Masuda, Sayo 1925-
Masuda, Sayo 1925-
MASUDA, Sayo 1925-
PERSONAL: Born August 16, 1925, in Japan.
CAREER: Sold into a geisha house, 1936-c. mid-1940s; newspaper seller, food server, soap peddler, and farmhand, c. late 1940s-50s.
SIDELIGHTS: Sayo Masuda's Geisha, Kutoo no Hanshoogai, published in English translation as Autobiography of a Geisha, has never been out of print in Japan in the half-century since it was first released. The book, a stark tale of the horrors Masuda faced while servicing vacationing businessmen at a hot springs resort in the late 1930s and early 1940s, "shocked Japanese readers with its bitter taste of grinding poverty and its revelations about the geisha world's dark side," wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor.
Masuda was born out of wedlock into a poor family and was quickly shipped off to live with her uncle. He subsequently sent her out to work as a live-in nanny and maid at the age of six. In the meantime, Masuda's mother had married another man who had fallen ill and could not provide for the four children he and Masuda's mother eventually produced. So, in need of money, Masuda's mother brought Masuda home when she was twelve years old and indentured her to a geisha house for the equivalent of 120 kilograms of rice; a geisha is a Japanese girl trained to provide entertainment, such as singing, dancing, and sexual favors, for male clients. For four years Masuda did chores around the geisha house and learned some artistic skills, until at the age of sixteen her virginity was auctioned off to the highest bidder. In order to make as much money as possible from the girl, the madam of the house then auctioned it off again several more times. She was later bought from the house by a man she dubbed "Cockeye," who kept her as a mistress. Masuda was able to escape from the geisha house, but her life became no easier. She was reunited with her uncle and half-brother and worked briefly at a sawmill, which did not pay enough for them to eat. In the hope of finding better prospects, she and her brother left the countryside and moved to Chiba, east of Tokyo, where her brother came down with tuberculosis. The only way Masuda could earn enough money to pay for his medicine was to return to prostitution. When her brother found out, he committed suicide so that she would not have to continue in that way of life.
Masuda wrote her life story while working as a farmhand in the 1950s—more than ten years after leaving her life as a geisha—in response to a magazine contest which offered a large cash prize for true stories by women writers. Masuda had no formal education and could only write in hiragana, the simple phonetic script taught to elementary school children. Despite this, her tale won second place, and a publishing house asked her to flesh out the story and turn it into a book.
Masuda went into seclusion after the 1957 Japanese publication of Geisha, Kutoo no Hanshoogai, and she declined to grant an interview to the English translator of the book some four and half decades later. "This conclusion is frustrating," Kimberly Shearer Palmer wrote in Women's Review of Books, since the reader is likely to be curious about how Masuda is fairing and how she feels about what she wrote so long ago. Despite this lack of closure to Masuda's tale, Palmer and many other critics found her story fascinating and well-told. Her "self-insight is considerable," David Mattin wrote in the London Observer, and, as Susan Kurosawa wrote in Weekend Australian, "it's obvious from the exact detail and pace of Masuda's writing that she was able to recall the minutiae of encounters with scores of customers and to reproduce complicated conversations." Because of this, and because Autobiography of a Geisha is the only known book-length autobiography of a geisha who worked in the low-rent hot springs resorts, the book is also valuable for sociological purposes. As Kristine Huntley concluded in Booklist, "Masuda's memoir is a must-read for those interested in the lives of geishas."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Masuda, Sayo, Geisha, Kutoo no Hanshoogai, [Japan] 1957, translation by G. G. Rowley published as Autobiography of a Geisha, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Booklist, May 15, 2003, Kristine Huntley, review of Autobiography of a Geisha, p. 1627.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2003, review of Autobiography of a Geisha, p. 365.
Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2003, Bernadette Murphy, review of Autobiography of a Geisha, p. R13.
Mail on Sunday (London, England), April 25, 2004, Simon Shaw, review of Autobiography of a Geisha, p. 64.
Monumenta Nipponica, spring, 2004, Simon Partner, review of Autobiography of a Geisha, pp. 143-135.
Observer (London, England), March 21, 2004, David Mattin, review of Autobiography of a Geisha, p. 18.
Weekend Australian (Sydney, Australia), March 13, 2004, Susan Kurosawa, review of Autobiography of a Geisha, p. B15.
Women's Review of Books, September, 2003, Kimberly Shearer Palmer, review of Autobiography of a Geisha, pp. 14-15.