Geishas are Not Sex Workers: A Reflection on Travel in Japan



I saw the movie Memoirs of a Geisha a few plane rides ago. Wanting to learn something about the city and the culture I would soon be spending a month living in, Kyoto, Japan, I did what any reasonable person would do. I ignored books and articles and went straight to the movies.

If you haven’t seen it (and knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t recommend it), the film tells the story of a young girl being sold by her family to a geisha house where she learns from a young age how to entertain rich men in exchange for financial security. The main drive of the movie is her desire to be “sponsored” by a man who was kind to her as a child (ew) following her debut performance.  This debut is a means to showcase her talent and attract the highest bidder to her virginity. Like I said, ew.

The messages of this movie are messy to say the least, but as someone unfamiliar with Japanese culture beyond Sailor Moon, I didn’t think too deeply about this trash story.

“That was a different time,” I told myself as I disembarked. So you can imagine my confusion and slight dismay when I rolled into my apartment in Gion and found that the neighborhood was literally the most famous geisha district in Kyoto. I arrived during the cherry blossoms’ full bloom, when the city looks almost fictional in its beauty. Cherry blossom trees lined the narrow streets. Arch bridges provided the perfect selfie platform as white and pink petals floated lazily into the gentle rushing waters. Mountains carved into the horizon framed golden sunsets as this quiet but buzzing city ushered in the night. And women dressed to look like geishas casually shuffled past (it’s a thing tourists pay to do).

“This is actually really progressive,” I reflected, as I saw them tip-toeing in their ornate kimonos. Sex work is a viable profession for many people. A lot has been written about why and how regulations can be implemented to ensure it is safe for the women and men who choose it. The fact that this practice that was not only supported by the government of Japan but recognized and celebrated as an important part of their cultural heritage was impressive, I mused.

“Girl, geishas are not sex workers,” my roommate told me matter-of-factly.

But..I saw it in a movie, was a real life thought that passed through my mind UNIRONICALLY in response. I tried to explain why no, it’s totally fine that they are, I’m not passing judgment or anything, like, it’s impressive, really. What was actually impressive is that I was able to carry on that conversation armed with nothing but a film from 2005.

Suffice to say, the next day I turned to the Internet like a reasonable person and did some deep, thoughtful research: I went on Wikipedia.


Photo Credit: Nikki Price

Not only is the book that spawned the film NOT A MEMOIR, it was written by a white man from Tennessee. He interviewed a real geisha and embellished her story to the point where she was shunned by her community, received death threats, and sued for damages (it was settled out of court). She wrote an actual memoir about her experience, and selling her body after her debut was not at all the reality the film portrayed. However, further Wikipedia-based research showed that sexual exploitation and abuse actually was, in fact, a reality faced by other geisha. (The film does reference this briefly, to its credit.)

I felt like the veil was lifted from my eyes.

Geisha are treated like celebrities here in Kyoto, and tourists hound them like paparazzi. I wonder, how many of them are holding the same assumptions I had about these women, their skills, and the nature of their work? If it weren’t for travel, I would never have questioned the insidious messages I received from the film. The more I spent time in the country, the angrier I got. How can it be that the narrative of these Japanese women was allowed to be so heavily influenced by foreign men? How could they sleep at night having twisted lived experience into fiction for profit, consequences be damned?

But I think I’m actually angry at myself. I let them. If I had taken the time to do my own work, I could have found the book by Mineko Iwasaki. I could have read the reflections of Sayo Masuda. I could have let the women who lived the life show me how it changed them.

And it would have saved me from unconsciously perpetuating false narratives about the women of color I seek to champion.

But I learned a valuable lesson. Now I know that before I shut up and go to another sexy foreign destination, especially one that I’ve only seen through Hollywood and anime, I should shut up and read a book first.

What fact about country did you realize was totally made up once you traveled there?

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