadio Hearn, who found the geisha “charming” and “mischievous,” is barely mentioned. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Ruth Benedict’s scholarly book which attempted to explain Japan to America after World War II (it got a recent cameo on Mad Men), is not in the index.

Butterfly’s Sisters is obsessed with how Western reformers, writers, and artists confuse prostitutes and geishas. The first sections of the book outline how this confusion arose. Initially male entertainers, geishas became an all-female profession in eighteenth-century Imperial Japan, where they were tea house hostesses, proficient in the traditional arts of singing and dancing as well as in conversation and letter-writing. Sometimes the female geishas worked in brothels, amusing customers waiting for prostitutes. Sold into slavery as children, they lived alongside prostitutes in the pleasure quarters walled off from the rest of the city. And some geisha may have actually been prostitutes.

But the conflation of geishas with prostitutes began in earnest when Commodore Perry opened Japan in 1850, and European and American reformers became obsessed with the geisha’s morality and sexuality: was she synonymous with chastity, or did a sexually depraved Amazon lurk beneath those kimono folds? Many Westerners suspected the latter, because Japanese women laughed about sex, men and women bathed together apparently without shame, and the government regulated brothels when it should have banned them.

As Kawaguchi recounts, if reformers could not decide whether Japanese women were virtuous or louche, writers and artists could not discern whether they were beautiful or ugly, a meme for the eternal feminine or a hideous dissembler using feminine wiles to seduce guileless European and American men. Indeed, some of the romantic writers’ attitudes towards Japanese women are cringe-inducing. In his enormously popular picaresque travel narrative, Madame Chrysanthéme, which appeared in 1887, Pierre Loti writes that without her kimono, her shoes, her make-up, her hair, the Japanese woman was “nothing but a diminutive yellow being, with crooked legs…” (Kawaguchi points out that Loti’s real entanglements with Japanese women were far more complicated.) Degas, on the other hand, used the shamelessness of naked Japanese women in woodcuts to inspire his own unsentimental portraits of the female nude.

Kawaguchi is best when using history to explore what literature, with all its attention to narrative and character, misses. She is at her worst when she tries too hard to condemn Western intellectuals. Apparently Edmond de Goncourt, who along with Rodin and Aubrey Beardsley collected Japanese porn, or shunga, misread an image of a female abalone diver having sex with a pair of octopi as being about “the fury of these copulations,” because he could not read the calligraphy the artist conveniently provided for him around the figures. “Dialogue can no more be dispensed with in reading a shunga picture than it can be when reading a Rowlandson or Gillray cartoon,” Kawaguchi writes. Fair enough; but to chastise someone for not reading the captions when looking at human-sea creature pornography is like chewing out people who buy Playboy for the pictures.

By the end of the nineteenth century, European writers drifted from an obsession with geishas’ morality and sexuality to the tragic liaisons between them and Western men, the most important example of which is Madame Butterfly. The stories Kawaguchi tells about how in real life it was European and American men who demanded Butterfly-type liaisons (as opposed to Japanese women entrapping them) are unsettling. Many of the proto-Butterflies who became romantically and sexually involved with these men were ostracized and then abandoned. If children appeared, they did not stay in Japan.

Kawaguchi’s most memorable chapter traces the lives of the geishas who emigrated to Europe and America during this era and became actresses, muses to Manet, Picasso, and Rodin, and inspiration for a new non-naturalistic dramatic idiom. Sadayakko landed in San Francisco with her husband and their theatre troupe in 1899 and became one of the first female actors to perform kabuki—albeit a Westernized form. Acclaimed for the visceral way she killed herself on stage, and for the contrast between the violence of that act and the sweetness of her face, Sadayakko (and the other famous ex-geisha turned actress Hanako) was imitated by Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Loie Fuller, and was acclaimed by Andre Gidé, and other intellectuals, artists, and critics who saw in such “Japanese” performances a universal language that might release theater from naturalism’s restrictions. Brecht and Artaud continued to look East for inspiration for their theories.

Then Kawaguchi gets to World War II and Hollywood and pop music. The occupation of Japan turned the West’s fantasy about the geisha both more violent and more servile. As American servicemen demanded Japanese prostitutes in 1945, Western potboilers and Hollywood movies represented the geisha and Japan as either savages or simps—as in Elliot Chaze’ The Stainless Steel Kimono, or The Teahouse of the August Moon, which was a novel and a play before the movie version starred Marlon Brando in a yellow-face verging on camp. In the stifling era before Betty Friedan, these moldy works portray the Japanese as shameless about sex, and they re-introduce Americans to the eternally sexually available “Babysan.”

The most recent resurgence of the geisha obsession began in the go-go 1980s, the same decade that Susan Faludi’s Backlash arraigned for the reaction against feminism. Kawaguchi borrows from Faludi, suggesting that the studies by Liza Dalby and Lesley Downer, Arthur Golden’s thoroughly researched mega-bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha, Fatal Attraction, and Madonna and Kylie Minogue videos, are all documents of Orientalism. Some of these works push the message that geishas can make men happy where the E.R.A. and burning bras have failed. But since the 1960s, Hollywood and pop stars have “juxtaposed the geisha with strong American women” she writes.

It is understandable that Kawaguchi is bothered by the idea of the geisha as the self-effacing Asian woman who is nevertheless a model female. But this assumption leads her to cast any Western writer or pop artist interested in the geisha as an exploiter afflicted with “yellow fever.” She concedes that Golden, whose book was not well-received in Japan, is a novelist, not a historian, but then she accuses him of glamorizing the geisha. “He increases the shock value of his story by setting the action back in the pre-war and immediate post-war period, when abuses were common,” she writes, as though it were uncommon for writers to seek the most dramatic setting for their stories. Madonna’s video “Nothing Really Matters,” where the Material Girl, dressed in a skin-tight vinyl kimono, dances surrounded by Asian automatons in whiteface, shows for Kawaguchi that “Asians, as though ignorant of the meaning of love, yet again have to be taught about love, this time by Madonna.”

Kawaguchi celebrates the long-running Broadway play M. Butterfly by the Asian-American writer David Henry Hwang. Like the opera that inspired it, M. Butterfly is based on a striking real story, that of a French diplomat who preferred to believe that his lover of several decades was a female Chinese opera star rather than accept another reality—during the Cultural Revolution, a male spy was exploiting him for state secrets. But to describe the plot this way is just to scratch the surface. Sure, the diplomat believed the boy was a girl because his awkwardness with aggressive Western women, his search for the ideal feminine, and perhaps even his own ambiguity about sex drew him to an Asian woman whom he imagined as demure. But beyond all that he longed for “enchanted space,” the elusive area accessible to anyone in love. Kawaguchi describes Hwang’s play as an inversion of the Butterfly Myth made possible because of the writer’s outsider status: “The white man becomes the victim of his fantasy of the victimized oriental woman.”

There is a more important moral to be gleaned here. M. Butterfly is a dazzling piece of theater neither because it is written by an Asian American nor because it turns the Butterfly Myth on its head. It is dazzling because it is beautifully written, and because it is not ultimately about “the Butterfly Myth” any more than Hedda Gabler is about Norway: the play’s true subject is the lengths we go to shield ourselves from the true identity of our beloveds. The Teahouse of the August Moon, by contrast, is a literal-minded period piece spewing out clichés about Asians. 

The failure to make such distinctions sharply enough ultimately sinks this book. Kawaguchi sometimes seems on the verge of offering a more nuanced analysis of the geisha, but turns back to a politically correct conclusion: that Western writers and artists will always imagine geishas as prostitutes. But there are also passages of genuine insight. In one of the rare moments when Kawaguchi describes what the geisha is, as opposed to how the West sees her, she concludes that to be a geisha is to excel at “a profession which places more emphasis on being pleasant to and pleasing others rather than the importance of being independent-minded and assertive.” No matter our gender or ethnicity, selflessness is a quality we all long for, whose absence brings us pain; we seek it everywhere, but especially outside of ourselves.

Rachel Shteir is the author of three books, including The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, forthcoming in 2011.