Autobiography of a Geisha

Sayo Masuda. Translated by G. G. Rowley

Columbia University Press

Autobiography of a Geisha

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Pub Date: June 2005

ISBN: 9780231129510

216 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $24.95£21.00

Pub Date: April 2003

ISBN: 9780231129503

216 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $75.00£63.00

Autobiography of a Geisha

Sayo Masuda. Translated by G. G. Rowley

Columbia University Press

The glamorous world of big-city geisha is familiar to many readers, but little has been written of the life of hardship and pain led by the hot-springs-resort geisha. Indentured to geisha houses by families in desperate poverty, deprived of freedom and identity, these young women lived in a world of sex for sale, unadorned by the trappings of wealth and celebrity.

Sayo Masuda has written the first full-length autobiography of a former hot-springs-resort geisha. Masuda was sent to work as a nursemaid at the age of six and then was sold to a geisha house at the age of twelve. In keeping with tradition, she first worked as a servant while training in the arts of dance, song, shamisen, and drum. In 1940, aged sixteen, she made her debut as a geisha.

Autobiography of a Geisha chronicles the harsh life in the geisha house from which Masuda and her "sisters" worked. They were routinely expected to engage in sex for payment, and Masuda's memoir contains a grim account of a geisha's slow death from untreated venereal disease. Upon completion of their indenture, geisha could be left with no means of making a living. Marriage sometimes meant rescue, but the best that most geisha could hope for was to become a man's mistress.

Masuda also tells of her life after leaving the geisha house, painting a vivid panorama of the grinding poverty of the rural poor in wartime Japan. As she eked out an existence on the margins of Japanese society, earning money in odd jobs and hard labor—even falling in with Korean gangsters—Masuda experienced first hand the anguish and the fortitude of prostitutes, gangster mistresses, black-market traders, and abandoned mothers struggling to survive in postwar Japan.

Happiness was always short-lived for Masuda, but she remained compassionate and did what she could to help others; indeed, in sharing her story, she hoped that others might not suffer as she had. Although barely able to write, her years of training in the arts of entertaining made her an accomplished storyteller, and Autobiography of a Geisha is as remarkable for its wit and humor as for its unromanticized candor. It is the superbly told tale of a woman whom fortune never favored yet never defeated.

This account shocked Japanese readers with its bitter taste of grinding poverty and its revelations about the geisha world's dark side. A comfortless portrait of the flip side of the geisha world, where one is more slave than courtesan.

Kirkus Reviews

At once intriguing and heartbreaking.

Publishers Weekly

[Masuda's] endurance of adversity is admirable, as is the down-to-earth way in which she relates her story. She is witty, realistic, and forthright about her life, and readers will admire her courage and determination.

Marlene Y. Satter, Foreword Magazine

Courageously, Masuda refuses to put white makeup on the unsightly aspects of her tale, inviting readers to take a long, hard look at the unadulterated face of geisha living.

Los Angeles Times Book Review

As I read this autobiography I cried for the women who live their lives as geishas...Thank you, Sayo Masuda, for revealing your life to us.

Judy Helman, Woman's Day

Masuda's memoir is a must-read for those interested in the lives of geishas.


Originally published in Japan in the 1950's, Autobiography of a Geisha is a remarkably fresh and personal account of a life that is a far cry not only from the Eastern exoticism of [John Ball's Miss One Hundred Thousand Spring Blossoms], but also from the upscale and at least sometimes glamorous lives depicted in [Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha.


A much-needed corrective to the romantic myths spun around this profession... Superbly preserved and sensitively rendered... [Masuda's] gripping, heart-rending and humorous account is a gem, especially as it offers a view 'from below' of the untold social history of modern Japan.

Times Literary Supplement

Since the publication of Arthur Golden's bestselling novelMemoirs of a Geisha, there has been a spate of books that an unkind reviewer might label 'follow-ons'... While all of these speak to a greater or lesser extent of the hardships and occasional cruelties of the geisha's life, none provides as raw and unvarnished account as Sayo Masuda'sAutobiography.

Monumenta Nipponica

This engrossing and very human story of survival not only casts light on the lives of countless women in early modern Japan, but offers the reader a compelling portrait of one woman's experiences in the often idealized world of the geisha.

Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha

A remarkable story [that] tells us a great deal about how unkind a society can be to the more unfortunate of its fellow citizens.... An important piece of social history of Japan in the 1940s and 1950s. G. G. Rowley's translation is very good indeed. Her language is always natural and fluent, and very persuasive.

Edwin McClellan, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature, Yale University

In this sensitive translation of an original memoir of a real geisha, Gaye Rowley gives us an unvarnished firsthand look into the world of a woman who unflinchingly relates the bitter struggle of her geisha existence in pre-WWII Japan. This is a fascinating and heart-rending tale.

Liza Dalby, author of Geisha

Sayo's unadorned yet spirited autobiography recounting her coming-of-age in the unglamorous world of the country geisha and the harsh choices offered by the postwar world makes a bracing antidote to the enticements of finery, romance with patrons, and exquisite training in the arts purveyed by so many geisha stories. The art in Masuda's life crystallizes from her very survival and subsequent determination to put it in writing herself.

Norma Field, University of Chicago

Autobiography of a Geisha is a compelling... gritty and at times bleak account, but one which is related with great pathos and humor throughout. Rowley is to be commended.

Bulletin of the School of Oriental and AFrican Studies, University of London

Her story is heartbreaking, but her indomitable spirit prevents it from becoming maudlin.

Elizabeth Quinn, Bust
Part 1: A Little Dog, Abandoned and Terrified
Little Crane the nursemaid
The eyes of the oxen glow in the dark
I, too, had a mother
Part 2: The Sunburned Novice
The dream palace
Geisha school
I want to be a geisha, right now
My four "Elder Sisters''
The death of Elder Sister Takemi
The hot iron
The scar
I learn my name
Cruel rules
I devote myself to art
Part 3: Miss Low Gets Wise
Shallow river
A secret place
The new novice
The sleep-with-anyone geisha
How to be cute and sexy
Part 4: Bird in a Cage
My first customer
The geisha temperament
Thou shalt not love
In the party business
Tip taker
Tsukiko's suicide
Part 5: Awakening to Love
Number Two and Number Three
Tricks of the love trade
The witcher bewitched
True love
Attempted suicide
Part 6: Wanderings of a Castaway
No place to call home
A brother's love
Tears of humiliation
War's end
The dumpling-soup diner
Part 7: A Dream for My Little Brother
Beautiful eyes
Street stall
Gang moll
Little Foundling
Seven funerary laths
Part 8: The Depths of Despair
My little brother's suicide
Return to Suwa
Happy days
Farewell banquet
Love's anguish
Happiness and unhappiness
Wandering between life and death
Part 9: The Road Back to Life
Innocent smile
Piiko the fledgling hawk
Vain dreams
The Prostitution Prevention Act
Cats' paws

About the Author

Sayo Masuda died in 2008.

G. G. Rowley teaches English and Japanese literature at Waseda University in Tokyo. She is the author of Yosano Akiko and The Tale of Genji.