Reference Books

Geisha by Liza Dalby

For many this is the reference book that got them interested in the Geisha world, possibly on the back of reading Memoirs of a Geisha. Liza Dalby was a graduate student in anthropology who travelled to Kyoto and embedded herself in the Pontocho hanamachi as a geisha. Here she explores the customs and traditions of the flower and willow world trying to dispel myths and understand the traditions of this closed society. As the first Westerner to be accepted into the community and staying a full 14 months to write her thesis Liza offers a rare and in depth view of the working geisha’s life. There is a recently updated version of this book available offering insights into the difference between the 1970s when Dalby conducted her research and the role of geisha today.

The Nightless City by J. E. de Becker

The nightless city is a contemporary account of the culture and practices in the Yoshiwara. Focussing not on geisha but on the courtesans of the pleasure district it describes custom, costume, folklore and more of the Yoshiwara.

Bear in mind this was written in the Victorian age with different sensibilities about class, gender and appropriate behaviour. It is nonetheless an amazing historical document and includes maps and plates from the original pressing. A must for those researching historical novels set in the Edo pleasure houses.

Madame Sadayakko by Leslie Downer

Sadayakko was the first Japanese actress to be well known in the West and is said to be the inspiration for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

Leslie Downer pieces together a biography from historical documents and attempts to track down the remaining relatives of the famous geisha turned actress. Exploring her early life and introduction to the hanamachi through to her theatre life and tours of the West. Those who enjoyed Downer’s other work on Geisha will find the style appealing but there is a little romance and conjecture thrown in for good measure.

Women of the Pleasure Quarters by Leslie Downer

Leslie Downer is a British journalist with a taste for Japan, unlike Dalby who embedded herself in the culture Downer instead takes time to interview and explore the various characters of the Geisha districts both modern and historical.

This book focusses more on the history and the rise of the geisha than the nuances of modern day life for the average Kyoto entertainer. Downer like other writers on the topic spends some time trying to break down the unfair stereotypes of the geisha world. The book is exceptionally well researched and includes an excellent list of vocabulary and reference material.

Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwesaki

Rumour has it that Iwesaki’s life was the inspiration for Memoirs of a Geisha, word has it that annoyed by Golden’s representation of her life and the sordid details he splashed about she wrote and published this memoir.

As one of the few detailed first hand accounts of geisha life in print in English this is a wonderful source of information. It should be noted that the era of her acceptance into the geisha life caused her to be subject to a type of indentured servitude no longer tolerated in modern life. This is really a tale of a woman’s strength and survival, but gives unique insight into the life of geisha before World War II.

Butterfly’s Sisters: The Geisha in Western Culture by Yoko Kawaguchi

Kawaguchi writes a compelling media and art analysis about the portrayal of Japanese women and geisha in particular in Western culture. It would be easy to limit this topic to the sexualised imagery and ‘geesha girls’ of wartime but instead covers an array of topics including art and dance theory.

Drawing on an array of source material such as opera, theatre, art, dance and fiction to paint a deep picture of cultural white washing.

Yoshiwara by Stephen Longstreet

Another book focussing on the Yoshiwara and the various entertainers and courtesans that lived and worked in the pleasure district. Longstreet and his wife are art collectors and amassed a huge collection of historical art and documents from the Yoshiwara. Drawing on this first order material they cover many elements of the pleasure quarters often forgotten by other writers.

They talk of low level prostitutes and bath girls, art enthusiast geisha and the high class courtesans most writers focus on. Daily life, introduction to the profession, religion and ritual are all covered including some saucier material taken from erotic materials of the day. Included are Western accounts of the pleasure quarters with all the judgement and lack of understanding that came with it.