A Single White Chrysanthemum for General MacArthur's Grave: Meeting Masuda Sayo

Dr. Gaye Rowley

Lecture 2004-12-13

There was a good attendance at the last meeting of the year, which was held at Shibuya Kyoiku Gakuen. Our speaker was Dr. Gaye Rowley, of Waseda University, whose subject was: "A Single White Chrysanthemum for General MacArthur's Grave; Meeting Masuda Sayo". The meeting began with moment's silence to honour the memory of the late Council member Mrs. Sayoko Arai.

A few years ago, when Dr. Rowley decided to translate Masuda Sayo's memoir Geisha: Kuto no Hanshogai ("Geisha: Half a Life of Bitter Struggle"), published in 1957, she was thrilled to discover that Masuda-san, born in 1925, was still alive, as she had many questions she would like to ask her. She wrote to her care of the publisher, but he wished to guard Masuda-san's privacy and would not put her in touch, so she published her translation, "Autobiography of a Geisha", in the spring of 2003 without being able to meet Masuda-san.

However, several months ago Yumiko Nishimura, the Foreign Rights Manager at the publishers, Heibonsha, e-mailed Dr. Rowley to say that Masuda-san, who had been sent the translation, would like to meet her, if she came to her home in the Suwa area; her younger half-brother (by her mother's fourth partner) would be at the station to meet the two of them. Unfortunately, due to a mishap en route, Nishimura-san came by a later train. He drove them to a shop which Masuda-san keeps with her partner and this younger brother, and Masuda-san came out to the genkan to welcome them; she was only 147 centimetres (4 feet 10 inches) tall, but full of lively energy. She received them without any formality, and launched out into her first - earthy - story while preparing teppan-yaki for lunch. This concerned looking after her mother, who had been bed-ridden after a stroke and had to have her diapers changed regularly; Masuda-san's schoolboy nephew had had to help, as he was the only one strong enough to lift her; when she observed this this was his first, unfortunate, view of a woman's private parts, he assured her, "Aunty, I never look!" Masuda-san must have told this story deliberately to test Dr. Rowley's reactions.

For the next two days, Masuda-san poured forth stories like this, mimicking the voices of the different participants in the conversations. It was not clear when the various events had taken place, for example, when her mother, who had abandoned Masuda-san as a child, had been reunited with her. She had simply reappeared one day, carrying only a small bundle of basic kitchenware, and Masuda-san, seeing how much she must have suffered, forgave her and took her in.

One story she told was of her best friend, Haru-san, who had been adopted as the heir to a geisha house run by an infamously cruel mistress. As she lay dying last autumn she asked Masuda-san to lay one white chrysanthemum on General MacArthur's grave, as he had been the man who had liberated Japanese women. She had been able to marry the man she loved, something that would not have been possible for the heir to a geisha house in the past. It was hearing Haru-san say this on her deathbed that had made Masuda-san decide to meet Dr. Rowley, so that she could ask her to lay the chrysanthemum for her.

Masuda-san's shop had done so well during the "bubble economy" that she now described herself as nouveau riche. In those days she and her elder half-sister had bought mink coats, diamond rings and wildly expensive pedigree dogs; she still had a chihuahua on which she doted, but never wore the mink coat, and diamonds would look like common glass on her work-roughened hands.

She had arranged for the three of them to go to a local hot spring inn without the men, so that they could talk freely. She continued to tell stories for ten hours that day, and was still talking after they had turned out the lights. Dr. Rowley had no time to tell us everything she had said, and had decided to concentrate on two subjects: her life since the publication of her memoir, and what writing it had meant to her.

When she wrote it, she was still working as a child-minder, but she soon got a job in the kitchen of a well-known ryotei restaurant; she was kept very busy, but was given time off to attend food-preparation and hygiene classes, and successfully passed the examination for a cook's licence in September 1961. Being functionally illiterate, she had done this by asking the invigilator to read the questions out to her, and she must have written largely in kana, judging from a page of her memoir that we were shown on a slide.

In May 1959, she decided to open a bar (nomiya) of her own, which she called Donzoko (translated by Dr. Rowley as The Lower Depths). She had been encouraged to do this by an old lady who had once run a similar establishment, who had told her she would never make money working for somebody else, and had given her three pieces of advice: first, have no boyfriends and dedicate yourself entirely to your business; second, close promptly at nine o'clock, by which time all those who have dropped in hungry and thirsty on their way home from work will have left, and you'll only get the drunks; third, no gangsters. She had started out with just a counter and chairs, and the place had become an immediate hit. Over the five years or so of its existence it had expanded into a full-scale restaurant spread over two floors, and she was helped in the running of it by her mother and her elder half-sister.

Then she suddenly decided to move off, and got a job running a company dormitory in the Odawara/Hakone area, which she did for five years. At this point her mother had a stroke, and her sister asked her to come home. But again she walked out at some point, taking only as much as she could carry in a paper shopping bag, having had a falling-out with everybody. She now managed to get a job running a company cafeteria, and later another job as a maid in a love hotel. She returned to Nagano-ken in about 1978; she had developed asthma, and her doctor had advised her to move into the country, and her sister had also asked her to come back. She had met her present partner in Tokyo, and together they founded the business which they are now running with such success.

When Dr. Rowley asked her if she had felt relieved after writing her book, she replied, "Not at all." She now confessed for the first time that she had written her story in order to exact revenge on the wife of her former lover Motoyama-san, who would be sure to recognise herself when reading the first version, published by Shufu no Tomo. In 1956 she was in despair and was going to commit suicide in the mountains, and she stopped on the way at the house of an elderly couple who had worked for the Motoyamas. From them she learnt that Motoyama's wife had duped her into leaving him, and her despair turned to fury and a desire for revenge. This story was so personal that it was easy to understand why Heibonsha had wanted her to expand her life story into a book. But she came to regret exposing herself in such detail, and the book did not make a lot of money, so at times she thought it would have been better not to have written it. To Dr. Rowley this was a disappointing response.

What had helped her to survive, Masuda-san said, was her jisonshin, her self-respect, and the iji, the stubborn sense of honour possessed by a geisha. Geisha had a sense of pride because they had skills, without which they would merely become sleep-around geisha. (As they walked around Suwa, Masuda-san pointed out the prostitutes' quarter which she said the geisha used to hurry past.)

Dr. Rowley concluded with a moving story concerning the relationship with Motoyama-san (not his real name). While Masuda-san was working in the ryotei, one night one of the geisha asked her to take a tray of sake to one of the guests. She was no longer a geisha herself, but she agreed to do it as a favour. She found the guest was Motoyama-san, who had a present for her, a pair of pokkuri, black-lacquered geta with red velvet thongs; he had remembered that she once said to him that she would like to walk out with him, wearing a pair of red pokkuri. He suggested that she put them on now, and they go for a walk, but she refused, as she did not want to be for ever imbued with the bitter-sweet memory of that evening; she asked him never to come and see her again, and he never did. On September 12, 1999, she was working in her shop when several customers came in on their way home from a funeral; it was Motoyama-san's. That evening she went for a walk, wearing the pokkuri, alternately weeping and talking to Motoyama-san. She now asked Dr. Rowley to take them, as she had been good enough to understand her; she had never told anyone this story, and felt relieved to finally have it off her chest. Dr. Rowley sensed that Masuda-san had probably agreed to meet her not only to tell her about her past but to let go of it.

A lively question time followed, and the first question was, what use did she plan to make of her interview with Masuda-san? She thought she could add it as a postscript to a new edition of her translation, and this would be all right as long as she didn't give away where Masuda-san was living. Another question was, how authentic was the memoir, had it been heavily edited? The story in Shufu no Tomo had certainly been heavily edited as it contained much classical Japanese which Masuda-san would probably not know or use herself. But the Heibonsha editor said he had not done any editing; where there were gaps he had asked her to add things. His contribution had been to divide the book into chapters and sections. It is clear , however, that the stories are very much her stories; she is after all a great raconteur.

To a question about whether Dr. Rowley's intent might be money or fame, Dr. Rowley explained how she had become interested in the story of Masuda Sayo; one stimulus came upon reading an essay by Hirofumi Yamamoto of Tokyo University largely about women in the Edo period in which he mentioned two books on geisha which he said had made him cry. Another stimulus was the desire to write a kind of corrective to Arthur Goldman's "Memoirs of a Geisha" in which the heroine gets together with her lover and lives happily ever after, since this happy ending was not the case with all geisha. As to financial rewards, Masuda-san seemed to have made very little money and she herself had by no means grown rich on her translation!

Dr. Rowley agreed with a questioner who suggested that there were indeed many geisha who were highly accomplished in the traditional Japanese arts (dance, music, calligraphy) and knowledgeable about many subjects of discourse by saying that there many types of geisha. Even in the Meiji period they had been in some demand as diplomats' wives, since they not only had poise but were accustomed to mixing socially with men including foreigners.

There was a question about whether it had been possible to verify Masuda-san's stories. Dr. Rowley pointed out that writing an autobiography involved the act of selection, but mentioned that while the television drama of the book was being filmed, many of the locations, especially in Chiba prefecture and Suwa where she had lived, had been found and that as a result a revised edition of the Heibonsha book was published. Masuda-san had personally shown Dr. Rowley many of the locations around Suwa and it was plainly of great concern to her that she should be believed.

In response to a question as to whether Dr. Rowley is acting as an expert consultant to Columbia Pictures for the making of the film of the novel, the answer was that Liza Dalby is the expert witness as her own geisha experience had been in the Pontocho district.

One questioner said that he felt that the most remarkable episode of the whole book was the suicide of Masuda-san's younger brother and did Dr. Rowley feel that this was partly why she had chosen to write the book, so that he would not be forgotten? To this Dr. Rowley very much agreed, having seen the beautiful grave that Masuda-san erected for her brother when she had the money to do so. It seemed that her experience of looking after her brother and Yoko, the child to whom she had been a child-minder, of having someone younger depending on her, had helped her in her own life.

The meeting closed with a vote of thanks proposed by Dr. Charles De Wolf, who called her presentation fascinating and informative. Dr. Rowley was a remarkable scholar who had managed, through her "Yosano Akiko and The Tale of Genji", to interest him in that writer. This had been a sensitive and balanced handling of a difficult and much misunderstood subject.