Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
must be the context I read the book in!" I tell myself. Here
it is, weeks after finishing Arthur Golden`s "Memoirs of a
Geisha", and I am still trying to rationalize why I liked it
so much. In the past, when I went to Finland and worked for two
years, Peter Hoegs "Smilla`s Sense of Snow" became
a much better read in the context of a dark, extremely cold, at
times nearly sunless Scandanavian winter, which was the setting
of "Sense of Snow". I had tried to read the book before,
while working as a lifeguard in
Boulder, Colorado, and I had found "Smilla`s Sense of Snow"
an extremely boring, difficult to read translation, which I eventually
quit. Yet, less than a year later, when I found myself in a similar
situation as the setting of the book, it took on added meaning,
and I had no problems reading or understanding it.
The same rationale can be surmised for my reading of "The Autobiography
of Malcom X". I come from the demographically whitest state in the
United States, Vermont, and needless to say, if I am in familiar surroundings,
I probably will not have a strong connection to the Afro-American experience.
However, living in a situation where the tables are turned and I live
as a one percent minority, there will be a more resonating tone to reading
about minority experience. That turned out to be the case as reading "Malcom
X" has been very memorable. Not to say, given my roots that I completely
understand the Afro-American (or Asian-American, Hispanic-American, etc.)
experience, but certainly reading the book while being a foreigner and
minority, has augmented my understanding of the book.
I try to say that is why I enjoyed "Memoirs of a Geisha" so
much. Having spent nearly three years in
Japan, living, working, studying the language, etc. I think that it has
given me added insight to the book.
I have read many books about Japan while here, but they have been, for
the most part non-fiction works that, it seems, all try to prepare me
one way or another for further study at some higher level such as graduate
school. Towards that end, I have read some of the "standards"
such as "The Japan that CAN say No!" by Shintaro Ishihara and
"Embracing Defeat" by John Dower, and some really great "non-standards"
like "Straight-Jacket Society" by Masao Miyamoto, and the book
I am currently reading Patrick Smith`s "Japan: A Reinterpretation".
It seems that most of my reading has been designed to increase my knowledge
in some way about Japan, and to give me a "fix" of the material
that a "news/current events/history junkie" like myself seems
to crave. Perhaps to get away from such reading, mostly to see what all
the popularity of "Memoirs of a Geisha" was about, I picked
up the book and read it.
The popularity of the book is undeniable. It is heralded as an "international
best seller" and
Some reviewers have as gone as far as to call it a "classic".
There is, or was, even a Hollywood movie project underway based on the
book, directed by none other than Stephen Spielberg. In fact the only
people who are panning the book are Japanese "cultural purists",
who seem angered that part of their "pristine" culture has been
made into a best selling paperback. In answer to that, as an American,
I have seen my culture, language, and country, among other countries too)
defiled, belittled, openly mocked, and simply used in a different way,
that I am often told is "better" or "at least as goods
as" (i.e. professional baseball) so many time in my three plus years
in Japan, that I simply argue with an American idioms. That idiom would
be "Take a walk for a mile in my shoes, before you cast judgment".
To that, I could also add; "Turnabout is fair play", but it
may be a little too direct in translation.
"Geisha" seems to be right in the middle of a huge "boom"
of Japanese culture that is exploding overseas from Hong Kong to Boston
and everywhere in between. From an explosion of sushi bars and Japanese
restaurants (my home city of 120,000 in a state whose homogenous population
has already been discussed, has four sushi bars and two other Japanese
restaurants) to Ichiroo Suzuki proving his worth as one of the worlds
best baseball players in Seattle, there is a glut of Japanese culture
from pop (Pokemon, Hello Kitty, other Sanrio characters, to the huge popularity
of "J-pop" throughout Asia) to sacred (geisha) being exported
every day. It has reached the point, where if I want to buy a baseball
hat with "kanji"(Japanese/Chinese characters) on it, my chances
are much better stateside, as that fad is only recently starting to take
root in Japan (at least in my rural work placing). Because of this "Memoirs
of a Geisha" spent a long time on bestseller lists, and sold millions
of copies. Conversely, perhaps the fad has the book to thank.
As stated before, this explosion of Japanese culture has many Japanese
"cultural purists" up in arms, as they see the "McDonaldific-ization"
of unique cultural treasures. Of course, being a three year resident of
Japan, I see it as fair play, as I have seen many western cultural aspects
from "cheesy" (Arnold and Sly Stallone movies, KFC, et al.)
to "sacred" (Gospel Music, Bluegrass and Jazz, not mention some
great rock songs), ripped to shreds and belittled in its Japanese usage.
Due to both its popularity overseas, and the furor it has caused in Japan
(It should be noted that not all Japanese feel this way, many have interest
in the book and phenomenon), this book has certainly made its mark on
global mass culture. There is now a "Geisha-Chic" overseas,
and certainly, this book can place itself at the focal point of that phenomenon.
Needless to say my review is not the first one of this book. Media sources
are full of reviews of "Memoirs". A lot of those reviews are
pretty generic. They seem to say; "How did Arthur Golden get the
(insert favorite word implying hubris here) to write this book? A white
man has no business writing about being an Asian woman of the early 20th
century!" They usually are followed with something like; "Then
I read the book...Golden has an unsurpassed gift for description...this
book is a CLASSIC!".
I have to admit, given my proclivities for reading non-fiction, and to
a certain extent not wanting to do the "popular" thing or say;"what
everyone else is saying", I would love to trash the book. I cannot
do that. It was a good solid work, and Golden`s penchant for skilled description
does hold true. However I cannot go as far as to say it was a "classic".
How does one define a "classic"? Is it a book that holds me
completely enraptured in it, so that my schedule is altered around reading
it, such as the first time I read Michael Crichton`s "The Andromeda
Strain"? In that case, then I may have to say no. It took me a month
to finish, though when I did read it, I always found it enjoyable, and
thirty or forty pages would slip by fairly quickly.
Is it one where the images conjured in your mind are etched in your memory,
and seem to stay there for years, much as "A Separate Peace"
or "Catcher in the Rye" from my High School mandatory reading
lists do? If that is the case, then perhaps it may be one, only the years
will tell, not the months.
Is it one that seems to make a huge cultural landmark? Then it may be
a classic, certainly in the past fifteen years or so I cannot remember
a book with such a wide-ranging impact. Reading, like every other venue
of media, nowadays is a specialized market where target audiences are
delineated, separated, and then catered to. One persons "high culture"
is another persons "schlock", and the cultural "legends"
are rare and usually vilified by those who do not "catch the wave",
A perfect example of this being the movie "Titantic" (By the
way, no pun intended!). In that aspect, this book comes very close, but
it becomes a "Which was first..the chicken or egg?" debate.
Did this book start or create the current fascination with Japanese culture,
or did it merely benefit by the popularity of "Dai Ma-Jin",
"No-No" Nomo, Doraemon, and "Teppan-Yakki" restaurants?
As I have been in Japan for the past three years, I have missed the real
explosion of Japanese culture overseas. I am completely immersed in a
world kanji, Hello Kitty, "yakki-niku", and the latest whims
of Japanese fashion designers. Would the book have been as noteworthy
to me if I were back in my home country? It is a hard question to answer,
as the descriptions in the book are of another time and era. Most certainly
they are not of the Japan of my experience, that being of "kombiinis",(convenience
stores) powder snow on volcanic ridges, mini disc players, televisions
in family cars, and the never ending soap opera/crime drama/comedy of
contemporary Japanese politics.
The book refers to the Japan of my fantasies, and the carefully constructed
media image of Japan I was barraged with from the first time I picked
up a history text. Call it "samurai", "geisha", Pearl
Harbor, "karate-dou", economical, well-built cars, corporate
takeovers, economic "war", the sounds of a "shamisen"
or "koto"(stringed instruments), colorful kimonos, and Buddhist
temples. Call it equal parts "ShooGun", "Tora, Tora, Tora!",
and "Rising Sun". Containing little or nothing resembling the
realities of my experiences in Japan.
Nowadays the few kimono-clad women I see are more often than not lugging
the ubiquitous "Mr. Donuts" box of snacks and talking on their
"ketai denwa" (cell-phone). That may be why I did find a level
of interest in this book. Golden lived in Japan for fifteen years, talked
to the one westerner who was ever trained as a real geisha (she was absolutely
fluent and quite immersed in Japan herself), and quite obviously researched
this book thoroughly. He was able to speak of the Japan I have learned
of and discovered in my time here (and am still quite mystified by at
times), yet he could also appeal to the part of me that fantasized about
a totally different Japan, before I got here. He was able to weave a story
that transported me back in time to the first half of the century. Furthermore,
he was also able to make very detailed descriptions of a culture that
some days I think I have learned something about, and other days have
those same thoughts blown out of the water. He was really successfully
able to mix my fascination with the Japan I was tantalized with before
my arrival, and my firsthand experiences of the country.
More than anything else in this book Golden succeeds in setting an image
in your mind. Right from the alluring painting of a geisha on the cover,
I found a high level of skilled presentation in this book. From the start
of the book, with the heroine Niita Sayuri as a child, I felt as if I
was in her shoes. All the way through her apprenticeship and early geisha-hood
in Kyoto`s famous Gion district, through the hardships of World War Two,
to her "retirement" in New York City, I was taken along. I always
found the style with which Golden wrote to be very fitting. It was never
too flowery, it never became an erudite exercise in a "samurai"-like
display of ones verbosity, wielding ones verbiage like a sword (much like
this sentence, and my writing tries to be). Arthur Golden is one of the
best authors I have ever read, at being able to make me think I was ACTUALLY
there and not just reading a book, thanks to a gift for description, that
is equally elegant and straightforward at the same time.
In a sense, Golden`s gift for description, has covered for a few flaws
I see in the book, and those flaws may be the ultimate dividing line between
it being a "Classic", and just a very good book. The first flaw
was the plot. It was intelligent and well crafted, but at times seemed
not to even move. I was just reading the book because of the picture the
book elicited in my mind and fantasies. I was reading the book for the
way the story was presented, and not the story itself. It was an intricate
plot for the most part, but a sense of building towards the crescendo
of the book was not too evident. When the climax of the book came, it
was a little too contrived, and really lacked the Sayuri Niita`s "gut-felt"
reactions to the situation. This is in character of what I would expect
of an old geisha relating her story to a trusted friend (the scenario
of the novel), but still I felt it a little lacking, and too "matter
of fact". Perhaps we can say it is a little too "Confucian"
I would also say the same about the main theme of the book. That is, Sayuri`s
feelings for "The Chairman" an aged, rich benefactor. Somehow,
when their relationship comes to its conclusion, I found it a little lacking,
a little contrived, and a tad to the realm of unreality. This is in contrast
to Golden`s gift of taking the Japan I know, and the Japan I fantasize
about, and make them both seem "real" at the same time. For
most of the book, Golden is doing a great job, but when the time comes
to kick the book up a metaphorical notch, Golden did not succeed in my
eyes. He could not build beyond the description, and bring the book to
a conclusion that astonished me.
He also did not develop a few of the characters in the book well. Mameha,
Sayuri`s "older sister and guiding hand" of a geisha and Nobu,
"The Chairman`s" right-hand man an inelegant, frank, but very
clever and aware man, scarred by a war injury. They were developed quite
well, as was Sayuri`s nemesis, from her developmental days as a maiko
(or "apprentice geisha"), Hatsumoto. Her detestable, vitriolic
character`s slow destruction at the expense of Sayuri`s growth as a geisha
is great, something you want to see happen as the book rolls along. She
perfectly plays the role of villain in this book. It is good to have an
obvious villain in this book as Golden does capture the essence of the
difference in culture in this book. Therefore, it, in my experience, when
you have negative feelings for a Japanese person, if Japanese people themselves
share their irritation with or dislike of that person, instead of using
of the famous Japanese reserve or "go-enryo". As Hatsumoto is
a clearly unlikable character in this book, the only one really, she adds
difference to the book, as most of the characters present a "gray"
quality when it comes to defining "good" and "bad".
The collection of rich, successful men that are Sayuri`s main "danna"
(benefactors, clients, "sugar daddys" etc., whatever you want
to call them), are a great support to the text. From the hymen-collecting
doctor, to the wartime general who creates his own demise due to his inefficiency,
to the postwar politician, who appears to have no redeeming qualities
(Well, he actually does not), whose whims must be catered to, because
of his importance to the main characters of the novel. They all support
the story well. However, other characters do not fare as well in their
development. "Auntie", "Mother" and "Granny",
the owner/caretakers of Sayuri`s "okiya" (home/training place/management/owners)
really do not meet their full development. The lack of development of
"Pumpkin", the other Geisha that goes through the okiya when
she and Sayuri are growing up together, is a glaring mistake on Golden`s
part, when she returns later in the book to play a larger part. She never
escaped her "minor" role in the book until it was too late.
Those complaints on the book are little more than the level of "nitpicking".
I still recommend it as some of the best fiction I have ever read. Given
the amount of fiction I read, I, however do not qualify as extremely knowledgeable
about the genre. I can speak with more authority on the books concerned
with Japan, but for that sake, lets not confuse three plus years in rural
Japan teaching English with an in depth study of the culture.
That experience with Japan, along with the great amount of publicity the
book has received, are what convinced me to pick up the book. In no way
was I disappointed, in fact, reading the book was a pleasant surprise,
given my reluctance to warm to fiction reading quickly. This then begs
the question, was it my experience in Japan that allowed me to enjoy the
book? It certainly was why I picked it up in the first place. In my case,
I would say yes, being in context has always augmented my reading choices,
especially with fiction. With that note, I, without hesitation, recommend
it to my fellow members of the JET program, or any other person who has
some connection with Japan.
How about recommending it to other people? In researching for this book
report, I found nothing less than heaps of praise for Golden. He has arguably
written one of the most popular books of the last part of the twentieth
century. It along with Ichiro, a host of other pop icons, character tattoos,
and some of the best food in the world, has focused a lot more attention
on Japan. In the age of "globalization", that focus may export
a truer picture of this stereotyped and still mysterious country, than
ever before. More attention to this book is not necessary. It will someday
be looked upon as the "classic" that it is purported to be regardless
of my nitpicking. At least, unlike the few other truly dominant creations
in current mass media, it does not carry around a vicious backlash. Yes,
there was some backlash in Japan, but it really did not spread beyond
"cultural" purists, and those who pan all things western, or
all things that do not treat Japan with kid gloves and utmost deferential
respect as a matter of fact, of habit, or of automatic reaction anyways.
The backlash did not seep in to the Japanese mainstream. Praise of this
book is near unanimous, and in many ways well deserved. Do not let my
reluctance to call it a "classic" instead of just "A VERY
GOOD Book!" as a negative review. Just because I am still trying
to rationalize to myself why I liked it, does not mean I did not like
© Dean H. Ruetzler March 2003
Nishine, Iwate Prefecture, JAPAN and Warren/South Burlington, Vermont,
Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in
Dean H. Ruetzler
* The Steven Spielberg Movie coming out this fall.
< Reply to this Article
all rights reserved