Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West


Read 13/12/2015-17/12/2015

Rating: 4 stars

Read for The Reader’s Room Winter Scavenger Hunt Challenge

Lesley Downer has brought Sada Kawakami to life through the pages of this book. This is a readable, flowing account of her life. Known as Yakko during her geisha career and Sadayakko during her acting career, Sada had been largely forgotten after her death. When she was remembered, it was in disparaging terms.

But Sadayakko was a ground breaking woman. She was the first Japanese woman to work as an actress. She established a training academy for other women who wanted to act. With her husband Otojiro she changed the nature of drama in Japan and introduced aspects of Japanese culture to the West. She performed across America, in Paris, Vienna, Berlin and London. She inspired Puccini when he was adapting the play Madame Butterfly for his opera. Sadayakko knew Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry, and worked with Isadora Duncan. But in Japan, to be an actress was seen as something shameful, and at the end of the Meiji era to step out from behind your husband was anathema. Downer’s research into contemporary accounts of Sadayakko’s career and her conversations with Sadayakko’s family provides the basis for an engaging and entertaining biography. Sadayakko knew key figures in Japanese society following the Meiji Restoration, and their inclusion in this biography provides a more human angle to Japanese political history. As a young geisha, her first danna was Prime Minister and later Prince Ito. Her first love Momosuke married into the Fukuzawa family and had become an important businessman by the time Sadayakko re-encountered him.

Formal sociopolitical histories relate dry facts about such key political characters as Prime Minister Ito, Foreign Minister Inoue, and Keio University founder Fukuzawa, telling us of their importance, but revealing little of their personalities. Sadayakko’s relationship with Ito, and her first love Momosuke’s adoption into the Fukuzawa family, give Downer the opportunity to shed light on those public personalities. I found it really interesting, building on what I’d read in Marius Jansen‘s comprehensive history of modern Japan.

I also found Downer’s knowledge and understanding of geisha culture revealing. There are certain myths that westerners hold dear about geisha, and Downer brings an edge of reality to those myths.

Sadayakko certainly had a rich and varied life. I was immersed in this biography, and didn’t really want it to end. The only reason it doesn’t get 5 stars is because Downer describes many photographs throughout the book, but not one is reproduced other than the cover photograph. I don’t know whether that’s only true of the Kindle version, but I wish the photos had been included.

6 thoughts on “Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West

  1. Having studied Japanese history at uni, there is very little space given to women’s history (unless things have dramatically changed). As you’ve pointed out, it’s very much about emperors, Prime Ministers and samurai (with a little Murasaki Shikibu) so I can imagine that this would give some real insight to another aspect of Japan’s history. Particularly if it does so while being cognisant of the western myths and misunderstandings about geisha.


    1. I think you would enjoy it. Lesley Downer met with Sadayakko’s family, so there’s a lovely sense of warmth running through the book. The only other Japanese history books I’ve read are Marius Jansen’s huge tome and a sociology book about the development of Japanese society by Chie Nakane. This biography made the history more human.

      Liked by 1 person

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