Stereotypes die hard, and none more so than outsiders’ stereotypes of Japan. Time and again, they are not so much reinvented as recycled, using potent but often semi-mythical symbols from a potpourri of favorite bygone eras. In the end, they tell us more about the foreigners who have dredged them up than about anything genuinely Japanese.

As with the samurai, in whose image of stoic fearlessness many Western men see a kind of quiet, macho ideal, the geisha is stood on a pedestal as the acme of an artful and exquisite femininity. She is, in this view, the embodiment of genteel, refined expression.

This notion of the geisha has been rehashed in several works of fiction and non-fiction in recent years, the most successful being Arthur Golden’s mega-bestseller, “Memoirs of a Geisha.” The film version of the novel, directed by Rob Marshall, opened on Dec. 10 in Japan (under the title “Sayuri”) and some two weeks later in the United States. This coming week will see its release in Britain.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” has been written up on these pages in an excellently argued and incisive film review by Kaori Shoji (“Welcome to Kyoto, California,” Dec. 15, 2005). But this film as a phenomenon of misunderstanding and misinformation bears further examination.

As its Web site tells us, the movie is “set in a mysterious and exotic world” of geisha houses before, during and immediately after World War II. It is a fairytale take on what was at best a demeaning and soul-destroying institution. Yet among the many popular misrepresentations of Japanese reality since the country came out of its international isolation 150 years ago — from “Madame Butterfly” to “The Last Samurai” — this is one of the most blatantly pernicious.

A chance encounter

In short, its storyline focuses on a determined and sympathetic little girl named Chiyo (later Sayuri) who is sold by her destitute parents into the okiyacho (red-light district). As a servant-girl she is abused by the madam, as well as by the cruel geisha in the house. A chance encounter on a bridge with a kindly entrepreneur, who gives Chiyo his handkerchief, leads her on a lifelong pursuit to gain the status necessary to approach this generous gentleman once again.

Two key themes of prewar Japanese life are whitewashed in “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

First, the entire system of recruiting young girls for work in the okiyacho was one of institutionalized slavery. While it is true, as the film points out on a number of occasions, that the elite among the geisha were not prostitutes (though many, as the favorites of wealthy patrons, were kept women), the institution lent an aura of cultural legitimacy to the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of girls and women who were forced into the sex trade in the major cities and virtually every provincial town in arch-sexist traditional Japan.

Sayuri’s enemies are other women, who show only a sadistic vindictiveness toward her. Even her patroness, Mameha, supports her because a wealthy man has paid her to do so. The two male protagonists are positive characters, depicted as tender, if sometimes gruff or aloof, gentlemen.

Imagine a story set in United States in the pre-Civil War South in which the slaves are portrayed as locked in internecine in-fighting as one of them, the most innocent, longs to be rescued by a Prince Charming in the guise of a noble white plantation owner. Would there be anything mysterious and exotic about the everyday life of the slaves? This is analogous to what “Memoirs of a Geisha,” transposed to 20th-century Japan, is doing.

The second issue arises from a gross omission. The generous entrepreneur, known as The Chairman, is beholden to his comrade-in-arms, Nobu. The latter’s face has been disfigured in battle. Nobu apparently saved The Chairman’s life when they were fighting for the Imperial cause in Manchuria. In fact “Memoirs of a Geisha” skirts the issue of war responsibility entirely, save for a few voice-over broadcasts of Hitler’s progress through a distant Europe.

A vicious military occupation

However, the Japanese military establishment was the major customer of the okiyacho around Japan, and tens of thousands of women were forced to be so-called comfort women by and for the Japanese military, having to endure mass rape in Japan and its far-flung colonies for the glory of the empire.

Nowhere in the film is there mention of the fact that the two admirable gentlemen were getting rich thanks to a vicious military occupation of continental Asia.

After the war, most of the geisha, of every rank, were forced by the Japanese police into the service of Allied Occupation soldiers. The only thing that had changed was the color of the uniform flung hastily onto the tatami.

The reasons for Westerners choosing mystery over reality have varied since Japan’s abandonment of the policy of national isolation.

In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the West, for the most part, wanted to keep Japan quaint, picturesque — and on its knees. Virtually all Westerners allied themselves with the most reactionary social institutions and their propagators, seeing that as a sure way to arrest Japan’s entry into the West’s exclusive club of the Great Powers.

But what obliges film producers like Steven Spielberg to spin a sick little tale like “Memoirs of a Geisha” now that Japan is in many respects a full-fledged member of the Western club? Spielberg, who in his movies generally deals with bizarre fantasies and heroic historical figures, seems to have inadvertently mixed the two together in this film.

Whatever the filmmakers’ motive in recycling an antiquated fabrication, there was nothing mysterious or exotic about the world of the okiyacho to those who were chained to its walls. By producing this visual and moral euphemism, its creators have not only prettified and distorted what was a ruthless institution akin to the modern trafficking of women; they have also raised yet another opaque screen in front of what Japan once was — and what it is today.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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