Author, Book review, Books in translation, Japan, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sayo Masuda, Setting, Vintage

‘Autobiography of a Geisha’ by Sayo Masuda


Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage East; 224 pages; 2006. Translated from the Japanese by G. G. Rowley.

This remarkable autobiography written by 32-year-old Sayo Masuda and first published in 1957 documents her struggle to seek out an ordinary life.

As a six-year-old, Sayo’s mother sent her to work as a nursemaid for some wealthy landowners who tied her up if she misbehaved, forced her to sleep on a “hempen sack stuffed with rags thrown into the corner of the storehouse” and only allowed her to eat scraps that they left under the kitchen sink.

Unable to go to school, unable to read, I had grown up as an abandoned dog does; and then, at the age of 12, I was sold. Actually, I didn’t know how old I was; but around that time I heard someone saying that the child was twelve, and I recall thinking “So I’m twelve years old then, am I?” Given that, it must have been about 1936 or 1937.
The place I was sold to was a geisha house in Upper Suwa called the Takenoya. At first I was wide-eyed with astonishment at its splendor, like a palace in a dream. […] But the rigors that began the following day taught me that this was not the soft life I thought it would be, that this was no haven or refuge.

For the next four years Sayo was at the beck and call of the geisha house “sisters”, running errands and doing housework. She also went to geisha school, learning shamisen (a three-stringed instrument played with a plectrum), drum and dancing, the arts that distinguish geishas from the popular Western misconception that they are simply prostitutes.

But Sayo’s geisha house, slap bang in the middle of a rural hot-springs resort, did not comply with the normal geisha traditions: sex was part of the equation, although Sayo only ever hints at this by describing herself as a “body for sale” and indicating that her role is to “make everyone, everywhere in your presence, feel that you’re sexy”.

Making her debut as a professional geisha at age sixteen, Sayo took a danna, or patron, a wealthy man called “Cockeye” who would financially support her. Going by the following description, she did not think much of him:

His eyes were squinty, he was going bald, and his face glowed bright red; when he sat drinking in his quilted cotton jacket, dripping with sweat and leering with satisfaction, he looked just like an octopus. And what was really creepy was that you could never tell where he was

Despite Sayo’s material comforts, her life over the next decade or so is far from secure. Among other dramas, she falls in love with a man she cannot have, tries to commit suicide and takes care of her long lost younger brother. But despite the enormous ups and downs of her traumatic, trying life, Sayo radiates an unexpected optimism that things will get better, that she will escape the trappings of her geisha life and find a more respectable way to make a living.

This is a sad but inspirational tale about one woman’s struggle for survival — and redemption — written in a straightforward narrative style, sometimes infused with unexpected humour. It’s by no means a perfect book but it’s a remarkable one given that the author was illiterate for much of her life.

Finally, this edition by Vintage features a wonderful introduction by the translator. This is complimented by a charming epilogue in which she gets to meet the elderly Sayo Masuda, who breaks her silence for the first time since initial publication — this is worth the cover price alone.

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