Geisha in Japanese Fiction
A faithful adaptation of a Japanese novel that follows the story of former geisha Komayo who must return to the flower and willow world after her husband dies leaving her in poverty. A wonderful peek into Meiji period geisha live and a rare chance to read geisha written as real women rather than some kind of tourist attraction.
The tale of a woman hell bent on survival – this is no story of high status Gion entertainers but instead the story of a woman who must become an onsen geisha to survive. This is more a story about the strength of women and what they must to do keep a family together.
Japanese love a story of star crossed lovers and this story of a wealthy dilettente and his onsen geisha lover is bound to appeal if you like that kind of “we must, but we can’t!” style of romantic story.
Geisha in Western Fiction
These books should be taken with more than a grain of salt. Western authors often take liberties with information on geisha rivalling from the “slightly disrespectful” to the “wildly ridiculous”. Most geisha novels in the West represent geisha society akin to how much sword and sorcery novels represent the mediaeval lifestyle.
Likelihood is if you’ve found this site you know this book. Memoirs of a Geisha is a involved but ultimately flawed biopic of a geisha Sayuri who is sold into indentured servitude but is ultimately helped through life (and WWII) by the characters she meets who see her unique heart. This gives an extremely dated view of geisha society that shocks many with its cruel interpretations of how women treat women and how men love to control them.
If you like historical fiction then the Sano Ichiro mysteries by Laura Joh Rowland are some of the best examples. The Sano Ichiro series follows a young court official as he rises through the political machine that is the Tokugawa Shogunate court in the 17th century. His trials and tribulations are documented throughout the series from his ongoing attempts to avoid political assassination at the hands of power mongering court members, to the growth of his family and how they deal with his rise to power. Each novel is a murder mystery or tale of political intrigue and travels around the Japanese nation including travels down the Tokkaido highway to the bitter freezes of Hokkaido all in the name of politics and justice.
Rowland takes some liberties with the real life historical figures of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi and his stereotypically evil and conniving vizier Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu. The details of the books nonetheless are exceptionally detailed and well researched. If you are a reader of other historical series then Rowland’s series is for Japan what Elizabeth Peters did for Egyptian archaeology in the 20th century.
For lovers of Japanese history it’s a chance to throw yourself into a seminal part of Japan’s history from a first point perspective. For lovers of geisha there are plenty of sitings and familiar historical settings discussed from the Tayuu of Yoshiwara to the upcoming book which will play out the saga of the 47 Ronin and their infamous meeting at the Ichiriki ochiya.
The Sugawara Akitada series is another historical crime series set in the Heian period of Japan where the court was first starting to establish a more recognisable Japanese flavour still clinging to the Xian Confucian style teachings and cultural norms.
The Heian period is probably best known for the classic novel Genji Monogatari and the Sugawara books call to mind this form of hushed regularity and beauracracy. Unlike many other series of this kind there is no happy ending; character fall sick and die in battle, people grieve and have psychological trauma. This is a real human story of castes, professions and being frustrated with what seems to be ill fortune and an unfair lot.
Though missing the lavish hedonism of the Edo period this series is nonetheless a wonderful historical peek into Japan’s history and establishes many of the rules that would later define the class system that would allow the geisha world to appear.