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Geisha Paperback – October 1, 1998

4.4 out of 5 stars 67 customer reviews

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In the mid-1970s, an American graduate student in anthropology joined the ranks of white-powdered geisha in Kyoto, Japan. Liza Dalby took the name Ichigiku and apprenticed in the famed Pontocho district, trailing behind "older sisters" bemused by this long-legged Westerner intent on learning their arts and customs. In Geisha, this observant ethnographer paints an intoxicating picture of the "flower and willow world" to which she gained entry. "Why are you studying geisha?" asks one slightly belligerent older sister. "Geisha are no different from anybody else." Not quite, says Dalby dryly, pointing out that geisha and wives play utterly divergent, though complementary, roles in traditional Japanese society. "Geisha are supposed to be sexy where wives are sober, artistic where wives are humdrum, and witty where wives are serious." While hardly feminists, they reap freedoms unknown to other women. Dalby illustrates broader cultural differences, too, with a million tiny details about boisterous customers, how many hundred-weight of tabi (split-toed socks) geishas go through, what defines iki (chic), why maiko (young apprentices) are drawn to the life, and what geisha wear, from the skin out. Acknowledging that her growing personal stake in the masquerade prevented objectivity, Dalby frees the reader to enjoy a fluid and fascinating look at one aspect of Japanese culture. --Francesca Coltrera


"A meticulously researched work of scholarship. . . a delightfully personal account. . . . The bible of geisha studies to this day." -- The Times

"An engrossing account of a society shrouded by centuries of mystery. . . . Dalby brings us the real women behind the white face paint and silk kimonos. Her patient exploration of the nuances and ambivalences inherent in geisha life leaves the reader with a new understanding, and respect, for these hardworking often lonely . . . 'curators of tradition.' . . . She has given us an unprecedented perspective on a fascinating society." -- Kathryn Jankowski, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

"Based on her experiences, [Dalby] provides the sort of information that should -- once and for all (set the legends, tall tales, assumptions and prejudices straight." (Sheryl Fitzgerald, Newsday

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 367 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (October 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520204956
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520204959
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 8.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,199,987 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I read Liza Dalby's book following my reading of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. I do wish I had read Geisha prior to reading Golden's book as I would have derived a great deal more from Golden's book. Yet, Golden's book was a wonderfully sensitive story! Liza Dalby's effort here is to portray the life a Geisha through the eyes of a cultural anthropologist. She has done this and done it well. There is authentic scholarship here. There is a special sensitivity to the demands, sorrows and joys of geisha life. The breadth of the book is superb. The photo work, the layout, the use of japanese drawings as they relate to geisha life is well done. This is a wonderful book for those truly interested in geisha life. What a marvelous gift and privilege that Liza Dalby had, as an American, to enter the world of the geisha.
I recommend it to all who are truly interested in geisha life, but more than that in the status of women now and throughout history.
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Format: Paperback
I have a penchant for nearly all things relating to Japanese history, especially from 1600-1950, and this book was fascinating.Like many others, I had just finished the exquisite "Memoirs of A Geisha" by Arthur Golden. The cover I bought of the book came with a ringing endorsement by Golden himself, saying how brilliant Liza Crihfield Dalby's work is. He's right.Dalby smoothly weaves amusing anecdotes (a meeting with a tipsy and raunchy customer) with brilliantly simple facts (the nuances in tying kimono) in relating her unique story: she is the only American ever to become a geisha.With her exquisite hair and powdered face, Dalby embarks upon a mission of mystique, prestige, and learning, creating a fascinating and enjoyable read.If you have the opportunity, and time, pick up a copy of Dalby's "Geisha." It's a definitive source on the subject, and shouldn't be missed by any aficionados.
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Format: Paperback
[Note: At the time I wrote this review, I had not yet read Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. And I think I may be the only person in America who still hasn't.]

Of course, it's now a full week after A&E aired _The Secret Life of Geisha_, a show nominally based on Dalby's 1983 account of her time in Kyoto as the only non-Japanese ever to train and serve as a geisha. But I kept reading anyway. The show's material came, for the most part, from the first four chapters of the book, which cover a good deal of history, and ignored the rest, which is more of a personal accounting of Dalby's time in Kyoto and her research in Tokyo and some of the smaller towns.

Dalby's account is straightforward and precise, though I don't want to give the impression there's nothing here that would give the reader a sense of personal experience; far from it. Dalby, an anthropologist by nature as well as trade, has a knack for being able to translate emotion into recognizable speech and get it all down on paper in an easy-to-understand form.

The end result is compulsively readable, half-journal and half-explication, of the widely misunderstood world of geisha and the cultural context to which it belongs-- as important to an understanding of what geisha are as a study of the women themselves. Dalby adresses the paradox that the women considered the most servile in Japan are also those with the most freedom, and by the time the book is finished it's no longer a paradox, really. Dalby takes the reader through the world of geisha, its history, its context, and most importantly the outside world's misconception of it. All is explained in such a way as to be easily absorbed, Not in the tradition of "classic" anthropological works at all. Which is a good thing.

Absorbing, a quick read, new stuff to be learned, how can you go wrong?
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Format: Paperback
Written by anthropologist Dalby, who has the distinction of being the only Westerner to become a geisha, this book deftly synthesizes the personal experiences and interactions of the author in this most unusual role and society with the discerning eye of a scholar. Her attention to detail is superb and provides interesting tidbits of cultural trivia for the reader. The stories she tells -- about the backgrounds of her geisha friends, the mothers of the community and other figures in the hanamachi (geisha district) of Pontocho as well as geisha communities of different stripes elsewhere in Japan -- let the reader in on a very personal part of the geisha world that no other author in my opinion has truly touched, or could, really. Dalby was singularly qualified for the role as a geisha, as she could speak Japanese, play the shamisen and had the appropriate connections, and as a geisha herself (versus an interviewer who would always be external in some way), more doors were opened to her, through both internal connections (her relationship with the Pontocho mothers and her onesan) and the trust that these enigmatic women were willing to put in one of their kind.

Dalby's ability to story-tell also lends a quality of magic to the analysis. Even simple stories about floating paper lanterns on the Kamo River or stopping with the three geisha mothers to watch an old-style candymaker draw the reader in with their unselfconscious charm and personal allure. Without this sort of skill, even an intelligent analysis of the subject could be very dull, but her ability to shape the smaller stories within the overall experience make for more intimate and memorable peeks into her life as a geisha, rather than a "just the facts, ma'am" approach.
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