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

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Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, they have been intrigued by Japanese womanhood and, above all, by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of extraordinary fictional creations, from Puccini's Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. But as denizens of a world defined by silence and mystery, real geisha are notoriously difficult to meet and even Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, they have been intrigued by Japanese womanhood and, above all, by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of extraordinary fictional creations, from Puccini's Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. But as denizens of a world defined by silence and mystery, real geisha are notoriously difficult to meet and even to find. As a result, their history has long been cloaked in secrecy. 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. Contrary to popular opinion, geisha are not prostitutes but, literally, "arts people." Accomplished singers, dancers, and musicians, they are, above all, masters of the art of conversation, soothing the worries and stroking the egos of wealthy businessmen who can afford their attentions. 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.


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Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, they have been intrigued by Japanese womanhood and, above all, by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of extraordinary fictional creations, from Puccini's Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. But as denizens of a world defined by silence and mystery, real geisha are notoriously difficult to meet and even Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, they have been intrigued by Japanese womanhood and, above all, by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of extraordinary fictional creations, from Puccini's Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. But as denizens of a world defined by silence and mystery, real geisha are notoriously difficult to meet and even to find. As a result, their history has long been cloaked in secrecy. 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. Contrary to popular opinion, geisha are not prostitutes but, literally, "arts people." Accomplished singers, dancers, and musicians, they are, above all, masters of the art of conversation, soothing the worries and stroking the egos of wealthy businessmen who can afford their attentions. 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.

30 review for Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha

  1. 5 out of 5

    Zanna

    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. Eventually, perseverance and cake grant her both insight and cautious welcomes, and the real story begins. This strategy of creating the ambiance of the present geisha 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. Eventually, perseverance and cake grant her both insight and cautious welcomes, and the real story begins. This strategy of creating the ambiance of the present geisha world, alive in modern Japan and perpetuated by people with very diverse lives and interests, is the perfect preface to the history of love, pleasure, courtesans and geisha in Japan, because it plants the seed of critical consciousness and empathy with the characters in that story as people like ourselves, rather than exotic otherworldly beings. Although it's a romantic, maybe even a bit breathless, history, it's very woman-centred and Downer successfully creates empathy with women finding ways to survive and flourish in a changing but always very patriarchal society. She laces her beautifully written narrative with contemporary literary quotations and comments that reveal attitudes and preoccupations of the day. Progressing into the present, the story gradually fleshes out into a substantial, integrated account of geisha culture in Japan, thoroughly researched and lucidly written by a woman acting as nearly as possible as participant observer. Westerners' interest in geisha is undoubtedly rooted in stereotypical views of Japan (hence the defensiveness that initially made Downer's project difficult). Although this book exists to feed that interest, and although it is written by a westerner, it works against exotification and orientalist othering by constantly prioritising the voices and experiences of the geisha and their adjuncts. In my opinion it is well worth reading by anyone interested in women's history.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Laurie

    This book is supposedly a history of geisha in Japan. The author states several times throughout that she was given unprecedented access to the "Floating World" and could therefore explain, in ways never before attempted,the different types of professional women whose job it has been to treat successful Japanese men like clever children. Initially, Downer's description of Japanese customs, social milieu, and social history was very interesting. However, by the fourth chapter, she resorted to end This book is supposedly a history of geisha in Japan. The author states several times throughout that she was given unprecedented access to the "Floating World" and could therefore explain, in ways never before attempted,the different types of professional women whose job it has been to treat successful Japanese men like clever children. Initially, Downer's description of Japanese customs, social milieu, and social history was very interesting. 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. She described the lives or legends of singular geisha in history, and these were illuminating. Short shrift was given to WWII and the devastation of the Japanese culture. By the middle of the book, I was irritated by Downer's attempts to glorify the lives of women of pleasure while simultaneously using her insider status and vast understanding and knowledge of the Japanese culture to act as an apologist (yes, I meant to be sarcastic). And all the time, putting herself forward as the most clever Westerner who ever trod the streets of the Floating World. Boring. I'm giving two stars for the early chapters of the book which were free of constant repetition and self-glorification. I don't think I'd recommend this, although the early Japanese social and political history is very interesting. I would highly recommend the novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" if there is interest, as the novel was beautifully written.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sera Trevor

    A really fascinating book with lots of interesting history. The one quibble I had with it was that the author seemed torn between her idealization of the geisha life and the obviously problematic aspects. She goes to pains to point out the differences between the modern geisha and the geisha of the past, which is great - obviously times have changed and geisha are not constricted the way they once were. But when she dips into the past, her views get contradictory. She goes into depth about the p A really fascinating book with lots of interesting history. The one quibble I had with it was that the author seemed torn between her idealization of the geisha life and the obviously problematic aspects. She goes to pains to point out the differences between the modern geisha and the geisha of the past, which is great - obviously times have changed and geisha are not constricted the way they once were. But when she dips into the past, her views get contradictory. She goes into depth about the practice in the past of selling young girls into indentured servitude - but at the same time, she seems to romanticize those long ago times. I rolled my eyes when she mentioned that it was really the wives and the geisha who had men "wrapped around their little fingers." Uh, given that they were completely financially dependent on those men who could withdraw their support at any time, that does not really count as being "in control" of the situation. She also refers to geisha of the past as proto-feminists since they lived on their own, but again, the constraints of the era left them completely dependent on men, married or not. 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'm giving a four star review because I did find the history very interesting and well-researched, but it did suffer when the author interjected her starry-eyed views.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Tani

    Another book that has been sitting on my bookshelf for ages off the list! Please excuse me while I do a victory dance. I bought this book back in 2005 or so, so it's been a really long time coming. It's even signed by the author, which probably should have been motivation for me to actually read it. But whatever. I have finally completed it! I thought that this was a very informative book about the geisha world, both historically and in more recent times. I really enjoyed learning about the origi Another book that has been sitting on my bookshelf for ages off the list! Please excuse me while I do a victory dance. I bought this book back in 2005 or so, so it's been a really long time coming. It's even signed by the author, which probably should have been motivation for me to actually read it. But whatever. I have finally completed it! I thought that this was a very informative book about the geisha world, both historically and in more recent times. I really enjoyed learning about the origins of the geisha, as well as seeing how things have changed for them over the years. I did find the book a little bit repetitive at times, but still very enjoyable. Part of me wishes that Lesley Downer had been a little bit less factual and a little more interested in speculating in the future of geisha, as that's a question I'd very much like answered, but I suppose I can understand why she didn't. I definitely appreciated how she was able to fill the gaps in my knowledge, not just about geisha, but also about some of the larger social issues in Japan. Even having spent some time there, I found it very illuminating. Very much recommended for anyone with an interest in geisha and their world.

  5. 5 out of 5

    D

    I found this book really relaxing, although I appreciated the book more as the writer's forays into the 'Floating World' than anything else. (i.e. I did not read this book for reference.) Kind of like a travel book focusing on a theme. Because of this, my most favourite parts are the ones where the writer goes in search of little cakes to give to mama-san and little details like that. Probably reading the book wrong, but? From the structure of the book, however, I think that Lesley Downer's point I found this book really relaxing, although I appreciated the book more as the writer's forays into the 'Floating World' than anything else. (i.e. I did not read this book for reference.) Kind of like a travel book focusing on a theme. Because of this, my most favourite parts are the ones where the writer goes in search of little cakes to give to mama-san and little details like that. Probably reading the book wrong, but? 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. It's always an outsider's view of an almost mystical world. A Western outsider's view. A FEMALE Western outsider's view. And I think that's what also fascinated me. Btw: I never read Memoirs of a Geisha and I don't plan on doing so. The author might have enjoyed the novel, but I have no interest in that sort of thing at all.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Dustin

    A thoughtful exploration and examination of geisha, their precursors, and their history. Miss Downer provides a lot of helpful context to those approaching this secretive "flower and willow world" as an outsider and it goes a very long way to dispel a lot of the rumors and misconceptions Westerners have possibly come to hold regarding geisha and introduced a lot of terms, some I had passing familiarity with and some that were completely new to me. I highly recommend this read to anyone curious a A thoughtful exploration and examination of geisha, their precursors, and their history. Miss Downer provides a lot of helpful context to those approaching this secretive "flower and willow world" as an outsider and it goes a very long way to dispel a lot of the rumors and misconceptions Westerners have possibly come to hold regarding geisha and introduced a lot of terms, some I had passing familiarity with and some that were completely new to me. I highly recommend this read to anyone curious about this part of Japanese culture and history; and if you are anything like me, you will come away with a lot of your questions answered.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lum Sao Ying

    A shallow how-to guide for those that desperately want to become geisha, like the author, but ultimately have no chance in hell (due to their tainted blood). It gives some basic information about the water trade that was interesting though, but is all keeping with the romance and glamour of naughty Japan made popular by Arthur Golden.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Shelli

    I love reading about the power of women in all its forms. If you love history and Japanese culture, you will enjoy this book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Patrick

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. 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. For this, I give this book 4.5 stars. All Geisha names are professional names. 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 ava 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. For this, I give this book 4.5 stars. All Geisha names are professional names. 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. Originally, Geisha's were entertainers of men who were excellent conversationalists. In Kyoto, their were 5 geisha areas that were still designed as if it was still the 19 century untouched by time. Geisha's shun the limelight since their whole universe lies in keeping secrets of the most powerful men in Japan. The first Geisha that Downer spoke to spoke in a Kyoto dialect where everything is hinted @ and nothing is said directly. The 1st Geisha doubted that Downer would get the nuances in the Geisha world b/c the world had its own vocabulary to look into. The 1st Geisha told Downer that each Geisha district had its own custom that an outsider would not be able to grasp the intricacies of it. Furthermore, she told Downer that Geisha's were not prostitutes. Geisha literally means art's person. A maiko (geisha understudy) spends 5 yrs studying dance and music before graduating to full Geisha. 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. The right gifts are crucial to signaling that you are a cultured woman who knows how to please your Geisha superiors. In the world of the Geisha, patience is a virtue. Downer finally got in the world by behaving unassumingly and gaining the trust of the geishas she wanted to know and having the patience to slowly ask them questions not being a journalist and bombarding them with useless questions. She realized that unlike normal Japanese, Geishas were not punctual, slept in, and had lovers instead of a husbands. They were the modern women of traditional Japan b/c they were exempted from the social rules that governed other women. In fact, women rule the geisha world where men came to escape the drab reality in a world of dreams. They were the women in the shadows of power to the men who they catered to. They were the pop culture icons who started to make trends of their day. 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. JAPAN BEFORE THE GEISHA: In the 1st millennium AD, Japan Heian court in Kyoto had 300 yrs of prosperity and with it a highly sensuous court. As a result of Confucian doctrine of marriage as a purely political affair, love did not play a role in marriage so there had to be a concubine system to take care of love both for the males and females. 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. The court produced poetry with women's feelings in them including the first novel ever. Komachi was an aristocrat and a precursor to the Geisha. Her story warned men in falling in love with a woman aside from the practicality of sex. Even in the decadent period in which female aristocratic companionship was widely available, the role of the high class concubine was present and were the precursor to the geishas. They were women of the aristocracy who fell on hard times and who trained in the arts. The ones who were particularly desired were ones who could dance. Dance was a way to supplicate the gods so in its original role it was used in temple prostitution. In Shizuka, we see the beginnings of what makes Geisha's unique their ability to keep secrets of powerful men. In 17 century, Japan Kyoto was the cultural capital in which singing and dancing geisha entertained men. The Shogun moved the capital of a united Japan from Kyoto to Edo or present day Tokyo. In order to have total and complete power, the Shogun forbid any foreigners from entering Japan nor could Japanese leave Japan in order to stop any foreign ideas from entering Japan. The Shogunate created a well-ordered society in which there would be no room for rebellion or upheaval since they adopted a rigid codes of behavior with emphasis on hierarchy and respect for authority as the underlying ethical code for society and official basis for government. It is interesting that social system started at the top with the shogun followed by the daimyo (provincial feudal lords who had to swear fealty toward the shogun), the samurai (the bureaucrats, and law enforcers) and lastly the townspeople with their own hierarchies separated by producers ( farmers and artisans) and @ the bottom of the totem pole the distributors (merchant and tradesmen). It is ironic how medieval people looked at business men with disdain while now a days they are the top of the totem pole. While artist were placed at the bottom of the pyramid with beggars, this is where the geisha entered. Like everywhere else in the world with a rigid system with strict morals, there was a recognized need for a pleasure district where people could go to take care of their baser instincts while not allowing it in the wider society. They lived in riverbed that were considered not good for living in b/c of constant flooding. The basic unit was the family with eldest male member of the family as the head and marriage was an alliance b/w family members that had nothing to do with love. The woman married into a household not a man and became a glorified domestic helper. Conjugal sex was done to produce a male heir without regard to mutual pleasure nor love. As long as his family was provided for, it was expected that the man could amuse himself however he pleased including having multiple concubines and sleeping with common whores. A dazzling dancer equaled a prostitute in the 1600's. From Okuni, the picture of a geishawas born as she was an irresistible combination of charm, entertainment, and eroticism. Okuni created the outrageous Kabuki theater. When public disturbances was created as a result of Okuni "rock star performance", the Shogun decided to outlaw women performers. From that time on, women musicians and dancers became geishas while others became prostitutes. Since the shogun could confiscate the merchants acquired wealth at any time, they spent it on the pleasure quarter on the vice of men as fast as they made the money. 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. For the women, they lived in a guilded cage. Girls of the pleasure quarter were considered virtuous and admirable for having sacrificed themselves for their family. Pimps scoured the countryside to find beautiful children from impoverished rural families or debt-ridden townsfolk. The courtesan would always play at love but never be in love herself. They would look for men who would go after them and wait for them to be interested enough in sleeping with them before allowing him to sleep with them. The top courtesans were called tayu. In Edo, the daimyo family's were required to live in Edo and had to be protected by an army of vassal samurai thus the samurais who did not have enough money to support a family frequented more brothels than ever before which gave rise to a bigger percentage of brothels in Edo. Courtesans could reject a clients advances if she wanted. The danger at playing at love is when a geisha actually falls in love with a man b/c they can never be together b/c the man is either too poor or he is already married to a woman he does not love so a double suicide becomes the answer, the real life Romeo and Juliet. Star crossed lovers are such a big thing in Japan b/c of parental pressures that it was romantically honorable to commit suicide with your beloved since one cannot be with them. Downer states that love is an invention, culturally conditioned; notions of love vary place by place, era by era, and culture by culture. 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. That is, love to them must include sex though sex does not necessarily have to go hand in hand with love. The negative of this physical aspect of love is that love never resulted in marriage so that their was never any courtship in order to "win" over the beloved. Culture effects language in that we see how since love is never made permanent, the Japanese do not have an equivalent for the word so when they want to say they love you, they only say I like you but with feeling that communicates that they feel love. Again, it is the nonverbal cues that communicate their love not the word itself. Kissing was considered more pornographic than nudity since it showed an usually high level of intimacy that Japanese did not think was appropriate to show in public. Geisha liked to fall for men who were poorer then they were b/c that meant she could not be bought by him and thus liked her for her personality rather than what he could buy her. They prefer sincere men rather than men who played games with them like their clients did with them. The dangers of falling for a geisha is that she might eventually have a danna (a rich man who owns her so she becomes his sole property) and she cannot continue the affair with her beloved. 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. To Japanese, the attributes for a perfect wife differed from a girlfriend. Whereas the attributes for a wife had to do with homemaking abilities, a girlfriend had to do with personal attributes such as beauty, intelligence, and a sense of humor. For young men with means, they go to prostitutes in order for them to leave once they are done. While they get a girlfriend with all the complications of love, only when they already have a wife. The wives expected their husband to play with geishas as a sign of their success. Geisha's became a wife's helper in all things dealing with her husband. In the Meiji period, a man could divorce a woman who was too jealous. For Japanese, they placed love in the same plane as jealousy, an emotion to be avoided if at all possible. Japanese accepted that there were 2 women needed to satisfy a man. The first had to be a good homekeeper and thus was assured financial security while the other fulfilled a man's sexual and loved needs. 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. Otherwise, they had nothing in common with each other. B/c the Japanese govt banned the pill until 1999, Japan had one of the highest unwanted pregnancy rate as well as a high abortion rate too. Whereas women focused on their children, men went and hung out and "played" with their workmates. The elder Japanese wives wanted to be #1 and that is it. As long as, they met the wives felt secure about their place and occasionally the wife, girlfriend, and the man would all go out with each other. 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. The Japanese really see suicide as an honorable way to die as can be attest by the Kamikaze fighters of WWII and the fact that their folk stories features a geisha as a heroine and end up with a geisha and her lover committing suicide. While everyone involved in the geisha world would boast who they knew, they did not want their daughters to become geisha. 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. The issue with geishas is its secrecy so by its very nature it cannot be a pop culture phenomenon. The children of geisha lived in 1 parent household and they saw that they were spoiled b/c they got whatever they wanted when the father was present. Back in pre-WWII Japan, there were a lot of illegitimate children in Kyoto. Modern day geisha do not inherit their being a geisha but instead choose to be a geisha and later choose another career. So their career as a geisha is transitory. The only qualification for a modern day geisha was a pretty face, fit&healthy. Some of today's maiko wanted to pursue being a geisha b/c it was the only way to pursue traditional Japanese dancing. B/c of the taboo in the choice to become a geisha, the girl has to want to become a geisha. The maiko were teenagers that to Downer had a combination of "little girl cuteness" and teenage vulnerability. The Japanese call the sex industry the "water trade" perhaps b/c that it is where the artist used to live near the water where it floods; thus the place is rather transitory to live close to. For women who have nothing, the world of the geisha tend to be their salvation. Teenage maiko's tend to be mature and confident for their age. Mother's who want their children to be maiko thought it was a good idea as b/c it taught them good manners a finishing school for lower middle-class children in order to help them when they needed to get married. Maikos hardest task is to be obedient to the hierarchy of doing things in everything they did like nuns in a convent. The best part was the arts classes which included dancing, singing, playing the drums, flute, and Japanese guitar. Japanese want their maikos to learn by observation. Actors used to given roles by giving out sexual favors. Gion, the Japanese sophisticated of Kyoto, grew up b/c of market demand and grew up around the Yasaka Shrine. Since religious shrines were the closest thing that people came to vacation centers in the days gone-by. Tea houses were code for prostitution centers and tea women were unlicensed prostitutes. Gion became the center of tea homes as it catered to ever growing number pilgrims and merchants. It was around 1750 where in Edo, a prostitute named Kikuyu appeared with skills as a singer and shamisen-player and called herself a geisha. Again, Japanese pleasure district grew up out of a place of pilgrimage. In 1680, some daimyo and upper-crust samurai began hiring dancing girls to staff their parties. Since their was high demand, a supply of townspeople daughters began to meet the high demand. The older dancing child began to call themselves geisha. 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. Since geisha connotes being an artist not merely a common prostitute. "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. They...could take sexual partners as and when they pleased. They were women of the world. They could come and go as they please." Thus, this was the very definition of a modern women. Whereas certain places geishas served double purposes as prostitutes as well as artists, other places geishas were strictly entertainers. Like other places, while the countryside suffered, the city and its merchants prospered. B/c of the downturn in the economy, a pimp called Shoroku decreed that all geisha who worked in the pleasure district were not too good looking, wore simple clothes and have simple hairstyles. B/c of the fear of unlicensed prostitution, pimps decreed that geishas could not sell their bodies under the pain of losing their license. Thus, geishas were hired for her skills as a woman and if they chose to sleep with a client then it was her choice not obligatory. "Prostitution was never something they were forced to engage in." The chic and independent geishas studied music for years and thus were skilled musicians. While the culture at large called for being simple, the world of the demimonde called for its characters to be stylish. 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. Only the geisha of present Japan keep the tradition of knowing which part of Japan each geisha comes from by the hair they wear. The danna paid for sex and no one had seconds thoughts about any of it. At age 14, a modern day maiko has to make a decision whether to continue her training as a geisha or stop. If she continues, then she would be committed to training for 5 yrs until she is 19 yrs old. The maiko has to choose a good mentor in order to be successful as a geisha. Sometimes a geisha chooses a maiko to shape who is either very beautiful or can dance really well. To be a geisha is like being a nun in that both a nun and a geisha marry into their profession and if they meet a man than they like they have to give up their "vocation". 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. Maiko's have an opportunity to meet important people and travel that they would normally not have. Maikos get invited to important places in which they get to stay at 5 star hotels to entertain important guests. They meet famous Japanese people all the time. Modern geishas wear wigs so they can switch back and forth from their geisha world to modern world. Geishas are still looked at with wonder but no one wants their children to be one. Before 1958, deflowering of a Geisha, the mizuage, was a right of passage for every geisha that marked the transition from girl (maiko) to a woman (geisha). It was normal for a girl to have a mizuage if they become a geisha or a be deflowered when they get married. The rich danna paid for the debut which included the deflowering of the girl. So a virgin geisha was as strange as a virgin wife. 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. Geisha's felt bad if they were chosen to be with a Danna they did not want while and the same time felt bad if they weren't chosen b/c that meant they were not wanted.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lora Shouse

    This book, Women of the Pleasure Quarters, is considerably less of a personal story than either Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden or Geisha by Liza Dalby, although it does detail the author’s interactions with the geisha and the people who worked with them as she attempted to discover what it was like to be a geisha. She was apparently a little old to train as a geisha herself, or perhaps just didn’t want to go that route, but she did manage to befriend several geisha and other people who kn This book, Women of the Pleasure Quarters, is considerably less of a personal story than either Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden or Geisha by Liza Dalby, although it does detail the author’s interactions with the geisha and the people who worked with them as she attempted to discover what it was like to be a geisha. She was apparently a little old to train as a geisha herself, or perhaps just didn’t want to go that route, but she did manage to befriend several geisha and other people who knew about their lifestyle. All in all, it makes for interesting reading. This book has much more of the history of the geisha and of the prostitutes who were both their source and their main rivals in the early years than either of the other two. There are also numerous stories of famous historical or fictional geisha. In addition to Gion in Kyoto, where most of Memoirs of a Geisha took place, and Pontocho, also in Kyoto, where Liza Dalby trained as a geisha, the author visited the other geisha quarters in Kyoto and also talked to some of the modern geisha, wannabe geisha, and people similar to but not the same as geisha in Tokyo and other parts of Japan. There are discussions of how the geisha related to wives and other people, and of how the number of geisha appears to be steadily declining. Where Liza Dalby met many middle-aged geisha, Lesley Downer appears to have encountered primarily aged geisha in their sixties and seventies.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Katie (wife of book)

    This was a very interesting book about the secretive world of the geisha in Japan. The author covers a lot, from the history of the profession up to how they'd adapted to the modern world. My main criticism of this book was the way the author described some of the women she met. She would often use words like "frumpy" and give a breakdown of their facial features, often with some form of negative comment. I know the world of geisha is all about beauty but I found these descriptions to be jarring This was a very interesting book about the secretive world of the geisha in Japan. The author covers a lot, from the history of the profession up to how they'd adapted to the modern world. My main criticism of this book was the way the author described some of the women she met. She would often use words like "frumpy" and give a breakdown of their facial features, often with some form of negative comment. I know the world of geisha is all about beauty but I found these descriptions to be jarring and unnecessary. After all, the reader doesn't have to know the person being interviews has a slightly chubby face in order to learn or empathise with them, do they? It was just something I noticed and that I liked less and less as I read the book. There was also a bit of repetition of certain ideas and statements. However, this was a good book to learn a bit about the history of Japan as a whole, especially the period where it was an isolated country. The traditional Japanese values were the most intriguing things to learn about, especially their views on husbands having affairs and to "work hard, play hard" mentality. The interviews with the modern geisha were interesting, and I enjoyed learning about how the world of geisha are adapting (or not) to modern Japan and it's new values and ideas. A Good book to read for a quick history of geisha, as well as a look at the modern ones.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tara

    In secondary school, I studied Japanese as a language, and for one of the final exams I had to take, because I’m not from a Japanese background, I had to spend an ample amount of time studying culture, otherwise the questions wouldn’t have made sense to me. Far from disliking this studying, I became fascinated with Asian culture, especially Japanese. I’ve previously read books about Geisha, and I couldn’t quite leave this one on the shelf of the second hand bookshop where I found it. Much like L In secondary school, I studied Japanese as a language, and for one of the final exams I had to take, because I’m not from a Japanese background, I had to spend an ample amount of time studying culture, otherwise the questions wouldn’t have made sense to me. Far from disliking this studying, I became fascinated with Asian culture, especially Japanese. I’ve previously read books about Geisha, and I couldn’t quite leave this one on the shelf of the second hand bookshop where I found it. Much like Liza Dalby’s Geisha this book is written by an author who has gone over to Japan, and seen the Geisha districts, giving a first hand experienced view of what they’re really like. However, one thing that was more prominent in this book than in the previous books on the subject I’ve 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. For me, this was one of the more interesting parts of the book because I didn’t previously know about it. The second half of the book deals with ‘modern’ Geisha, and discusses what’s happening in the Geisha world of the present day, admitting that numbers are in decline, and looking at what the reasons for this might be. 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 wasn’t anything new particularly. For anyone interested in this subject, I’d definitely recommend this book. The author’s personal touches are nice – it has been criticized as being almost like a “how-to” guide for wannabe Geisha, but I don’t think that’s the case. For me it was a description of a vocation, by someone with a serious interest – more of a historical/anthropological work than anything else. It’s also accompanied by several pages of glossy photos, which help describe some of the things written about in the book, especially for Western audiences who may not have seen it before. Overall, this book is informative, and adds nicely to the current literature on the subject. Definitely a good read for anyone with an interest in Japanese culture, or Geisha specifically.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Magdalena Llamandra

    Thoroughly enjoyed this. I picked it up as a discount book that I ~might~ read eventually as it is a subject close to my heart. Started reading it in the car on my way home... and was hooked on reading it before I could read anything else :D As a "foreigner" that has lived in Japan for a year as an exchange student, I found it admirable that the author as a westerner actually managed to unlock such doors that are tightly sealed with a tipple bolt to most people and that is exactly what made the bo Thoroughly enjoyed this. I picked it up as a discount book that I ~might~ read eventually as it is a subject close to my heart. Started reading it in the car on my way home... and was hooked on reading it before I could read anything else :D As a "foreigner" that has lived in Japan for a year as an exchange student, I found it admirable that the author as a westerner actually managed to unlock such doors that are tightly sealed with a tipple bolt to most people and that is exactly what made the book so exciting. I found it a great balance between good research and a very personal story about the author`s experiences. If someone says the author is too self-centred...I say, if you manage to get such deep insight into the Japanese culture as a foreigner, you sure as hell deserve to be proud of yourself...in my subjective opinion. It was a great to learn a bit more about some of the things you see in Japan, but never really understand... like why exactly some old-er ladies stroll around Kanazawa (where I lived) in kimonos that often :D If you are interested in Geisha or Japan, this is a great book to have on your shelf as it has lots of interesting insights presented in an understandable way that really helps broaden your view on the subject. (Assuming that the research on which the book is based is fairly reliable that is.) I`d say between 4,5 and 5 stars for me personally.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    This was a great nonfiction look at the mysterious world of geisha, both from a historical and a contemporary perspective. The author lived in Japan for many years and speaks excellent Japanese, so she was able to directly talk to geisha, their clients, and teahouse owners, as well as provide valuable perspective on cultural and linguistic nuances. Lesley Downer traces the history of the profession, providing some broader context so the reader can understand how geisha have fit into Japanese his This was a great nonfiction look at the mysterious world of geisha, both from a historical and a contemporary perspective. The author lived in Japan for many years and speaks excellent Japanese, so she was able to directly talk to geisha, their clients, and teahouse owners, as well as provide valuable perspective on cultural and linguistic nuances. Lesley Downer traces the history of the profession, providing some broader context so the reader can understand how geisha have fit into Japanese history over the centuries. I appreciated this, as I don't know a lot about Japanese history. The author also draws on secondary sources and works of Japanese literature to explain ideas about love, sexuality, and status that have provided the cultural backdrop for the declining (but once highly successful) geisha profession. Interspersed with these historical sections were sections in which Lesley Downer discussed geisha in modern Japan, i.e. why some young teens still choose to become geisha, how the profession is regarded, and why it is considered more of a historical relic now. I also found these sections interesting and felt that they rounded out the book even more fully. I'm glad Lesley Downer was able to effectively contextualize the geisha profession using not only her research but also her cultural knowledge. I feel significantly more informed now, and also want to check out more books on Japanese history more generally as this book has piqued my interest.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Bookguide

    Lesley Downer, who had already lived in Japan for many years, decided to find out more about the exclusive world of geisha and clear up western misconceptions about their role. An exceptionally secretive world, she found it more difficult to gain access than she had expected, but being patient, observing quietly and gaining the trust and friendship of a few eventually opened doors. However, she remained an outsider and many of the stories and feelings people described remained somewhat cryptic; Lesley Downer, who had already lived in Japan for many years, decided to find out more about the exclusive world of geisha and clear up western misconceptions about their role. An exceptionally secretive world, she found it more difficult to gain access than she had expected, but being patient, observing quietly and gaining the trust and friendship of a few eventually opened doors. However, she remained an outsider and many of the stories and feelings people described remained somewhat cryptic; The Japanese are by nature not inclined to openness or loose talk. Nevertheless, the book gives a fascinating insight into the history and traditional role of geisha and the trainee geisha, the maiko. I probably learned more about what it was like to live in the ‘flower and willow world ‘ by reading Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. However, Lesley Downer’s book is excellent at describing the differences between the different areas and investigating how geisha are being affected by modernisation. In spite of an existing interest in the subject, she was surprised herself to find out how rapidly the numbers were declining and how new alternatives were appearing to adapt to modern tastes.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Cosmonautbullfrog

    I enjoy books about the history of Japan. Maybe because it wasn’t forced on me in school. The book I read recently was Women of the Pleasure Quarters by Lesley Downer. Downer is a Western woman writing about Eastern women. However, she does not make assumptions when she doesn’t know something. She admits that she doesn’t know and moves on. Arthur Golden does come up twice. Downer mentioned his book (Memoirs of a Geisha) in the introduction and then later on. Later on she trusts in Golden too much I enjoy books about the history of Japan. Maybe because it wasn’t forced on me in school. The book I read recently was Women of the Pleasure Quarters by Lesley Downer. Downer is a Western woman writing about Eastern women. However, she does not make assumptions when she doesn’t know something. She admits that she doesn’t know and moves on. Arthur Golden does come up twice. Downer mentioned his book (Memoirs of a Geisha) in the introduction and then later on. Later on she trusts in Golden too much and makes the same mistake he did about mizuage. It only happens once and seems like an innocent mistake on Downer’s part. Unlike Golden, Downer respected the wishes of her sources and did not reveal their names. Japan has always been a literate country, men and women both. The country boasts several ancient texts consisting of government records and novels. Reading them creates a lively portrait of Old Japan. The book includes different sections with illustrations. There are several drawings, paintings, and pictures chronicling the development of geisha. It’s a lovely book. Downer understands humility and is always eager to learn. She is resilient, forever chasing information for her research.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Shawny O'Leary

    I read this book about a month ago. I went to my local Half Price Books and found it within the Asian History section. I love to read anything pertaining to the geisha of Japan. I found this book very informative on the history and the making of the modern day geiko and maiko of Kyoto and other districts of Japan I had no clue still existed. I only thought the high class geiko of Kyoto were the last nest of women performing this ancient tradition. Her adventures delving her way into this secret I read this book about a month ago. I went to my local Half Price Books and found it within the Asian History section. I love to read anything pertaining to the geisha of Japan. I found this book very informative on the history and the making of the modern day geiko and maiko of Kyoto and other districts of Japan I had no clue still existed. I only thought the high class geiko of Kyoto were the last nest of women performing this ancient tradition. Her adventures delving her way into this secret world was very enthralling as she went in head first only to be rejected without adhering to the subtle code the world of the geisha have made in order for their secrecy to be just that a secret. Though I really enjoyed reading, I did find the author repeated herself and made the same point of Geisha being separate than that of a courtesan though walking the same thin line. But other than this book is an easy and entertaining read if you're just beginning to research the "floating world" of Japan's culture.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sue Thompson

    A fantastic and very readable book. I find it rare for a nonfiction book to be described as a page turner, but this is precisely what I found myself doing and this book became responsible for many a tired day at work after I'd been unable to put it down the night before. It really hits the right mark in my opinion as doesn't presume the reader is already an expert but at the same time doesn't treat you like a fool. It was very obvious that Lesley Downer knows Japan well and that this is a subject A fantastic and very readable book. I find it rare for a nonfiction book to be described as a page turner, but this is precisely what I found myself doing and this book became responsible for many a tired day at work after I'd been unable to put it down the night before. It really hits the right mark in my opinion as doesn't presume the reader is already an expert but at the same time doesn't treat you like a fool. It was very obvious that Lesley Downer knows Japan well and that this is a subject close to her heart, particularly when she discusses the future of Geisha, you can tell that she left part of her heart in the flower and willow world when she wrote this book. There aren't many nonfiction books that could make it into my 'all time favourites' category (which I use for books that really got under my skin), but this one did... easily. I learned so much about the Geisha world and can't wait to read more by Downer.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

    I found this book right after I had read Memoirs of a Geisha and found myself wanting to know more about the geisha world. Overall I loved the book. I often find myself going back to read the more personal moments when the author is telling about how she lived in the geisha world more often than I go back to look up the actual history. I found myself cheering for her to break through the secrets that the Geisha kept for myself but by the end of the book I came to the thought that there were just I found this book right after I had read Memoirs of a Geisha and found myself wanting to know more about the geisha world. Overall I loved the book. I often find myself going back to read the more personal moments when the author is telling about how she lived in the geisha world more often than I go back to look up the actual history. I found myself cheering for her to break through the secrets that the Geisha kept for myself but by the end of the book I came to the thought that there were just somethings you were better off not knowing. Overall what I'm trying to convey to you is that if you want to know more about the geisha world without finding out such a deep history that you lose all interest for it I suggest that you read this book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jackie Cooperman

    Two stars for the amount of research put into the topic. If I could give a "zero" for how it was written, I would. The author has a clear disdain for anything Western, and ruined the book by constantly spewing how savage her own culture is (she is English). She seemed to glorify the materialistic and misogynistic world of the geisha - defending them as entertainers. However, they're entertainers who can be bought for a night of sex. She seems to admire the men who had geisha mistresses and look Two stars for the amount of research put into the topic. If I could give a "zero" for how it was written, I would. The author has a clear disdain for anything Western, and ruined the book by constantly spewing how savage her own culture is (she is English). She seemed to glorify the materialistic and misogynistic world of the geisha - defending them as entertainers. However, they're entertainers who can be bought for a night of sex. She seems to admire the men who had geisha mistresses and look down upon the wives who did nothing more than bare their children. As she mentions in the beginning of the book, she's single. It's no wonder why, considering she seems perfectly fine with men who willingly cheat on their wives. I would even go so far as to say she looks down on conventional marriage. I found her judgmental and insufferably obnoxious.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Anne

    I'm only a quarter of the way through this book and I absolutely love it. It's got a great mix of factual history of give you the context and cultural background and understanding of Japan, but also of Geisha and Tayu who are courtesans unlike the Geisha. It's written from the personal experience of the author who lived in Japan and immersed herself as fully in to the subject as a person can. I have to say I'm totally hooked and look for every chance I have to read a few pages. It's truly a fasc I'm only a quarter of the way through this book and I absolutely love it. It's got a great mix of factual history of give you the context and cultural background and understanding of Japan, but also of Geisha and Tayu who are courtesans unlike the Geisha. It's written from the personal experience of the author who lived in Japan and immersed herself as fully in to the subject as a person can. I have to say I'm totally hooked and look for every chance I have to read a few pages. It's truly a fascinating and fully enjoyably absorbing book.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    This book was...good. The chapters alternated between the modern day geisha culture, author's experience, ect. and the history of the geisha et al. I found everything very interesting and informative, but some of the history read like a college thesis and the way the author went back and forth between present and past so methodically was kind of...amateurish? I don't know. By the end of the book, I was glad I was wrapping it up and I was moving on to new things, BUT the good in this book was rea This book was...good. The chapters alternated between the modern day geisha culture, author's experience, ect. and the history of the geisha et al. I found everything very interesting and informative, but some of the history read like a college thesis and the way the author went back and forth between present and past so methodically was kind of...amateurish? I don't know. By the end of the book, I was glad I was wrapping it up and I was moving on to new things, BUT the good in this book was really good, and now I feel pretty well informed on the history of the geisha.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Lady

    The author's voice throughout the book is insanely annoying, she is extremely full of herself and spends whole pages talking about how wonderful and smart she is to have gotten acess to this hidden world. She is obviously a hardcore feminist who seems affronted by the traditions of the geisha and seems in many places in the book very condesending to the geisha traditions shes apparently so interested in. If you can get past all that its a fairly interesting overview of the history and traditions The author's voice throughout the book is insanely annoying, she is extremely full of herself and spends whole pages talking about how wonderful and smart she is to have gotten acess to this hidden world. She is obviously a hardcore feminist who seems affronted by the traditions of the geisha and seems in many places in the book very condesending to the geisha traditions shes apparently so interested in. If you can get past all that its a fairly interesting overview of the history and traditions of geisha.

  24. 4 out of 5

    J

    Downer has lived among geisha and travelled all over Japan to meet them, too. The result is a wonderful read - an engaging book that gives not only a fascinating and concise history of the geisha and their profession, but also an up-close-and-personal look into the lives of the women who are geisha now. There are stories of famous geisha and stories of old women whose entire lives were spent in this profession, who have their own code, their own language and their own world. I found the book absol Downer has lived among geisha and travelled all over Japan to meet them, too. The result is a wonderful read - an engaging book that gives not only a fascinating and concise history of the geisha and their profession, but also an up-close-and-personal look into the lives of the women who are geisha now. There are stories of famous geisha and stories of old women whose entire lives were spent in this profession, who have their own code, their own language and their own world. I found the book absolutely enthralling and I learned a great deal from it.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Joanna

    This book had a lot of good information inside and it was obvious the author did her research as well as having lived in Japan while writing it. However there was too much jumping around for me. One minute it was a history lesson and the next it was present day Geisha living. It kept going back and forth too much making it hard to follow. I would have much rather it been in chronological order so as to retain the information better and get a better grasp on the evolution of the Geisha life from This book had a lot of good information inside and it was obvious the author did her research as well as having lived in Japan while writing it. However there was too much jumping around for me. One minute it was a history lesson and the next it was present day Geisha living. It kept going back and forth too much making it hard to follow. I would have much rather it been in chronological order so as to retain the information better and get a better grasp on the evolution of the Geisha life from past to present. It just made for a tedious read and wasn't as enjoyable as I would have liked.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Mooch

    This was an intersting and thought provoking read about the history and present of the geishas in Japan. It was though provoking because Downer's analysis of the geisha turned my gender conceptions of Japan around. I would have thought that the geisha represents the most unfree woman in a very patriarchal society. However, as Downer describes it, the geisha is maybe the most free, or at least the most emancipated of all Japanese women. A little too repetitous in parts, hence 3 stars.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Realize

    I enjoyed reading this one. It's so fascinating to read how the geisha world developed and how it is nowadays. I don't know that much of Japanese Culture so I can't tell whether this is accurate or not, but it was a nice reading for sure. Didn't find it boring at all.. it would have been even better if it contained some pictures, but I guess it would spoil privacy and the whole mystery around geishas.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    Sadly, this book didn't live up to my expectations. I was hoping for a more straight forward history of geisha but ended up with a somewhat scattered history of geisha. Having already read a bunch about geisha, I just didn't find the "inside the ochaya" sections useful. There were good things about this book, for example I really enjoyed the information Downer collected about early geisha from the Heian period to the Tokugawa era. The way this book was organized though, really bothered me.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

    A book of several parts -- part history, part memoir, part travelogue, and part social commentary -- centering on Geisha culture reveals the gulf of misunderstanding between East and West. The author was able to gain insight into Geisha culture through patience, the Eastern way. She got to know the women by taking a room in their neighborhood. Eventually she gained the confidence of the women and discovered the information that might not otherwise have been available.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Mauri

    Nixed this for the author's praising of Memoirs of a Geisha in the acknowledgements. Memoirs was a good book (and a worthwhile movie) but I'm rather wary of nonfiction writers who gush over it. It's fiction. Period. Nixed this for the author's praising of Memoirs of a Geisha in the acknowledgements. Memoirs was a good book (and a worthwhile movie) but I'm rather wary of nonfiction writers who gush over it. It's fiction. Period.

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