Western Perceptions of Geisha

“Delicate and fragile as blown glass, in stature, in bearing she resembles some figure on a painted screen, but as, from her background of glossy lacquer, with a sudden movement she frees herself; like a butterfly she flutters and settles with such quiet grace that a madness seizes me to pursue her, even though I might damage her wings.” – Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (1904).

The generally accepted image of the geisha in the Western world is characterised by a sense of mystery, exoticism and forbidden pleasure. Yet this highly sexualised image tends to overshadow the vital role of the geisha as a highly skilled performer and continuer of longstanding Japanese traditions. Although the Western view of the “geisha girl” is rather distorted and almost totally removed from the actuality of the working geisha in Japan, it continues to be disseminated throughout the West in many forms of popular culture, including film and fiction. This paper will explore Western perceptions of Japanese women and geisha, and through examining both historical accounts and contemporary texts, attempt to account for this consistent misrepresentation of geisha in the West.

The shift in the West from the original Japanese meaning of geisha as a performing artist to a highly-sexualised stereotype of femininity took place as a result of several factors. Historically, even as far back as the early Meiji era, Western (primarily American) accounts show a tendency to romanticize and overgeneralise images of Japanese woman. American officials of this period would likely have been exposed to actual geisha and perhaps attended an ozashiki (geisha banquet); however their lack of knowledge of aesthetics and unfamiliarity with traditional music and dance meant that they would not have appreciated the skilled performances of the geisha. Thus they might have simply assumed that the only function of the geisha (as independent, unmarried women working during evenings) was as sexual playthings.

t the same time, many women of this period were in fact forced into prostitution as a result of poverty caused by war, earthquakes and deteriorating economic conditions. Thus this interpretation had some merit, as many such prostitutes would have mistakenly been referred to as geisha by foreigners or even Japanese who had not experienced an actual geisha performance. Furthermore, the perception of geisha in Japan during this time also suffered as a result of the national dedication to a program of rapid Westernization and Modernization that actually led to geisha being perceived within their own country as old-fashioned and somewhat embarrassing within the new national identity of Japanese society.

The post-war American Occupation of Japan (1945-1952) gave root to many deeply entrenched stereotypes about Japan and its people, and it is these early impressions that perhaps have played an important role in the misrepresentation of geisha in today’s Western society. In particular the Anti-Prostitution laws of 1956 led to many prostitutes referring to themselves as geisha in order to avoid arrest, as geisha were not barred from working under the new law. This would have led to much confusion from foreign soldiers who were ignorant to the distinction between geisha and prostitute. This misinformation would have spread back to America, resulting in the ingraining once and for all of the link between geisha and prostitute.

In several twentieth-century Western texts, including Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly (1904), James Michener’s semi-autobiographical novel Sayonara (1954) and the more recent Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) by Arthur Golden, there are similar qualities found in geisha that are espoused again and again as being ideal. The geisha, as represented in Western texts, emerges in various guises, but she is almost always the essence of traditional Japanese femininity. Whilst sometimes acknowledged as trained artists and performers, geisha in Western texts are always praised in terms of their usefulness as a companion to men: exceedingly beautiful, slight and dainty, passive and submissive, devoted and strong in character. Also, in many of these texts, the geisha is also made to adopt the role of tragic heroine who requires saving from a life of poverty and depravity (usually by a strong Western hero).

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It was in fact with the opening of Puccini’s famed opera Madame Butterfly that the idea of the geisha began to be connected to ideas of submission and servitude. The tale of Madame Butterfly lies at the heart of Western perceptions of Japanese women as passive, selfless, and unfalteringly dedicated to their husbands and families. The story of this tragic heroine subsequently became elevated into a cultural stereotype, an icon and myth of the Japanese woman as the ideal of a loving, self-sacrificing, devoted wife to a Western husband. Based on an original story, written by an American in 1898 and subsequently made into a play in 1900, Madame Butterfly’s representation of the “geisha” Cio Cio San is multi-layered: she is at once presented as the ideal woman and wife (in her passivity) and yet she is also a tragic heroine (seen in her courage and willingness to sacrifice herself).

Rather than being presented as a strong, independent performing artist; she is merely a kept woman with no control over her fate; a victim of a male-dominated society. The basic plot of Madame Butterfly became an exceedingly popular one in early twentieth century American cinema. Of the numerous films that took Japan and Japanese-American relations as their subject the majority focused on the representation of the Japanese woman involved with an often ill-fated romance. Madame Butterfly was itself adapted for the screen in America in 1915. In the semi-autobiographical novel Sayonara by James Michener, we are presented with similar representations of Japanese women, in particular a geisha whose dedication to her profession comes before her own personal happiness.

Yet this idea of the passive “geisha girl” exists only as a fantasy in the minds of Westerners, and bears no real resemblance to the actual geisha living and working in the geisha districts of Japan. In these texts that deal with geisha, often their only purpose is for male entertainment and pleasure. References to the art of the geisha (the dancing and musical training) are rare. If they are made, they are included only to enhance the desirability and attractiveness of the woman. Such artistic pursuits are never shown as being a vital aspect of the geisha’s way of life7. This Western construct, shaped using only a very limited understanding of Japanese culture, is based primarily on hearsay and inaccurate sources. Its function is in essence is satisfy the western fantasy for the exoticism of the East.

This curiosity with geisha as the “other” is in part due to genuine fascination with an a unique profession that has no equivalent in Western Society. Yet it can also be seen as a form of contemporary Orientalism8: thus the myth of the geisha is perpetuated as a means of validating Western culture. The geisha becomes the “other“, and thus by positioning itself as completely distant and opposite to this “other”, (perceived as a product of a strange and alien culture), Westerners are able to heighten their own sense of moral superiority in regards to its attitudes toward women (this tendency has recently been described as Feminist Orientalism).
This complex attitude to Japanese culture, a mix of curiosity and comparative superiority is perfectly encapsulated in Liza Dalby’s recounting of a typical encounter between an American and a geisha at a banquet:

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“The fact that a middle-aged geisha is charming and highly sought after by Japanese is lost on an American who doesn’t know the Japanese language. If she attempts to entertain him at a level where his lack of language is not critical, a foreign guest will play along with her rock-paper scissors finger games, then afterward chuckle about how childish the Japanese are.”

In today’s age of advanced information technology and enhanced communication through the internet, the myth of the geisha still continues to be perpetuated in Western popular culture. Even popular texts that purport to have their basis in factual accounts (such as Memoirs of a Geisha) have only succeeded in reinforcing long-standing stereotypes and prejudices about Japan and its culture. It seems that one must be wary of any Western publication dealing with Japanese culture, as many writers have their own agendas, and are more concerned with pandering to Western ideas than presenting accurate accounts of Japanese culture. By presenting unflattering representations of Japan they often seek to validate their own sense of Western (usually American) moral and cultural superiority. As described by Edward W. Said in his seminal text Orientalism:

“One aspect of the electronic, postmodern world is that there has been a reinforcement of the stereotypes by which the Orient is viewed. Television, the films, and all the media’s resources have forced information into more and more standardized molds. So far as the Orient is concerned, standardization and cultural stereotyping have intensified the hold of the nineteenth-century academic and imaginative demonology of the “the mysterious Orient.”

The extreme fascination with geisha in the west is a result of the perceived mystery of the geisha and the profession. This mystery results from confusion about what role geisha actually serve within Japanese culture. Because the West lacks any equivalent profession, and also lacks the kind of rich tradition of the performing arts as in Japan, many commentators have tended to compare geisha to what they see as the most comparable profession – attracting comparisons to women paid for their time, i.e. escorts or prostitutes, and thus totally misinterpreting the significance of the geisha as a custodian of traditional Japanese culture. Attempting such a comparison is futile as it requires such a simplification, a hacking away at cultural details that what is left is merely a shell of the original.

These kinds of comparisons also completely ignore the most vital and essential aspect of this line of work – the performance aspect. Parallels made between geisha and prostitutes result from a complete lack of appreciation for these highly skilled, independent women who have Though foreign women are often outraged by the idea of the profession of the geisha, and see it as degrading to women, it is geisha who have managed to attain economic self-sufficiency and positions of authority on their own merits. In eluding the expected role of housewife, geisha are afforded a great deal of freedom as they engage in a profession that allows them to lead unconventional, exciting lives.

Arthur Golden’s bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha, though apparently based on a factual account was heavily criticised for its exaggerations and inaccuracies in its retelling of the life of former geisha Mineko Iwasaki, whom the author spent two weeks interviewing for the book. In the novel, Golden commodified Japanese culture and geisha as an object to be exoticized, romanticized and sexualized in a demonstration of Orientalism. It can be described thus as “a fiction of the West, by the West, and for the West, yet received by the West as reality”12. Whilst Golden sought to make the story as realistic as possible, as a man born and raised in the United States, he had never experienced the world of the geisha first-hand. Thus by using Mineko Iwasaki’s story, even to craft a fictional story, was a crucial tool in allowing golden to establish the authenticity of his account. Through exoticization of Japanese culture, Golden created a distance between the Orient and the Western audience, but simultaneously made the story accessible to the reader by way of the allusions to factual events. In addition, by writing the novel from the viewpoint of Sayuri, the main character, he managed to eliminate his own Western presence, thus transforming the novel into the geisha’s autobiography so that the authenticity of the account was seemingly preserved.

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According to Liza Dalby, author of one of the most insightful and influential Western texts on geisha to be published, it is only possible to understand the role of geisha and what they represent in Japanese society within their specific cultural context. To Dalby, geisha should not be reduced to mere symbols of Japanese society. Whilst she touches on the stereotype of the geisha in the west, describing such representations as “stock examples of the women of allegedly easy virtue who are assumed by foreigners to typify a geisha”, Dalby believes that such stereotypes say more about Western obsessions than geisha themselves. Her book provides a refreshing alternative to the geisha stereotype dominant in popular Western texts and even today, more than twenty-five years after her book was first published; it remains one of the most true-to-life portrayals of the life of geisha in Japan.

There has been a recent surge in similar publications on geisha, including biographies and scholarly studies of the geisha arts, and thankfully such publications have gone some way in stemming the tide of cultural stereotypes of “geisha girls” and their role in Japanese society. Though the “geisha girls” of the West still remain very much as symbols of Japanese culture as viewed through Western Orientalism, thanks to the dedication of several Western researchers to delve deep into the intricacies of the profession and its significance in Japanese traditional arts, there is now a more balanced view of the geisha in Western popular culture; one that acknowledges the charm and appeal of the beautiful geisha, whilst affirming their place as custodians of ancient art forms that will hopefully live on the tea houses and traditional restaurants of the geisha districts of Japan.


• Akita, Kimiko “Orientalism and the Binary of Fact and Fiction in Memoirs of a Geisha”, Global Media Journal, Volume 5, Issue 9, Fall 2006, http://lass.calumet.purdue.edu/cca/gmj/fa06/gmj_fa06_akita.htm.
• Bardsley, Jan, “Liza Dalby’s Geisha: The View Twenty-five Years Later”, Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Volume 31(2009), pp. 309-323.

• Bernadi, Daniel, (ed.), The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of Cinema. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

• Foreman, Kelly M., Gei of Geisha: Music, Identity and Meaning, Ashgate, 2008.

• Dalby, Liza Crihfield, Geisha, University of California Press, London, 1983.

• Johnston, Sheila K., The Japanese Through American Eyes, Stanford University Press, California, 1991.

• Miller, Laura and Jan Bardsley (eds.) Bad Girls of Japan, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2005.

• Said, Edward W., Orientalism, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1978.

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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