In Autobiography of a Geisha (2003), Sayo Masuda recounts her life as a geisha performer at the hot spring resorts of Suwa (Nagano prefecture). G.G. Rowley's translation of Ms. Masuda's 1957 text captures what Rowley considers Masuda's terse, colloquial style. Differentiated from the flowery, sanitized geisha chronicles typical of earlier Western writers, Masuda's 'Autobiography' leaves no stone unturned. To the contrary, Masuda highlights the excruciating pain of near-slave labor and humiliation at the hands of pimps, madames, and patrons. Masuda's work forever dispelled any notion of geisha as elegant courtesans removed from the toil and disease of prostitution.

Prewar Nagano witnessed one of the lowest standards of living in all of Japan. Indeed, this prefecture held the dubious distinction of the prime stalking ground for the bondage of young women as laborers, prostitutes, or geisha. While the geisha of Tokyo were truly artists, musicians, and courtesans, the resort geisha were little more than call girls tarted up with a few musical licks and substandard dance moves. Masuda knew even worse hardship before the geisha house: sold as a slave at age six to a small landholder, she knew well physical and mental abuse. Nevertheless, even though as a geisha she knew no hunger she endured sexual humiliation and the knowledge that no amount of face paint could hide.

Curiously, Masuda's chronicle speaks little about World War II's effect on geisha. Rowley's prologue and footnotes hint that Masuda's status as serially monogamous kept woman at the hands of mobsters and petty politicos sheltered her from the worst of the fall and occupation of Japan. Even so, the closure of red-light districts towards the end of the war forced a return to poverty and unskilled prostitution. Throughout the latter part of her work, Masuda holds up her devotion to her younger brother's battle with consumption as an example of her unquenchable witness to charity forever denied her.

An "old fox" by her mid twenties, Masuda surmounted her last great struggle: survival in a postwar Japan marked with anti-prostitution laws and an emphasis on a literate workforce. Illiterate save for a most rudimentary hiragana script, Masuda settled for manual labor contraindicated by her amazing narrative abilities. Scrawled in a child's hand, devoid of even the most basic of kanji, her manuscript's inherent style cuts below the veneered surface of 'respectable' geisha narrative towards a rare glimpse into an often glamorized life.


Masuda, Sayo (1957). Autobiography of a Geisha. Trans. G.G. Rowley (2004). New York: Columbia UP

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