BY: Liza Dalby
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.