Anthropologist Liza Dalby deconstructs a favorite male fantasy.
What if it were common for married American men to go to clubs where beautiful women done up in face paint and elaborate dresses fawned all over them, lit their cigars, poured them drinks, engaged them in witty conversation, and just made them feel very special about themselves—while their wives sat at home? In other words, what if America were to embrace the Japanese geisha culture? For an answer, I turned to Berkeley’s very own geisha expert, Liza Dalby, an anthropologist who based her Stanford Ph.D. dissertation on her unique experience of living with a group of geisha in Japan in the 1970s. Dalby subsequently authored a nonfiction book, Geisha, that was made into the 1986 movie, American Geisha, and worked as a consultant on the novel (by Arthur Golden) and movie, Memoirs of a Geisha. While she has since gone on to explore less provocative aspects of Japanese culture (her most recent novel, published in October 2009, is titled Hidden Buddhas), I couldn’t resist asking Dalby whether the whole geisha thing might have a future stateside. I mean, I, for one, wouldn’t have a problem with it.
Paul Kilduff: A married American man going to geisha clubs or whatever. Would that be a good thing?
Liza Dalby: It would never work here because I think American women are basically expected to be geisha, to do what geisha do, along with all the other things they do. There’s a split, in Japan, in the roles for women. So women as wives and mothers, that’s one kind of woman. And then women as geisha and in the modern period of bar hostesses, that’s a different set of roles. And it’s still a little bit difficult for Japanese women to combine those things. But I think for American women, we are expected to go out and socialize with our husbands, to socialize with our husbands’ colleagues, to be hostesses. To be—well, you think of women in this society who are praised for having the ability to bring people together, and to know who can talk to who, and what’s the best way to make somebody shine, to get them to talk about what’s really interesting to them. I mean, this is what geisha do. This is what traditionally (Japanese) wives have never really had a call to do, and they just haven’t had very much experience in it. And geisha concentrate on learning how to do that and they’re very good at that. But this is something that I think American women are already expected to do.
PK: Wow, is it too much to expect for an American woman to be able to do all these things? Bring home the bacon, be a geisha, iron your shirts?
LD: Yeah, I think a lot of women, you know, we complain about it, but it’s like, okay, well what would you give up?
PK: I don’t really see it happening, but I think it’s kind of fascinating how different cultures approach things differently and that’s it’s perfectly acceptable, these, I guess you could call them rigid sex roles, that go on in Japan, and the sun comes up in the morning over there. I mean, it seems fine.
LD: But I don’t think I answered your question (and I do think there is an answer), which is: What could geisha behavior contribute to American society?
PK: There you go. That’s the master’s thesis right there.
LD: I think in a word, it’s empathy. This is what the geisha sell. And everything else is trappings. The traditional art, the way they look—it’s all very glamorous in a traditional kind of way. But I’ve seen this over and over again. When you go to a geisha event—and I’ve been to events where there’ve been a lot of foreigners there, and even foreigners who bring their wives. And of course, the Western women are very curious. And what they all say is [that] the geisha are so nice. “She can speak English very well. So we somehow managed to communicate and she was just so nice to me.” And I’m thinking, well, yes, they are, and this is their job. And when you see them in a Japanese context where the language is not an issue, they’re just masterful at getting people to feel good about themselves. And that’s a real skill, and I think they learn it. I mean, there’s obviously no classes in that kind of thing. But they are expected to learn it by watching their older sister geisha and seeing how they behave. And that’s just a great social and personal skill.
PK: Yeah, I think, for anybody, really, when you think about it, not just women. Let’s get Berkeley-centric here for a second. You live in Berkeley. This is your area of expertise. Does anybody go to cocktail parties?
LD: We go to dinner parties.
PK: Okay, you go to dinner parties. You’re having your braised short ribs with a reduction and some raspberry vinaigrette on your salad, and somebody says, “Oh, so you’re an expert on geisha.” What kind of reaction do you get in Berkeley when you tell people that this is something that you’re an expert on? Do you get any negative stuff on that?
LD: Well, no, not negative. I think people are always very curious. To be honest, it’s not something I go trumpeting about. I mean, not that I deny it, but I have really spent the last sort of 30 years of my life, after I wrote the book on geisha, trying to move on to other things.
PK: It’s too late for that now though. You’re going to be all over the February issue as the geisha expert.
LD: You know, it’s funny. I just told my husband, I said, “Oh, you know, Paul Kilduff is going to interview me for The Monthly,” and he looked at me and he said, “Geisha?”
PK: You can’t get away from your past, Liza.
LD: I know, I know. It’s true.
PK: Does it haunt you? It sounds like you want to move on from this but you are an expert on this subject.
LD: I have moved on. My subsequent book was on kimono, sort of a history of Japanese culture through fashion, and I’ve written a history novel and a contemporary novel. [Though] the threads all go back to geisha, certainly.
PK: Given what you know about this and just your own life experience, you seem like somebody who has a deep understanding of male-female relationships. Any advice for people today thinking about Valentine’s Day, being in love with somebody?
LD: Oh, you know, I think probably the most important thing is just to cut other people some slack. Especially in Berkeley, I find people are often a little bit rigid with their own points of view. And all is fine if you’re surrounded by people who share your point of view, which is probably often the case in Berkeley. But you kind of step outside, I mean, it’s probably the mountains to Orinda where the Midwest begins, things are different, and I think it’s good to be a little flexible. I also feel that having had children, that takes the sharp edges off and you either learn to be flexible or you crack.
PK: A criticism of liberals that I hear a lot is that actually they talk about how inflexible conservatives are, etc., but a lot of liberals are highly judgmental people. They’re not comfortable unless they’re preaching to the already converted. Is that kind of what you’re saying?
LD: It is. And if we can connect that to the geisha, the traditional term for the geisha world is the flower and willow world. The flower being the symbol of beauty, but the willow is this idea of flexibility, not being rigid, and this is how you survive.
PK: The definition refers to being flexible. Wow, that’s interesting. Maybe that’s why James Carville and Mary Matalin can be married on completely polar opposite sides of the political spectrum, right?
LD: Yeah. I don’t know. That’s kind of a mystery to me. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
PK: Let’s turn the tables here. Would women benefit from having males fawn all over them, and engage them in witty conversation, and light their Tiparillos, and pour them white wine spritzers?
LD: Yeah, certainly men could take a few pages from the geisha’s book.
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Age: 60 | Astrological sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Rye, N.Y.
First job: Waitress in an ice cream parlor
American idol? As a writer, John McPhee, because he dives deeply into a subject and he can make you interested in absolutely anything.