Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rivalry and Jealousy do Shimbashi

腕比べ One of my favourite old-skool Japanese authors is Nagai Kafu (荷風 永井) and I was naturally pumped when I heard that his book Udekurabe, or Rivalry, has been translated into English again. I read the translation titled Geisha in Rivalry by Kurt Meissner and Ralph Friedrich several years ago when I picked up a secondhand copy but to my delight, this new translation by Stephen Snyder is the first full translation including what Japan culture guru Donald Richie calls "carnal descriptions". Ooh! The 1917 version was edited and parts deemed too racy were cut out-Snyder's version Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale includes all the cut parts which make for a slightly more sexy look at the geisha of Shimbashi. Although it is fiction, I put my faith in it's accurateness due to the fact that Kafu was writing about his world, his time and he was definitely a customer of Tokyo's geisha districts, including Shimbashi, as well as the licenced prostitution quarter, the Yoshiwara. This man knows what he's talking about.

In his article linked above, Richie says "there has long been much confusion about just how far geisha go" and from this novel we "learn that, given proper motivation, they go the whole way". Why is there always such a fuss about whether geisha sleep with their customers or not? They are human after all, so of course some of them sleep with their customers. I'm not saying all of them and in a way that is as blatent as exchanging money for straight up sex, but it seems with the West's recent fascination with geisha, many people want to believe they are simply practioners of the traditional arts and scintillating conversationalists. Yes, I believe at the foundation of what they do they are both, but to think putting men and women together in this kind of customer-entertainer/hostess relationship is not going to lead to some sex is a bit unreasonable, shall we say? It's almost as if Western geisha fans wouldn't be able to be so adoring if the apples of their eye were doing some of the customers. That would be akin to being interested in prostitutes wouldn't it? No, couldn't have tha-at. Although I suppose even if some of them did accept the sex they might be able to justify their continuing fascination and adoration by noting that it is a different culture. I mean, isn't that part and parcel to the whole exotic Asian woman image thing that some people have going in their minds?

But I digress. Either way, who cares if some geisha sleep with their customers? It doesn't make them any less better at dancing, musical instruments or conversation. The flower and willow world just is and no amount of analyzation or discussion will have any impact on it. I remember sitting next to a geisha and her patron was like, need some money? Here. And he tucked a wad of cash in the front fold of her kimono. I looked around at the other people at the bar and no one batted an eye. That's just the way it is. (I suppose we don't bat an eye at money in a stipper's thong either though.)

I loved reading the new translation and can't wait to pull out my copy back home so I can look at some of the differences in translation of these people I aspire to. One thing that was interesting and in retrospect I wish I had kept a running list of, was the Japanese words Snyder chose to translate and those he left in Japanese. There are some that are not translatable but while reading I remember sometimes thinking, why did he translate this but leave that? I also lovvved Kafu's descriptions of the clothing worn by the men and women of that era-but again I would also like to see the other translation/Japanese original as he used words like obi and sash where it seemed from my perfunctory knowledge of kimono anatomy, they could be the same. On a side note, two of Kafu's novellas have been translated as During the Rains and Flowers in the Shade and are worth-reading glimpses into the world of prostitutes and cafe girls in 1930s Tokyo. I don't think it's still in print but I found it through my university library.

Despite the fact that there are more geisha fans today than in 1963 when the first translation was completed, both translations include the word geisha in the title which simply means "rivalry" in Japanese. I looked up the title in Japanese (see the kanji above) for the first time and it had never occurred to me that the word would be comprised of "arm" and "competition" or "comparison". They should have just called it A Tale of Arm-wrestling Geisha. Mr. Richie muses that the new translation and cover choice have been spurred by the Geisha Phenomenon. Obviously, so have a ton of other photography books and biographies. Apart from the general authoritative Books on Geisha (Liza Dalby's thesis-turned-book is the only one to read as far as I'm concerened) or revenge autobiographies (Mineko Iwasaki), I'm glad books like Sayo Masuda's autobiography and this sexy version of Kafu's novel are getting picked up by publishers because I just can't get enough and perhaps one day I too, will be able to translate something fantastic.
Because today is book day and I also finished reading it recently, I wanted to mention Lea Jacobson's Bar Flower which is a memoir about life as a hostess in Tokyo. It is not as simple as that and includes a lot of interesting observations about Japanese culture and what it is like to live here as a Foreign Woman with a non-English related job. After reading Cynthia Gralla's fictionalized account of her life as a hostess and Anne Allison's anthropological field study, both of which were interesting, it was a pleasure to read Bar Flower which is honest, introspective and had me going uh-huh I-totally-get-that many times.

1 comment:

lostinkarakuratown said...

Am not sure if you've already achieved your dream of translating your Great Japanese Novel yet as I have just started reading your blog from the beginning, but I hope you get to do it :D I loved this entry of yours about "Rivalry" and am now adding it to my book grocery list.