Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book Finds: Geishas of Japan

I'll admit that, like many people, I've always been fascinated by the world of the geisha. Striking costumes, traditional song and dance and a dash of that mysterious allure make reading about geishas nearly irresistible. The following are some interesting books about geishas which I think will satisfy any lover of history or traditional Japanese arts.

The following descriptions are all from Amazon.com

Geisha: 25th Anniversary Edition by Liza Dalby [December 10th, 2008]

In this classic best seller, Liza Dalby, the first non-Japanese ever to have trained as a geisha, offers an insider's look at the exclusive world of female companions to the Japanese male elite. A new preface examines how geisha have been profoundly affected by the changes of the past quarter century yet--especially in Kyoto--have managed to take advantage of modern developments to maintain their social position with flair.

Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda [May 25, 2005]

Sayo Masuda has written the first full-length autobiography of a former hot-springs-resort geisha. Masuda was sent to work as a nursemaid at the age of six and then was sold to a geisha house at the age of twelve. In keeping with tradition, she first worked as a servant while training in the arts of dance, song, shamisen, and drum. In 1940, aged sixteen, she made her debut as a geisha. ... Masuda also tells of her life after leaving the geisha house, painting a vivid panorama of the grinding poverty of the rural poor in wartime Japan. As she eked out an existence on the margins of Japanese society, earning money in odd jobs and hard labor -- even falling in with Korean gangsters -- Masuda experienced first hand the anguish and the fortitude of prostitutes, gangster mistresses, black-market traders, and abandoned mothers struggling to survive in postwar Japan.

A Geisha's Journey: My Life As a Kyoto Apprentice by Komomo [May 1, 2008]

This is the story of a contemporary Japanese teenager who, in a search for an identity, became fascinated with the world of geisha, and discovered in herself the will and the commitment to embark on the many years of apprenticeship necessary to become one. It is also the story of a young Japanese photographer who grew up overseas, and who also was captivated by the traditional lives of these women who choose to dedicate themselves to their art. He began following and documenting the life of teenager Komomo as she studied and grew into her role. Naoyuki Oginos photographs follow Komomos entire journey, from her first tentative visits after finding the geisha house on the internet through her commitment to the hard schedule of an apprentice, learning arts that go back centuries, all the way to the ceremony where she officially became a geiko, as Kyotos geisha are known and beyond.

Geisha by Lesley Downer [June 14, 2011]

Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, we have been intrigued by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of fictional creations from Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha". The reality of the geisha's existence has rarely been described. Contrary to popular opinion, geisha are not prostitutes but literally "arts people". Their accomplishments might include singing, dancing or playing a musical instrument but, above all, they are masters of the art of conversation, soothing worries of highly paid businessmen who can afford their attentions. The real secret history of the geisha is explored here.

The Nightless City: Geisha and Courtesan Life in Old Tokyo by J.E. de Becker [September 19, 2007]

Written over a century ago, this pioneer study was the first to venture behind the teahouse doors of the Yoshiwara quarter, Tokyo's red-light district. It remains unsurpassed as the definitive survey of geisha and courtesan life, with meticulous descriptions of traditional training, dress, social hierarchy, and erotic practices. 49 black-and-white illustrations; 2 maps.

Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile by the Peabody Essex Museum [September 2004]

Renowned throughout the world as purveyors of beauty, mystery, and allure, geisha have come to represent the epitome of Japanese elegance and chic. The rich 250-year history of these performance artists is vividly presented in this volume, taking the reader behind the mask-like makeup and into the studios where they train and rehearse and into the teahouses where they entertain. Geisha have altered definitions of feminine beauty and identity and are the prevailing icons of Japanese womanhood. Their influence on Japan's decorative arts is documented by their beautiful kimono and hair ornaments and by the musical instruments and fans they use in their performances. Illustrated with woodblock prints and paintings as well as historical and contemporary photographs, this groundbreaking study also explores the dynamic tension between image and reality in the art of these exquisite entertainers. Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile is a comprehensive presentation of geisha culture from its origins nearly three centuries ago to contemporary Japan

Friday, April 13, 2012

Review: At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker


[A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher upon my request.]

David Koker was only 23 years old when he died on route to Dachau in early 1945---just one of almost 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. But his legacy, published in English for the first time as At The Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944, has lived on. The diary, published by Northwestern University Press, is nothing less than a remarkable and essential read. David Koker was interned, along with his mother, father and younger brother, in the Vught camp in February 1943. He began his diary soon after, and maintained it until February of the next year, when the diary was given to a civilian employee working at Vught, who smuggled it out to a friend of Koker. The diary is not only a well-detailed account of life in the Vught camp, but a testament to Koker's internal struggles as he (and those around him) attempted to come to terms with the growing horror of their situation. Koker was a budding poet and intellectual, and some of the verses he drafted while interned in Vught are included in his diary. Also quoted in the book are several surviving letters and notes that Koker wrote and received while in the camp--letters and notes were often hidden in parcels, such as in loaves of bread.

In his introduction to At The Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, Robert Jan van Pelt explains why the diary's existence is unique:  "... the number of postwar memoirs written by Holocaust survivors is enormous, and the number of diaries and notebooks written during the Holocaust [by people who were] at home, or in a ghetto, or in hiding is substantial, the number of testimonies that were written in the inner circles of hell, in that German concentration camp, and that survived the war is small." The ability to write a diary under such circumstances would have been difficult enough, both emotionally and logistically, but David Koker managed not only to write—but to write a substantial and and highly observational diary, full of factual observations about life in the camp and an increasingly psychological probe into the “abyss” that surrounded them. Koker was able to obtain a relatively privileged position in the camp, which was one of the reasons why he was able to maintain his diary and maintain a sense of ‘detachment’ from camp life. 

At first glance, David Koker's diary is remarkably subdued and even subtle. Many of his diary entries describe unreal circumstances with an almost nonchalant attitude. One reason for this apparent “normalcy” in his diary could be that Koker felt assimilated and yet detached from camp life early on.  In March of 1943, less than a month after having been imprisoned at the camp, he wrote to his girlfriend in hiding: "I immediately accept everything as normal. That's why I don't experience things sufficiently. ... You must believe me: from the second day on everything was quite normal: the German detachments, being together with so many people, the strange food, taking care of the most essential daily matters, etc. I didn't notice the passage from one kind of life to the other ... even the strangest and most awful things become normal and agreeable." Koker, at least, was self-aware of how imprisonment had changed him: "You become selfish, even towards your own family ... Sometimes I treat the children with bitterness, yet the friendliest treatment hides a bit of sadism and lust for power. ... A kind of feeling of being in charge."

In several passages throughout his diary, Koker mentions Poland and in particular, Auschwitz—the inevitable destination that we, in hindsight, know meant certain death. However, many of the people in Vught (and other camps) were not aware of the ultimate fate of people sent to Poland—or “to the East”—until much later. In September of 1943, Koker wrote: “… good reports are coming in from Poland. It’s only too bad that people really are working in the coal mines. But the work isn’t all that heavy, many writer.” A footnote goes on to explain that a special project was created in which Jewish inmates were, prior to being murdered, forced to write postcards to relatives, which were then sent out at intervals to give the impression not only of life but of relatively good conditions in the camps. In November, Koker wrote again: “ … the administrator has spoken about Auschwitz, where the [Escotex branch] will go in its entirety. Stories … have a more or less sunny aspect. Jewish camp leadership. A lot of agriculture, the camp is largely self-supporting. … If you ask me, it sounds livable.” 

But the reality of “the East” came crashing down only a few weeks later, November 27th, on Koker’s birthday: “The morning of my birthday: Spitz reads an excerpt from a letter from Poland. Three people … are living with Moves [expression meaning “they are dead.”]. And Moves’s business is working overtime. …  Seldom have I seen anything set out so clearly in writing … Our optimistic messages from Poland are not incorrect. They have simply been incomplete. A probably relatively small group is working and doing reasonably well. And the rest: wiped out. The world has changed.”   

Koker’s diary is, at times, a difficult read. The diary is essentially a raw, first draft—unlike many of the writers who penned diaries in hiding or wrote postwar memoirs, Koker did not have the chance to edit his diary for his intended reader (his girlfriend) or a broader audience. However, numerous citations and footnotes provide ample information about almost all of the people and events mentioned in the diary. But perhaps the raw nature of Koker’s diary is part of what makes it such an important read, in addition to the irreplaceable information about daily life in the Vught camp. We are reading, at its heart, the inner thoughts of a human being—imperfect, as we all are—whose life was cut short by events he could not control. 

I highly recommended At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary, 1943-1944 by David Koker, which was edited by Robert Jan van Plet and translated from Dutch by Michiel Horn and John Irons. It is one of the most important contemporary accounts of a concentration camp currently published, and one of the most insightful and raw accounts of a human being put into an impossible situation that I've personally read.