Liza Dalby, an anthropology student back then, went to Japan to research about geisha for her PhD thesis in the 70s. Interestingly, she ended up ‘becoming’ a geisha herself, although not formally.
Geisha is probably the profession that has been misunderstood and mystified more than any others – but it is not unreasonable, because even the secretive lifestyle of geisha is barely understood by the modern Japanese society these days. What are they? What roles do they play? What is the raison d’etre of a geisha in a contemporary society? Are they just glorified prostitutes?
In a short answer, no. They are not sex workers. But like most things, reality is rarely that simple. Geisha provides an in-depth overview of the various categories or types of geisha, and after finishing the book, one would be able understand the difficulty to describe geisha in a few lines. Even though it is written by an academic, the prose is simple and easy to read. And what makes this book rather interesting is that it not only has good amount of objective and factual text on geisha culture and philosophy, but also her subjective experience as a Pontocho geisha, thus reading like both a textbook and autobiography.
The only shortcoming of the book is that it is organized rather clumsily. I have to say the chapters and topics are rarely clear, observations often mix with personal perspective in the same text without much distinction. Not that it makes the book any less interesting to read, though.
Definitely a good book to start for anyone interested on the topic of geisha. Next on the list: Iwasaki Mineko’s Geisha of Gion!