Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha

Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha

by Lesley Downer

Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, they have been intrigued by Japanese womanhood and, above all, by geisha.

Lesley Downer, an award-winning writer, Japanese scholar, and consummate storyteller, gained more access to this world than almost any other Westerner, and spent several months living in it.

In Women of the Pleasure Quarters, she weaves together intimate portraits of modern geisha with the romantic legends and colorful historical tales that shape their fascinating past.

Looking into such traditions as mizuage, the ritual deflowering that was once a rite of passage for all geisha, and providing colorful descriptions of their dress, training, and homes, Downer transforms their reality into a captivating narrative, and reveals an enthralling world unlike any other.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Nonfiction
  • Rating: 3.84
  • Pages: 261
  • Publish Date: April 9th 2002 by Broadway Books
  • Isbn10: 0767904907
  • Isbn13: 9780767904902

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Downer begins with the story of her embarkation on the quest to write this book, unashamedly and amusingly confessing her own mistakes and misconceptions when trying to access the geisha world, understandably well defended by every subtle barrier of etiquette against the exotifying and fetishising tendencies of western journalists.

However, by the fourth chapter, she resorted to endless repetition of the same themes: geisha are not what Americans think, the term is not interchangeable with prostitution (however, many were paid for sex and were set up as concubines with wealthy patrons); the social set-up prior to WWII was seen as advantageous to all (husband, wife, geisha, even though poor families routinely sold their daughters to owners of tea houses and that the girls were instantly enslaved by the staggering price of outfitting and teaching them how to be geisha, and why ritual deflowering was not such a bad thing); and that the author was singled out to learn all about the secret history of the geisha by some sort of cleverness which was never explained. I don't think I'd recommend this, although the early Japanese social and political history is very interesting.

She seemed to really want the geisha of the past to be empowered so that she could keep her romanticized view, but her own research revealed that the truth was a lot murkier.

I thought that this was a very informative book about the geisha world, both historically and in more recent times. I did find the book a little bit repetitive at times, but still very enjoyable.

(i.e. I did not read this book for reference.) Kind of like a travel book focusing on a theme. From the structure of the book, however, I think that Lesley Downer's point was to show us a brief history of the geisha/geiko so as to give us a contrasting idea of what it's like to the geisha/geiko nowadays.

I loved this book as it explains the role of geisha in traditional Japanese culture as artists and great conversationalists and not merely common prostitutes. Apparently, Japanese men find the neck of women extremely erotic. Kyoto not Tokyo used to be the cultural heart of Japan and thus preserves its Geisha tradition. Geisha's were built by women to create a man's dream world and thus were the only source of power available to women in a male dominated society. Since Geisha's are associated with prostitution, current Japanese think that Western interest in them was to highlight the negative aspects of their culture. Geisha's are kings of the art of cockteasing giving Downer hope for what she wants without ever having the intention of executing it. Downer realized that in the Geisha world, she had to realize that she was @ the bottom of the social hierarchy and thus looked on with disdain by the older Geisha. In fact, women rule the geisha world where men came to escape the drab reality in a world of dreams. Since marriages were made as alliances b/w 2 families with procreation as the sole goal for sexual relations b/w married people, the geisha world was made in order to fill the void of love that was absent in Japanese man's life. Love was made via poetry and was written in order to communicate feelings but also to see if the beloved would want to meet with the would be lover. In 17 century, Japan Kyoto was the cultural capital in which singing and dancing geisha entertained men. From that time on, women musicians and dancers became geishas while others became prostitutes. In the pleasure quarter everything was inverted from Japanese life, here the lowly merchants were kings while the queens were the prostitutes and courtesans while the mighty samurai were treated as the country bumpkin. Whereas European courtly love focused on the unattainable woman in which one pines for from a far, Japanese love focused on real women with a physical component. The world of the geisha in which women could bond with men as good conversationalist and perhaps more was separate from the real world of business and wives with their narrow world view. Whereas wives were expected to only keep house, geishas were able to discuss about happenings in the outside world (the world of men). This is the reason why men flocked to geishas b/c they understand and can converse with them unlike their wives who are concerned only with with family and home life. Japanese accepted that there were 2 women needed to satisfy a man. Wives wanted their husbands to play in the geisha quarter so they would not be in their way in the house all the time. Couples never did things together b/c the men and women lived separate and distinct life. Japanese women only married men who were tall, have a high salary, and a graduate of a top university. In the wives way of thinking, they wanted their husbands to "play" b/c a happy husband makes for a happy wife and thus a harmonious household. While they were once the heart of the entertainment as siren and idols, the most desired women of their generation, current day geishas are considered anachronistic. Some of today's maiko wanted to pursue being a geisha b/c it was the only way to pursue traditional Japanese dancing. The best part was the arts classes which included dancing, singing, playing the drums, flute, and Japanese guitar. Kikuyu was a spectacular dancer and singer began calling herself geisha and just as today's pop stars being a "geisha" suddenly became the thing to be. "Unlike the courtesans and prostitutes of the pleasure quarters, they were independent, smart women who made a living by their skills and their wit and who were not bound by tradition that forced them to behave in certain ways. Like today's Philippines, the rich can play and thus Japanese cultural life flourished while poor people starve. PRESENT DAY GEISHA: It use to be that maiko lost their virginity at the age of 13 yrs old by a rich danna whereas now they concentrate on their dancing. At age 14, a modern day maiko has to make a decision whether to continue her training as a geisha or stop. A maiko is a good way to meet a wealthy and influential man but if a maiko continues to be a geisha that means she is really interested in continuing to learn how to dance and sing. It was also normal "to be seen" in which the geisha or maiko was chosen from a line up in a tea house similar to prostitution line up.

However, one thing that was more prominent in this book than in the previous books on the subject Ive read is that it focuses a lot on the history of Geisha, and how they are different from the predecessors, for example, the Courtesans and Concubines of Older times. Whilst this was interesting, previous works have been able to tell me that much, and it was nice to hear it from a European point of view rather than American (The comparisons were better for me, personally) it wasnt anything new particularly.

Ive just finished The Shoguns Queen, the fourth of The Shogun Quartet, four novels set in the nineteenth century during the tumultuous fifteen years when Japan was convulsed by civil war and transformed from rule by the shoguns into a society that looked to the west.