Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha shares the journey of how Chiyo-Chan, the young girl from the Seashores of Yoriodo, born in the year of the monkey, with so much water in her personality became Nita Sayuri the renowned Geisha of Gion in Japan. The Fisherman’s daughter from the little dump village of Yoriodo which had no glamorous spot, will as a child, with her father’s consent and Mr. Tanaka’s support, be bundled with her elder sister Satsu, away from their little tipsy home by the cliff, into a new place where they knew no one.

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Nine years old Chiyo is astonished at her first glimpse of city light, and right under the puddles of yellow glow in the city of Kyoto, she is forcefully separated from Satsu. Unlike her sister, Chiyo’s translucent gray eyes got the fascination of everyone and defined her destiny; Satsu was taken to Miyagawa-cho, a home for prostitutes, while Chiyo ends in the Nitta Okiya, a place where Geishas are nurtured.
An earlier visit to Mr. Tanaka’s home in Senzuru had unknowingly given Chiyo a peep into her future, but little did she know that the beautiful woman in pink kimono with an obi tied around her middle, entertaining men in the teahouse in Senzuru, was nothing compared to the sight of the exquisitely beautiful woman that will welcome her in the Nitta Okiya. Meeting more elegantly dressed women like Mother and Granny, and then a little girl of her age Pumpkin further puzzled Chiyo to seek knowledge on where she found herself.

‘May I ask, ma’am…what is this place?’
‘It’s an Okiya…It’s where Geisha live. If you work very hard, you’ll grow up to be a Geisha yourself.’

In the Nitta Okiya, Chiyo became the most junior of cocoons. She was exposed to store house of Kimonos so expensive they could buy the whole village of Senzuru and Yoriodo where she came from. But such exposure to wealth, beauty and glamour like she had never seen before did not take her heart away from home. Being sent out into the world isn’t necessarily the same as leaving your home behind you. Daily, she thought of her sick and dying mother, of Satsu who she misses, and her father who sold them for money. The hatred of Hatsumomo and everything that made her life more difficult strengthened her determination to run away.
Though at this time, Chiyo had commenced her schooling to become a Geisha with Pumpkin, a brief reunion with Satsu (who now worked as a prostitute) led to their hatching an escape plan. Daily Chiyo planned how she would escape through the roof in the Okiya to reach the Minamiza theatre where Satsu was waiting as planned. A broken arm from her roof fall spoiled it all, Chiyo was brought back to the Okiya and made to understand that her burden of debt just increased.

 

‘Do you know how much I paid for you?’ Mother said
‘No, ma’am… But you’re going to tell me you paid more than I am worth.’
‘You are right about that!…Half a Yen might have been more than you’re worth….I paid seventy-five yen for you, that’s what I paid. Then you went and ruined a kimono, and stole a brooch, and now you’ve broken your arm, so I’ll be adding medical expenses to your debts as well. Plus you have your meals and lessons, and just this morning I heard from the mistress of the Tatsuyo, over in Miyagawa-cho, that your older sister has run away. The Mistress there still hasn’t paid me what she owes. Now she tells me she’s not going to do it! I’ll add that to your debt as well, but what difference will it make? You already owe me more than you’ll ever repay… I’ll suppose you could repay it after ten or fifteen years as a Geisha,…if you happened to be a success. But who would invest another sen in a girl who runs away?’ Mother said.

‘Throughout my months in Gion, I’d certainly imagined that money must have changed hands before Satsu and I were taken from our home. I often thought of the conversation I’d overhead between Mr. Tanaka and my father, and of what Mrs Fidget had said about Satsu and me being “suitable.” I’d wondered with horror whether Mr. Tanaka had made money by helping to sell us, and how much we had cost. But I’d never imagined that I myself would have to repay it.’

 

Hence, she wallowed in an overwhelming feeling of despondency. In Aunty’s words,
‘You’ll never be a Geisha now!… I warned you not to make a mistake like this! And now there’s nothing I or anyone else can do to help you.’ 9yrs old Chiyo was hereafter condemned to the drudgery of a maid for trying to run; ‘I was living only half in Gion but the other half of me lived in my dreams of going home.’ A letter from Mr. Tanaka changed her horizon forever.

‘Dear Chiyo,
…Six weeks after you left for your new life in Kyoto, the suffering of your honored mother came to its end, and only a few weeks afterward your honored father departed this world as well…Your sister, Satsu, came through Yoriodo late this past fall, but ran away again at once with the son of Mr. Sugi…’

 

To learn in a single moment that both her mother and father had died and left her, and her sister too lost to her forever, made her mind feel like a broken vase that would not stand. In the years to come, her life was like a big bee in a jar, circling and circling with nowhere to go. It wasn’t worth it thinking of a sister she lost, a mother whom she hoped was at peace in paradise and a father who’d been so willing to sell them and live out the end of his life alone. Chiyo had no choice but to begin negotiating her past and future.

‘The stale air had washed away, the past was gone. My mother and father were dead and I could do nothing to change it. But I suppose that for the past year, I’d been dead in a way too. And my Sister… yes, she was gone; but I wasn’t gone. I’m not sure this will make sense to you, but I felt as though I’d turned to look in a different direction, so that I no longer faced backward toward the past, but forward toward the future. And now the question confronting me was this: What would that future be?’

 

The gods will smile on her and she experienced the kindness of strangers like the Chairman, Nobu and Mameha, with the chairman playing a small-god designing the architecture of the rest of her life. Under Mameha’s nurturing, she resumed her lessons as an apprentice Geisha, learning that though some where born into the lineage of Geisha, others were forced into it:

‘We don’t become geisha so our lives will be satisfying. We become geisha because we have no other choice.’

 

Dance is the most revered of a Geisha’s art, Chiyo mastered it along with the tea ceremony, flower arrangement. She learnt to always look pretty and alert, to wear the Okobo as though it was her feet’s glove, mastered the shamisen and regalia of the apprentice geisha until it was no longer cumbersome, and elegantly displayed the momoware. On the day of her debut ceremony, like a caterpillar turns to a butterfly, little Chiyo died and a beautiful Geisha named Sayuri was born. As the seasons changed, she ruled over Hatsumomo as she became the adopted daughter of the Nitta Okiya. Sayuri Nitta became one of the twenty greatest Geisha of Gion’s past, for almost three decades, she mizuage set an unbeaten record in Gion.

While Sayuri’s story had somewhat of a happy ending as she remained drowned in beauty, but that is not the case for other Geisha’s like Hatsumomo. Unlucky Geisha’s end up as prostitutes or drink themselves to death. Such is a reality that makes being a Geisha not sustainable and more so continues to raise the question on whether beyond class and artistic skill, if there really is much moral difference between the Geisha that ties her Obi to the back and the prostitute that ties her Obi to the front? The two have a lot on in common; they become geisha or prostitute because they mostly lack choice, they become play things of men in power, their success and survival is dependent on their ability to entertain men and get paid or kept for it.

Looming over this fiction novel was the mood of the Nation during the Allied Occupation in Japan. Sayuri sprinkled stories of the second war until the impact of the war hit Gion and resulted in the closure of all Tea houses, rendering both the Geisha’s and Prostitutes to a life of helplessness. Kuraitani as they called the years of the great depression was a valley of darkness, a decade of crushed hopes. Through her narratives, we feel what happens to citizens when a country goes to war. War was indeed a leveler, it turned some Geishas to prostitutes and factory workers. It turned appliance manufacturers into builders of fighter airplanes, and more so Kimono makers into parachute makers. Left with Ghostly memories of Gion, Sayuri survived making parachutes. The reopening of Tea houses at the end of the war was marked with symbolisms; shoes of American Soldiers had replaced the usual rows of men’s shoes which the Geisha’s were used to. And once again the Geisha’s took their place as a National Treasure.

 
Authur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha hit so many notes on themes relevant to the International development sector. First is the narrative of Gender, projected by Income Inequality which reinforces the culture of Geisha. There was not a single story in this book about any woman who saved herself, or lived independent of men’s mercy. The theme of Poverty provoked by the war and more by the rural/urban dichotomy is noted. Next is the concept of Vulnerability expressed by the Geisha’s and in the character of Satsu and Chiyo, whom as vulnerable children were sold into a life of slavery. This singular act of selling the two sisters for cash by their father understood as Child-trafficking, and Satsu’s purchase by Sex Traffickers, likewise Chiyo’s purchase as a maid and then a Geisha who is enslaved to generate income for the Okiya, remains a foundation of core problems which many development institutions are positioned to solve. Reports on Trafficking in Persons show an increase over the years, specifically, trafficking women and children for sexual exploitation is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world2017 Estimates referenced to the International Labor Organization, 24.9 million victims are trapped in modern-day slavery and 4.8 million (19%) people  are trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally.

In appreciating Arthur Golden’s contributions to relevant development discourse, I could not help imagining the many Chiyo’s and Satsu’s in different parts of the world, who continue to dream of freedom, on how they wish daily that time runs backward while dealing with the difficulty of running away. To these ones, I wish the kindness of strangers, and the experience of knowing that something besides cruelty can be found in this world. May the next turn of life’s wheel bring to them freedom.
~Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Who wears the mask?

my.vanderbilt.edugoodpersonpublicationsThe column this week is aligned to the last post. It’s no coincidence that I  choose to be responsive 20130225_IOM_307to an issue that had reoccurred in the media last week. International media captured the ongoing debate on the sex trade law between the United States government and organisations that benefit from the PEPFAR (Presidents Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) funding. Prostitution remains a controversial issue, little wonder I struggle to get an appropriate definition for it.  Hmm… That flesh for cash business; anyone that buys or sells the flesh for cash is a prostitute. Did I hear you say I am wrong? Speaking jocosely, you must be an American politician, a man, a moralist or a judgemental person to disagree with me. You can be everything else but not one of the three gods of Setzuan or Shen te the renowned prostitute.

In the stereotypical way of engaging the issue of prostitution in many societies, Bertolt Brecht Photo by Johny Knightpresents ‘Shen te’ (alias the Prostitute) who lived in ‘Setzuan’ (an imaginary city in China) and relates with masked men. (I say masked men because we rarely know who patronizes a prostitute. Maybe because they are ignored being that their involvement is inexorably, a force of nature that is above the law.) With his noted style of using masks in his work, the writer presents an interplay of characters and scenes that gives insight into survival sex work and the poverty that drives it.

In a time when good nature was rare and the laces of poverty littered everywhere, three gods visited Setzuan in search of one good person. Contrary to the ideals we may expect, the search of the gods yielded ‘Shen te’ as the finest human being in the capitalist impacted city of Setzuan.

In Bertolt Bretchs work, Der gute Mensch von Sezuan literarily translated the good woman of Setzuan; we see a society existing in cycles of poverty. According to Wong (the water seller) there is ‘nothing unusual about poverty’ here. In Setzuan, we are reminded images (1)that goodness and capitalism cannot coexist. The characters in this play proved that evil and criminal acts are necessary for a capitalist system to survive as they grease its wheel. The three gods suffer a dearth in their search because there really may be no good person existing in such a system that is not corrupted by the obscenity of capitalism.images

One begins to question how goodness and morality alike should be prioritized by an individual in the face of hunger, lack of shelter and all the needs that comes with poverty.  How also does a state cladding a capitalist coat suggest that morality should loom over policy decisions that govern issues like prostitution which in many cases, is a detritus of immoral capitalism? A good case in point is this 2003 anti-prostitution law of the American Congress which has not been reversed.

The Anti-prostitution law reads that federal funds may not be used to ‘advocate the practice of prostitution’ or ‘provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution’. Hence it requires that all PEPFAR beneficiaries take a pledge in accordance with the law against prostitution.  The United States is the largest governmental donor of HIV/AIDS funds in the world, hence taking the pledge or denouncing it has huge implication for global health. Prostitution inarguably is a strong component in the fight against HIV/AIDS and the broader challenges of Human Trafficking issues amongst others. This cobweb relationship is inextricable and therefore any policy intervention that ignores it is problematic. Engaging this from a law and policy perspective of international development, the review of this law is neccesary. Through the past week, media has captured activities focused on this as the Supreme Court responds to the amicus briefs filed by UNAid and other organizations for its reversal.

httpwww.lowbird.comdataimages200903girls-love-thief-in-the-mask-012931.jpgIn America, likewise many other countries where prostitution is illegal, the laws are based on ideologies which are morally inspired, lacking sincere grasp of realities. The moral ideologies are often deflated by the verity on ground and compounded by the strategies adopted in implementing the law. Many times through enforcing our law, we discriminate participants in the skin trade by continuously masking and protecting the recipients, and prosecuting, humiliating and stigmatizing the service providers. More women have been victims of this unfair rule except for rare situations where men like the morally upright Elliot Laurence Spitzer (the past governor of New York) are exposed for political gains.

It will be short sighted of me to say that the solution for countries that criminalizes prostitution is in adopting a more holistic approach that equally engages both the supply and demand angle of the flesh for cash industry. Short sighted because I think there is need for the policy makers to understand the intricacies and drivers of the sex trade market. Prostitution in many cases is driven by poverty which must be addressed. It’s also worthy of note that prostitution is an addiction, a means of livelihood, a coping mechanism, a hobby amongst others.

Bertolt Bretchs dramatizes poverty and survival sex as a driver for ‘Shen te’ who proclaims that ‘I should love to stay with one man… stock-vector-teardrop-a-woman-touching-a-masked-man-the-characters-and-the-background-are-on-separate-layers-37520596I’ll like to be good but surely there’s rent to pay’. Cyprian Ekwensi’s narrative in ‘Jagua Nana’ presents us a psycho-social case in point in understanding the drivers of prostitution within the urban African society. With the Character of ‘Jagua’, we find a young woman whose sojourn into the skin trade sprang from her restless spirit and a search for adventure.

Though written many decades ago and representing different social contexts, the two writers through their characters, show that empowerment and new preoccupations can wean women off prostitution. The high point for the two protagonists is seen in their shifts into trading and becoming more useful to the society. While ‘Shen te’ opens a tobacco shop and becomes the angel of the slum, Jagua also goes into socially profitable ventures.

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If Americans where gods, they will judge Shen te, if they had the power, she would know no empowerment.  Many thanks to the absence of PEPFAR in Setzuan, Shente got a new life as the angel of the slum who ran a tobacco shop.  The three gods of Setzuan were clearly non-judgemental,  It appears reasonable to look beyond the actions of a prostitute and focus on the intent. In the face of stinking poverty and lack which gnawed the three gods in Setzuan, the mask of morality dropped. The gods empowered ‘Shen te’ not on the grounds of morality but that of necessity. Where the gods to be judgemental,  their own morality will be deciphered and hence they will be found wanting for sharing shelter with a prostitute.

Through his master piece character ‘Shen te’, Bertolt Brecht calls for us to think outside the conventional box, it persuades a thorough consideration of many issue of obscenity far and above prostitution. A moral law against prostitution may be ideal but should not be a precondition toimg_125927872942_49207_eventoriginal sustainable development interventions. Apart from a possible negative impact on global health, another implication is that some people’s livelihood will be set on fire, children of prostitutes will walk the streets and yet the world will worse. Rather than shut the door on their faces, we must think of how to shelter them. Maybe replacing a law against prostitution with a law against poverty and inequalities can wean those to whom the flesh for cash business provides bread and butter.

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A wordle generated specially for the series on prostitution. I have been inspired by the many names I could derive from sex trade.