"Memoirs of a Geisha": Fact or Fiction?  with Dr. Gavin Campbell

"Memoirs of a Geisha": Fact or Fiction? with Dr. Gavin Campbell


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In a decade of guiding clients through the Kyoto geisha world, no question comes up for Dr. Campbell more often than: "How accurate are the film and book Memoirs of a Geisha?" During this discussion, we will dig deep into both fiction and history to find out.

In 1997 the American author Arthur Golden debuted his wildly popular novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. The saga of a precocious, determined girl named Chiyo and her rise in the Kyoto geisha world stayed for 58 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, sold millions of copies in dozens of languages, formed the basis for the 2005 Steven Spielberg film, and swept audiences around the world into a magical world of sensuality, tradition, and mystery. It also sparked a lawsuit from a famous Kyoto geisha and a great deal of academic hand-wringing. 

So where does all that leave us? Is the book a useful window onto the geisha profession, yet another stereotype of the “exotic East,” or something in between? With Golden’s novel at our side, we will explore the origins and history of the geisha profession, paying particular attention to the period highlighted in the book: the 1920s through the 1950s. This was a period of astonishing change when the Japanese were debating what future (if any) the geisha should have in modern Japan. 

Led by an expert in geisha culture and Japanese history, by the end of our discussion, we will have a better understanding of what Golden’s book gets right, and where geisha history is even more fascinating than what any novelist could imagine.

Gavin received a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and came to Kyoto in 2001. He is a Ph.D. professor of history at Doshisha University. His teaching and research revolve around Japan's cultural encounters with the West, particularly during the Edo, Meiji, Taisho and early Showa periods (1600-1940), and he has published on the history of foreign tourism and of Protestant missionaries in Japan. To further explore Japan's global cultural encounters, he is currently writing a book on the history of Japanese menswear from the 1600s through the early 20th century. He is also an expert on Kyoto geisha culture and a frequent participant in geisha entertainment.

This conversation is suitable for all ages.

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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