About Us

Contact Us



Hacktreks Travel

Hacktreks 2

First Chapters

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Dean H. Ruetzler

"It 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 Hoeg’s "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" a reaction.

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 it…..A LOT.

© Dean H. Ruetzler March 2003
Nishine, Iwate Prefecture, JAPAN and Warren/South Burlington, Vermont, USA

Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West
Dean H. Ruetzler

* The Steven Spielberg Movie coming out this fall.
< Reply to this Article

© Hackwriters 2000-2003 all rights reserved