Chapter Critique #1

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Fuyou-hime's avatar

For some time now, I've had the idea that I would go through the novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" chapter by chapter and note the inaccuracies within it.  The reason why is because of the sheer number of people (probably in the tens of millions worldwide) who believe the book is anywhere from mostly accurate to consistently accurate.  These people treat the book as a legitimate reference material concerning geisha, and I want to show them that this is a bad idea.  I don't believe novels should be treated as factual reference material in general, but this in particular is a practice I dislike because "Memoirs of a Geisha" is not even fifty percent accurate.  It is mostly inaccurate.  I figured if there was a collection somewhere that points out where the inaccuracies are, from the largest to the smallest, then at least some people would finally stop doing this and start treating the book like the fiction that it is.  

I will only be discussing sections that were inaccurate, rather then my personal feelings concerning certain passages.  Things that I disliked but were not inherently inaccurate won't be mentioned.  I will quote the line that contained the incorrect information, list its page number (according to the English first addition), and then discuss it.

TRIGGER WARNING: This critique contains mentions of misogyny, euro-centric standards of beauty (concerning eye color), discussions of sex work, and racism/cultural appropriation. 

Translator's Note (pages 1-4)-

--"One evening in the spring of 1936, when I was a boy of fourteen, my father took me to a dance performance in Kyoto.  I remember only two things about it.  The first is that he and I were the only Westerners in the audience..." (pg 1)

The odds were actually pretty unlikely that they were the only foreigners there.  The Miyako Odori received a high infux of foreign visitors, so much so that they had English translations in their programs.  They started that practice as early as 1913 (I don't have access to any earlier Miyako Odori programs).  They stopped doing this in 1939 but recontinued it after the war.  It should also be noted that other popular Kyoto dances, such as Pontocho's Kamogawa Odori, also did this.  The earliest I can account for the Kamogawa Odori is 1920 (I don't have access to Kamogawa Odori programs older then this).

--"'Well, Jakob-san, I might, if it's you who records it,' she told me." (pg 2)

Referring to someone by their given name and then adding the suffix -san is an intimate gesture in Japan, and it is reserved for friends but within a casual situation.  I've seen friends refer to each other this way but switch to family-name+san when the situation was no longer so casual.  Considering that the Kyoto dialect tends to run at a higher level of formality compared to the standard dialect, that geisha generally speak at a higher level of formality, and that Sayuri was raised in the 1930s, it's hard to imagine that she would be inclined to speak so casually to a business partner, even one who was otherwise a close friend.  That makes it hard to understand what sort of relationship was going on between Jakob and Sayuri business-wise, because it makes it sound like Jakob's recording of Sayuri's memoir wasn't being taken seriously, so I have to believe Sayuri wouldn't have done this.  Of course, within this context, it's implied that this is before they set up business together, so that would be fine.  But honorifics will be regularly misapplied in this novel, so this usage seemed sketchy to me.    

--"Geisha simply do not talk for the record about their experiences.  Like prostitutes, their lower-class counterparts, geisha are often in the unusual position of knowing whether this or that public figure really does put his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else.  Probably it is to their credit that these butterflies of the night regard their roles as a kind of public trust..." (pg 3)

It should really go without saying why this is inaccurate, but here it is.  Geisha are not counterparts to sex workers and they are not "butterflies of the night".  They are artists who make their money by entertaining with art and conversation at parties.  I honestly don't believe the saying "butterfly of the night" can be used without referring to a sex worker.

--"Customarily she spoke with a soft tone, as one might expect of a woman who has made a career of entertaining men." (pg 4)

Geisha actually don't use a tone that is noticably different from other women.  They will often speak with in a higher vocal range then what is natural for them in particular situations, but many regular women in Japan will often do that too when they want to be seen as cute, young, and sweet.  It should actually be noted that geisha really aren't afraid of being loud or bawdy, especially by the end of the party (when everyone is a little tipsy).

The phrase 'made a career of entertaining men' is also contentious.  For one thing, a Kyoto geiko would consider her raison d'etre to be art, not entertaining men.  She would consider the entertainment aspect the bread and butter of her job, the thing she needs to do to make money to fund her art.  That doesn't mean they don't like doing it, a good geisha really needs to enjoy that aspect of the job.  But ultimately speaking, entertaining men is not the main focus of a geisha's career.  Also, contrary to popular opinion, their clientele is not limited to men.  Geisha also entertain women.  

Chapter One (pages 7-17)

--"In all my life I've never told more than a handful of people anything at all about Yoroido, or about the house in which I grew up, or about my mother and father, or my older sister-- and certainly not about how I became a geisha, or what it was like to be one.  Most people would much rather carry on with their fantasies that my mother and grandmother were geisha, and that I began my training in dance when I was weaned from the breast, and so on." (pg 7-8)

This would be rather unusual for a real geisha.  In the period in question (the late 30s through the mid 50s), the number of geisha who were born into the profession in high class Kyoto geiko districts like Gion Koubu was pretty high, the majority in fact.  People (including the guests) knew which ones weren't born and raised, and maintaining this kind of illusion wasn't practiced.  Furthermore, geisha do talk about facts about their life that don't concern their geisha career (including where they're from), and they do tell their customers about their schooling.  Customers in fact often want to know about what geisha go through to become artistic marvels.  They may not be inclined to tell them everything, and there certainly are guests who don't want to know everything, but the idea of creating a fake fantasy life is pretty inaccurate.

--"I long ago developed a very practiced smile, which I call my 'Noh smile' because it resembles a Noh mask whose features are frozen.  Its advantage is that men can interpret it however they want; you can imagine how often I've relied on it." (pg 8)

This is an inaccurate interpretation of the Noh masks.  Noh masks are not carved with a singular expression that can be interpreted however the audience wishes.  Noh masks are actually carved with subtle asymmetries so that when held at certain angles and under certain lighting the nature of the expression changes.  Amazingly, the mask does not do the acting for the actor.  It is the actor's job to bring that expression to life.  

Furthermore, geisha do not give artificial smiles with open mouths (which female Noh masks famously do, most likely so that the color of the teeth [white for a girl, dyed black with ohaguro for a woman] can be seen).  The white make-up that geisha wear causes even the whitest teeth to appear yellow in comparison (because, despite what teeth whitening commercials want you to think, teeth are not naturally white).  They thus train themselves to give closed-mouth smiles (when they're not genuinely smiling or laughing, of course).  Also, it should be noted that Sayuri wouldn't be inclined to call her practiced, all-purpose smile a Noh smile anyway, do to the fact that to say that someone has a face like a Noh mask means that the person is expressionless.   

Honestly, while this scene sounds pretty on paper, in reality Sayuri would look really weird if she did this.  

--"Instead of being dark brown like everyone else's, my mother's eyes were a translucent grey, and mine are just the same." (pg 9)

It is very rare to have blue eyes without having the necessary recessive genes from both parents.  Any eye color other than brown is relatively unusual among humans and needs a little bit of genetic bingo to pull off.  Of course, it could be a random mutation or a related condition to an eye disorder.  But Chiyo is not implied to have vision problems and it is directly stated she inherited the color from the mother, so that would almost certainly mean recessive genes.  But the necessary genes are rare outside of Indo-European ancestry.  Chiyo would almost certainly need to have some amount of Indo-European ancestry on both sides for this to work.  

Granted, I'm completely sure that genetic likelihoods had nothing to do with the author's choice of giving his protagonist blue eyes.  It really has a whole lot to do with the assumption that the target audience would be completely white and need something that would make the not-white protagonist more personable and identifiable.  It works on this racist assumption that because everyone would have black hair and dark eyes, there would be nothing distinguishable and unique about the protagonist if she also had black hair and dark eyes.  As if all Japanese people look the same... Thus she needed a boost by giving her a feature that made her unique, beautiful, and special compared to everyone else around her... and it was a feature that white people predominantly associate with white people.

It's also amusing to note that Golden was not the first person to come up with the idea of a Japanese geisha with blue eyes.  Onoto Watanna, who was really a Canadian of Chinese-British ancestry named Winnifred Eaton, beat him to it by nearly a century with "The Japanese Nightingale".  It's not on copyright and on the internet, so read it if you want a laugh (and by laugh, I mean I couldn't actually finish it).

--"The fortune-tellers said her eyes were so pale because of too much water in her personality, so much that the other four elements were hardly present at all... my mother always said she'd married my father because she had too much water in her personality and he had too much wood in his." (pg 9)

This is inaccurate, for several reasons.  The reference is to Five Element Theory, and while five element concepts had developed at different times in various parts of the world, there are none that developed natively in Japan.  Five Element Theory was imported.  The most well known system is the Chinese one, but the system that is used in Japan is different.  Unfortunately, the elements listed in the novel are the incorrect Chinese five elements.  Wood is a Chinese element, but it's not in the Japanese system (the one it would be in the Japanese system is Chi, or World/Earth).  Furthermore, the way it is used in the novel is rather strange.  While there are corresponding emotional states to each element, Japanese people really don't describe themselves with this system, not in the way they are portrayed in the novel.  It's the equivalent of Western people describing absolutely everything about their personality and body through the particulars of the zodiac.  It's strange.  Five Element Theory's most famous usages are in Buddhist architecture and in the "The Book of Five Rings" by Miyamoto Musashi who uses the five (Japanese) elements as the structure for the book (which is about swordsmanship primarily).

--"When he wasn't fishing, he sat on the floor in our dark front room mending a fishing net... When I opened the door for [Dr. Miura], he slipped out of his shoes and stepped right past me into the house." (pg 9 and 11, respectively)

Essentially, this is an issue with architecture and cleanliness.  The fact that Dr. Miura stepped out of his shoes at the door and walked right past Chiyo implies that there was an extremely small entryway.  This meant that her father was fixing his net in the interior of his house.  I admittedly don't know a lot about Japanese fishing practices, but my father fishes by net and I have done it myself, and there's no way in hell I'd bring a used net inside the house.  It stinks and its not clean (and possibly not uninhabited).  Since the floor is the main living space in a traditional Japanese home, that means it's given a lot of attention.  It needs to stay clean, so the idea of stretching out a dirty, stinky net over it is not going to fly.  Furthermore, Chiyo must have been living in a kind of minka, a farmhouse, which would have had a very large entryway of packed earth called a doma.  A person kept their shoes on in this place, as it was a kind of outside space.  That would be where all work was done (it's also where the kitchen was).  I would think that this would be the place where a net was fixed.

--"She led me to three graves in the corner, with three white marker posts much taller then I was.  They had stern-looking black characters written top to bottom on them, but I hadn't attended the school in our little village long enough to know where one ended and the next began.  My mother pointed to them and said, 'Natsu, wife of Sakamoto Minoru' Sakamoto Minoru was the name of my father. 'Died age twenty-four, in the nineteenth year of Meiji.' Then she pointed to the next one: 'Jinichiro, son of Sakamoto Minoru, died age six, in the nineteenth year of Meiji,' and to the next one, which was identical except for the name, Masao, and the age, which was three." (pg 10)

This is not how how graves are marked in Japan.  For one thing, a person is given a new posthumous name and that is the name written on their sotoba (the wooden grave marker).  Sotoba is the Japanese pronunciation of Stupa, and they are designed to represent one and their shape actually does have to do with Five Element Theory.  Furthermore, the sotoba are usually temporary.  They are placed at the grave for certain events (death anniversaries and the O-Bon Festival).  They are not the equivalent of our stone grave markers, because Japanese graves also get those.  

Also, women and children do get full names on their graves.  It's pretty bad that even on their grave markers they're being treated like their husband's/father's possession.  It should also be noted that the fact that she couldn't tell where one character began and the next didn't is a little strange, since there are spaces between the characters and someone who's been to school would be aware of that fact.

--"[Mr. Tanaka] didn't wear peasant clothing like the fishermen, but rather a man's kimono, with kimono trousers that made him look to me like the illustrations you might have seen of samurai." (pg 14)

It would be very unusual for a man to wear kimono and hakama to work in the 1930s, especially one who owned a company.  Men went to work in western clothing (suits for desk people like company heads), and they had started doing this in the Meiji period.  

--"Fishermen are terribly superstitious, you see.  They especially don't like women to have anything to do with fishing.  One man in our village, Mr. Yamamura, found his daughter playing in his boat one morning.  He beat her with a stick and then washed out the boat with sake and lye so strong it bleached streaks of coloring from the wood.  Even this wasn't enough; Mr. Yamamura had a Shinto priest come and bless it.  All this because his daughter had done nothing more than play where the fish are caught.  And here Mr. Tanaka was suggesting I spit blood onto the floor of the room where the fish were cleaned... 'I'd say her blood will be the cleanest thing to hit this floor since you or I were born.  Go ahead,' Mr. Tanaka said, this time talking to me. 'Spit it out.'  There I sat on that slimy table uncertain what to do.  I thought it would be terrible to disobey Mr. Tanaka, but I'm not sure I would have found the courage to spit if one of the men hadn't leaned to the side and pressed a finger against one nostril to blow his nose onto the floor." (pg 15)

This is inaccurate, and largely descriptive of the superstitions concerning fishermen of Western cultures.  Women are in fact involved in Japanese fishing.  There are the specialized divers known as ama, who would traditionally (but not now) dive almost completely naked (with no concern for the fact that their male co-workers could see them) as they dived for either shellfish or more famously for pearls.  Women are in fact considered better at it because the higher fat content in female bodies makes them more boyant and insulated.  Ama use boats, usually driven by men, to get to their particular destination.  Also, fishermen expected their wives to help out.  What a woman was expected to do was probably dependent on local custom (I don't know a lot about Japanese fishing), but many fishermen would have expected their wives to fix their nets.  Also, fishmongers are often female.  Furthermore, Japanese fishermen take a whole lot of pride in their workplaces.  They keep it clean.  I know, I've been to fishmarkets in Japan.  No one would blow their nose out on the floor of the place where they work.  It's disgusting.  

These are the things that I thought were worth mentioning.  There are some smaller things, such as the doctor referring to himself as Dr. Miura (rather rude and arrogant) and Satsu not binding her hair back as she worked, that are off but really very small.  There are also some things that really sounded weird to me, but I couldn't find anything about them in research.  The sake and lye thing didn't really bring anything up, nor did this thing Mr. Tanaka said in which Chiyo should not swallow the blood in her mouth because it would form a stone in her stomach.  That one was really strange and brought nothing up, save for the fact that people with nosebleeds occasionally get upset stomachs over swallowing blood during their sleep.  

It should also be noted that the cover for this edition, the one containing an old photograph of a geisha with her eyes painted blue, is inaccurate for the setting.  That photo was taken in the early 1900s, before the setting for the book.  While most people are inclined to think of geisha as timeless, in reality they aren't.  Fashions and practices changed, and the time between the 1900s and the 1940s was actually very pivotal for geisha.  It's in that period of time that they went from being fashion innovators to being curators of tradition.  Rules of dress in the 1900s were much looser, and the geisha in the picture has aspects of dress that Sayuri would not have had.  This might not strike people as very important, but I actually think it says quite a lot about the novel.

© 2013 - 2023 Fuyou-hime
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AnticiaJK's avatar
WOW! I LOVED THIS! I'm incredibly happy and greatful you started this! :tighthug:
I have a story based on Japanese culture (though it's just fantasy-mix) and I have very hard time to find bits about less popular themes like daily life. You touched so many elements already of Japanese life (like fishing) that is so interesting to read!
And it's kind of REALLY sad that people rely on this book though. Have to admit, that despite I wasn't that interested in the story for some reason (sounded too... "dramatical" or made-up somehow), yet I was considering to read so I might get to know some things anyway. Well i was sure it has probably some inaccuracies so I would have been careful to rely on it... But some things here really are SO off! XD;
And now I don't feel like I have to read at all, I get way better info during your journall ^o^

I didn't know that geisha are not affraid to be a bit load and bald - this is pretty cool to know. Then again I probably should have guessed because I already knew that they are not like some "yes-men" but strong women who are thaught to be a good discussing partner and can have their opinion (right?).
I also didn't know that geisha look at the entertainment part as "a way to found their art" and not "develope art to entertain as a job" way which I almost feel ashamed not realizing on my own since when I think about my art and commissions it's TOTALLY the same. I do like making commissions but I mainly do it so I can pay bills and so I can do what I myself want in ,my freetime. Thank you for enlighting me about this. ^^'

The "noh smile" part made me laugh so much to imagine her like that. XD;
And WOW I had no idea that noh-masks are made like that - it's incredible! *__*

And now I have a question:
What about the Chinese Zodiac and the 5 elements. o.o
I know the Musashi elements are Earth, Fire, Water, Wind and Void. But if they refer the Chinese Zodiac do they use different elements for it than Chinese? I thought for the Zodiac they just take the elements as well... Then how does it work? I never heard it otherwise.

Anyway, thank you very much again, your corrections give me a nice start to look up things (like ama). :)

YAAAY will read all the chapters for sure! :la: