Liane Wakabayashi's Reviews > Autobiography of a Geisha

Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda
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it was amazing
bookshelves: memoir, japan

"Comfort women," a bygone characterization of Korean women forced into prostitution, belong to a dark side of Japanese history cast upon distant shores – or so we who know a little about Japan are led to believe. But in Gaye Rowley's honest and heartbreaking translation of Sayo Masuda's classic memoir, Autobiography of a Geisha, we learn that young girls from poor families were not infrequently abandoned by their parents. These children were especially vulnerable to being sold into sex slavery in Japan at an age when luckier children were entering primary school. That nobody in society noticed, took action, and saved abandoned children like Sayo Masuda is one of Japan's darkest secrets. Those children were left to rot in miserable abusive surrogate homes where they were put to work and fed scraps that make Cinderella's story enviable by comparison. Entering a geisha house on the shores of Lake Suwa in Nagano gives Sayo a way out of impoverishment. There she learns to play the shamisen, sing for her supper, charm clients, dance, and strip to their heart's content.
Rowley's translation captures both the pathos and the appeal of Masuda's true story, which became a best-seller when it was published in the 1950s, and which remains in print to this day. Rowley captures her colloquial speech, her penetrating intelligence to see into the souls of the good and bad people in her life, and her street smarts. With no school education, she can only be admired for being determined to break out of her terrible circumstances, and when she meets the love of her life, we can't help but cheer that this love is so well deserved. Albeit short-lived.
The way Masuda rises over and over from the ashes of a wretched existence make this compact memoir into a page-turner that has all the authenticity and heart that comes with showing the geisha world in its unvarnished awfulness, with cruel house mothers, abusive clients and bullying geisha sisters. The geisha world was certainly glorified in a novel by almost the same name, a work of historical fiction long in words, romanticized, but short on fact and believability. Masuda wants her readers to learn something about the psychology and culture of the geisha world, to initiate us to life as it was behind the scenes with white makeup removed and elaborate silk kimonos traded in for plain cotton robes, where food depravation violent reprisals, and attempted suicide were part and parcel of the geisha life.
While parts of Autobiography of a Geisha are unbearably sad, there's an underlying hope and resilience that carries both Sayo and the reader through to the triumphant ending, a short story contest that she enters and wins on the merit of this wretched life told from the viewpoint of a woman who has conquered the habit of living inside of it. For those of us who have become habituated to our own misery, this memoir offers a powerful reminder that we truly have what it takes to reinvent ourselves when we start to envision what it is we truly want and can offer.
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Reading Progress

August 30, 2021 – Started Reading
August 30, 2021 – Shelved
August 30, 2021 – Shelved as: to-read
August 30, 2021 – Shelved as: memoir
August 30, 2021 – Shelved as: japan
August 30, 2021 – Finished Reading

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