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Home » Archives » November 2005 » ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ Reinforces Image of Japan as an Exotic, Erotic Place, Duke Expert Says

‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ Reinforces Image of Japan as an Exotic, Erotic Place, Duke Expert Says

Wednesday, November 30, 2005 Posted: 06:07 PM JST

“Memoirs of a Geisha” is likely to give Americans the sense that they have learned something about Japan, but it actually reinforces stereotypes of Japan as an exotic, mysterious place, a Duke University expert on Japanese culture says.

“People were reading the book as if they were really reading something about Japan. But it’s connecting to a past, fantasy version of Japan,” said Anne Allison, chairman of Duke’s cultural anthropology department. “It doesn’t really help Americans understand and learn about contemporary Japan.”

Allison, who studies the globalization of Japanese popular culture, did an ethnographic study of American readers’ reactions to the book. What she found was that people read the book as if it were nonfiction; some even thought it was a real memoir.

But readers’ impressions that they were learning about “the real Japan” was undercut by the fact that the story actually makes Japan and its culture seem alien to Americans, she said. Allison found that few of the readers, even women, identified with the main character of the geisha Sayuri or found similarities between her life and theirs. Instead, they described the culture in the book as “savage but erotic” and “beautiful but primitive.”

Allison said she thinks the author -- an American man -- got the factual information “right enough,” but that the overall impression conveyed by the book is to “Orientalize” Japan.

The love story in particular seemed a Hollywood-style American tale, rather than a Japanese one, Allison said.

“It’s not that he falsified what could have been the life history of a geisha; it’s more what parts he chose to emphasize and play up,” she said. “This is appealing to the fantasy of Western guys.”

(Source: Duke University)

Keywords: national_news

Related Links:

  1. TV NZ: Geisha film raises eyebrows in Japan
  2. Telegraph: Anger as film highlights good-time geisha girls
  3. CBC Arts: Mixed reaction as 'Memoirs of a Geisha' opens in Tokyo
  4. Guardian: Geisha film incenses Japanese

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1 comments so far post your own

1 | At 11:54am on Mar 13 2006, Jim wrote:
I would have like the movie better if it were told from the Japanese cultural perspective in the Japanese language.

It seemed to me that the story was told for an American audience.
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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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