Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (28 Sep 2000)
The author, Liza Dalby, was a student of anthropology in the mid-'70s. As an anthropologist familiar with Japan, she became fascinated with the phenomenon of the geisha. And, for a year, she actually became one, joining a community of professionals that more symbolise traditional Japan than any other except perhaps the samurai, who aren't exactly recruiting these days. This book partly tells of her experiences, but it also explains what a geisha is. Dalby's experiences, and the people she met and worked with, bring human interest to what could otherwise be a dry academic treatise.
In the West, the image of the Geisha is often that of a courtesan, but that's far from the truth. Yes, geisha are hired for entertainment by men, but not for sexual entertainment. What the geisha is about is her gei - that is, her art. Some geisha specialise in dance, some in music, some in other skills, but what they are there to do is to provide intelligent sparkling and cultured conversation at a banquet, in contrast with the traditional Japanese wife's role, which is that of the demure yet all-important ruler of the home. The geisha house is also oddly like a religious community, with strict rules, and strong ritual.
And, of course, explaining geisha can't be done without showing the cultural matrix in which they are embedded. Even today, Japanese men are known for their astonishing tendency to return home only when it's time to sleep.
This book, written about a period three decades ago, is now partly historical, as the last generation of geisha who started before WWII are now long since retired, and the new generations have to find a new accommodation with the surrounding society.
A fascinating look at a society that is much misunderstood.