Geisha: Lesley Downer

★★★★

The secret history of a vanishing world

In the West we’ve developed a romanticised view of the geisha, largely thanks to Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha and the related film. The geisha have become one of the defining images of old Japan for many of us, like samurai or cherry blossom, but Downer takes us beyond the picture-perfect gloss into the complex histories and modern incarnations of this fascinating profession.

And being a geisha is a profession. Nowadays, to choose to become a geisha is to commit oneself to a traditional but ever more precarious career, reliant upon a handful of wealthy patrons who appreciate custom and are willing to pay for it to be done properly. In the modern world, where music, elegance and grace are less desirable than brasher forms of female entertainment, the geisha are suffering. And yet they remain a powerful, attractive and somewhat taboo aspect of Japan’s appeal to the outside world. Downer’s quest to understand this tradition takes her from the bright and breezy girls of the Atami resort, where the line sometimes blurs between the two meanings of ‘courtesan’, to the deeply traditional geisha district of Kyoto, where being a geisha is a complete way of life. But, in order to get this far, she has to penetrate the reserve of Japanese society, where few will admit to knowing a geisha, and meeting one initially seems impossible.

Downer is a good person to have as a guide: she has been steeped in Asian culture and history since childhood (her mother is Chinese; her father a professor of Chinese) and she lived in Japan for around fifteen years. She speaks Japanese fluently and has many Japanese friends, but this doesn’t open quite as many doors as she’d hoped. The Japanese are reluctant to pander to the West’s fascination with their geisha, especially because the profession has always had a disreputable tinge to it. A few of her friends can nudge her in the right direction, but Downer hopes to find something more substantial. And so she sets off alone, taking an apartment in the geisha district of Kyoto, and immersing herself in the life of the city’s ‘flower towns’, where the old traditions are maintained with varying degrees of grandeur. At first, the city seems to present a blank face to her, but as time passes and Downer becomes a familiar sight – struggling occasionally with the old Kyoto dialect – doors begin to open. This book is a record of Downer’s journey, as much as a study of geisha themselves, and this personal angle makes it all the more rewarding.

As we follow Downer through the alleys of Kyoto, we also learn more about the history of the geisha, through the great legends of the past and the documents of more recent times. We begin in the 9th century, when the Heian period gave birth to the idea of love as a courtly ideal, creating a fashion for poetry and the longing for love, as much as love itself. The culture gave birth to some highly accomplished noblewomen – Lady Murasaki, for one, and I have The Tale of Genji lined up for some moment when I have a month free – but also to a new breed of courtesan, the tayu. These ladies, more elevated prototypes of geisha, were the most brilliant and expensive paid companions a man could find, valued for their minds and their company, their poetry and their exquisite dancing. As time passed, the scale developed, with geisha and humble prostitutes taking their places in the grand scheme of things. Each level catered for a different need.

Tayu still exist, or at least the shells of their traditions do, though the girls are likely to treat it as a job rather than a lifestyle: answering a need for a special kind of tourism. But Downer finds that life for geisha is more complicated. While apprentice geisha, the maiko, are still relatively widespread – because there’s great demand for their pretty, bubbly company and their submissive, charming girlishness – many of them don’t continue to the stage of becoming a full geisha. Since the change of prostitution laws in the 1950s, the basis of a geisha’s existence has been challenged. She may be protected in some ways from traditional indignities – the mizuage in particular: the rite of passage by which a maiko‘s maidenhood is auctioned off to the highest bidder to mark her transition into womanhood – but the rise of cheap prostitution means there are fewer prospective patrons wanting a gentler, more traditional form of company. Geisha can no longer depend on finding long-term patrons or danna. Their lives are much harder and more challenging than before.

And this is one of the beauties of Downer’s book. Her descriptions are poignantly underlaid by the knowledge that this world, this tradition, is fading away. There may be geisha laid on by hotels and hospitality nowadays, but they are not the real thing. Like so much nowadays, the authentic and traditional is being usurped by the quick, the glossy and the easy. In her efforts to record and cherish the twilight world of these women, Downer is just as much social anthropologist as historian. The result is a book that shows us the world of the geisha in all its colours, without any sensationalism, bolstered by Downer’s conversations with the women themselves. It shimmers with the strange beauty of Japanese art, which seems all the lovelier for its transience or imminent loss.

If you’re interested in Japanese culture, I’d strongly recommend this. There is an awful lot to learn and I haven’t even attempted to give a summary here, and it’s extremely easy to read. I enjoyed Downer’s factual writing much more than her fictional work – it feels far more elegant and engaged – and I profoundly wish I’d read this before going to Tokyo. It wouldn’t have helped me seek out the geisha for myself, but it would have given me a valuable insight into this secretive but gorgeously rich society.

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