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Sayo Masuda’s “Autobiography of a Geisha” Thesis

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Updated: Jun 12th, 2022

The book Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda depicts life experience of a geisha in the mid-century Japan. The author underlines that the prosperity that came to Japan with the World War created a comfortable group of writers living in bourgeois ease and yet moving slowly toward socialistic philosophy and providing the background for the advocates who appeared in the wake of the revolutions. Sayo Masuda’ discusses that she was sent to akenoya geisha house when she was only 12 years old.

The uniqueness of the book is that it depicts reality of life and grievances experienced by geisha in Japan. All of which is simply to suggest that significant change and a spirit of restless uncertainty pervades modern society. It is a whirl of opposing influences, where even the immediate goal cannot be foreseen. Interestingly, at the same time as constructing geisha as a group of morally different and sexually indiscriminate women, the society also constructed them as different from other women by virtue of some type of pathology that they possessed.

When discussing a proposed structure of their life, the proprietor of the geisha house supposed that that young geisha should be remanded at an early stage in their career in order to enable a full social report to be submitted. “what a pity this sweet Child’s to become a geisha” (Masuda 18). The author portrays that she was oppressed and humiliated by the “Motyer” in geisha house and severally injured in this place.

The author supports the thesis using real life examples and stories she heard from other women.

The understanding of prostitutes as different from non-prostitute women also occurs later in the report in relation to ‘living on the earnings of prostitution’. Here the committee was adamant that the relationship between prostitutes and ponces is not as exploitative as it first appears. The understanding of geisha as poor women did not displace the conceptual differentiation between geisha and other women. Instead, one of the questions informing the three analyses was: why do all poor women not become geisha? This question opened the theoretical space for questions about the social differences between geisha and other women, which in turn created the conditions for an increasingly intricate body of knowledge about geisha. “In the geisha business it isn’t just enough to do as you’re told; you have to do a real effort” (Masuda 59).

But as a result of the problematic essentialism (that is, ‘a form of analysis in which social phenomena are understood not in terms of the specific conditions of their existence, but in terms of some presumed essence. Hence geisha’s failure to conform to prescribed behaviors, according to the logic of these two explanations, must be evidence of their difference and their pathology.

The book describes that a geisha is a woman involved in sexual affairs like a prostitute but she is responsible for comfort and pleasure delivered to men. In the book, questions are asked about the extent to which women are segregated, or cut off, from legitimate or acceptable social relationships and institutions, and attention is focused on the degree to which they may have ‘fallen through’ what are perceived as normal, constraining institutions and relationships such as the family or work.

In addressing what it means to be a geishas, integration and engagement in illicit and often illegal relationships and institutions is stressed so that the degree of involvement in, for example, a criminal subculture, can be highlighted. In its ideal type, the social dislocation and criminal subculture explanatory narrative posits a ‘hard’ social determinism, whereby involvement in prostitution is seen as the result of subtle and complex social forces. The author questions “everyone scorns me because I was a geisha. But what I have ever done to anyone?” (Masuda 77).

Explanations of women’s involvement in geishas business are of limited usefulness because the theoretical space created within such explanations forecloses the possibility of pursuing an analysis of prostitutes as similar to other women and as social actors located within specific contexts. Nevertheless such explanations do hint at other constructions and theoretical possibilities, particularly questions about the social difference between geisha and other women.

In sum, the book depicts real life conditions and struggle of geisha women in Japan. Masuda narrative is a long description of the various social processes that women who become geisha go through and the environments they inhabit, and how those processes and environments ‘guide’ and ‘channel’ them into geisha business. By examining those processes the reader can uncover Masuda’s construction of geishas as social satellites.

She characterizes the ‘disorganized, drifting stage as one in which the woman stands in a position of ‘irrelation’ to normal society. She is not hooked into the ordinary institutions of everyday life such as family and motherhood. Sayo Masuda underlines that the life of women in Japan was limited by their social position and lack of laws and norms which could prevent a young girl from geisha houses.

Works Cited

Masuda, S. Autobiography of a Geisha. Columbia University Press, 2003.

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IvyPanda. "Sayo Masuda's "Autobiography of a Geisha"." June 12, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/sayo-masudas-autobiography-of-a-geisha/.


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