Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Butterflies of the Night: Mama-sans, Geisha, Strippers, and the Japanese Men They Serve

Posted by nliakos on July 4, 2008

by Lisa Louis (New York and Tokyo: Tengu Books, 1992)

I read this one right after reading T. R. Reid’s Confucius Lives Next Door.  It was like night and day.  Reid showcases the positive–the Asian social miracle as exemplified by Japanese culture.  Louis describes a dark side of Japanese culture: the mizu shobai, or “water trade”–bars, clubs, teahouses and houses of prostitution.  Louis herself worked for a while as a hostess at several nightclubs in Kyoto and Tokyo, and when she stopped hostessing, she began researching and interviewing both the women who work in the clubs and the men who frequent them.  The result is this book, which is brutally frank about some of the more sordid aspects of the mizu shobai, while also showing that  hostesses are not prostitutes (besides professionals, they may be moonlighting college students, or in the case of Louis, moonlighting English teachers!).  (Geisha, the highest level of female entertainer, are accomplished artists–usually singers, musicians, or dancers.  The chapter on geisha reminded me of Arthur Golden’s controversial novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, which was denounced by Golden’s source as lies, but which in fact, if I remember correctly, included much of what Louis tells about the world of the geisha.)

Parts of the book made me feel sick, but on the whole, I found it very interesting.  It does not flinch from exposing a side of Japanese culture that most Westerners would find extremely alien.  It certainly made an interesting contrast with Confucius Lives Next Door!

A Western reader would do well to remember that prostitution, crime, debasement and abuse of women, and sexism are found all over the world.  The Japanese form of these is strange to us, and presumably Western forms of them are strange to the Japanese.

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