Author and Journalist

Concubines, courtesans and geishas

Sunday, 9 November, 2008· Last Updated on: Sunday, 9 November, 2008

in Blog

A reviewer of The Last Concubine in the highly respected Literary Review wrote: ‘The author, who lived in Japan for many years, has published non-fiction accounts of the lives of the geishas, and capitalises on recent Western interest in their esoteric, vanished world with her detailed depiction of Sachi’s life in the rarefied harem.’ I’m very grateful for the review – but I have to point out that my book has nothing to do with geishas. A Spanish journalist also wrote to me: ‘Your book “Madame Sadayakko” was a success. Now you return to the topic of the geishas. Why are you so fascinated about this world?’ and ‘How was the life of a geisha in the Palace of the Women?’

Geishas and concubines have absolutely nothing in common other than being Japanese women.

The Last Concubine is about the concubines of the shogun, who were usually aristocratic ladies chosen to be the shogun’s ‘second wife’ or ‘third wife’ and hopefully to bear a son for him to be the future shogun. To be a concubine was a highly coveted honour and concubines were formally recognised in a ceremony much like a marriage.

Geisha and courtesans on the other hand were (and are) part of the demi monde. Geisha are entertainers – the word means artistes – who performed dances and songs to private gatherings usually of men. In old Japan they were at the very bottom of the social system (like actresses in the Victorian west – think ‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington.’) Traditionally they were not supposed to sell sex. That was the courtesans’ job and they were prohibited from stealing the courtesans’ clients. If they married they had to stop being geishas – geishas and wives were like opposite sides of the coin.

In other words, geishas, concubines and courtesans were entirely different, not just a catch all term for Japanese women, and not to be confused.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Lénia November 10, 2008 at 1:41 pm

Hello, Lesley.

First of all, thank you so much for everything you’ve written on the Ancient Japan subject.
I’m a 29-year-old Portuguese woman who is deeply in love with this theme, though I don’t know how this passion begun. I’ve been reading about Geisha, Samurai, Shogun, and so on for such long time now… And I find it so captivating that I can’t get enough of this. I’ve never been to Japan, but this is my “dream-trip”, to accomplish some day. This passion has taken me to unbelievable experiences: I started practicing Karate a few years ago and I still see it as a way of living the old Japan instead of being a mere sport.

Enough about me, now. I discovered your website and, therefore, your blog and was happy to see that it was possible to contact you and leave you a message.
So, congratulations on everything you’ve done for us, people who love Japan and are thrilled to read and learn more and more about this astonishing culture. You’re a blessing to us. Thank you so much.

Best Regards,

Lénia

Lesley November 10, 2008 at 3:38 pm

Dear Lenia,
Thank you very much for your message. I’m glad you enjoy my blog and also glad you enjoy karate. Japanese culture is indeed entirely fascinating and I think by doing karate you’re getting a real feel for it – that focus, that one-pointedness is a wonderful thing to develop in one’s life. Just out of interest, in The Last Concubine I write about the halberd, the women’s weapon. The Japanese word for halberd is naginata and if you google it you may find a local sports centre where you can try it. I found naginata classes in the East End of London!
I do hope you manage to go to Japan in the end. You’d be amazed how cheap it is once you’ve made the initial outlay for the plane ticket.
Good luck and best wishes,
Lesley

Abbey January 24, 2009 at 10:54 am

Dear Lesley,
I would like to thankyou for producing your works in an entertaining writing style. Being a young Australian student, your works revitalise my passion for one of our close neighbours each time i read them.
Would you ever consider comming to Australia to give a talk?

Thanks again,
Abbey

Anna December 7, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Dear Lesley,

Just a message to thank you for your wonderful books, which I absolutly adored and read over and over. I am a college student at the momment and I did my AS English coursework on the geisha Okichi who I created a diary for from the time while she allegedly became Harrison’s mistress to her death years later. I found “Geisha: The Secret of a Vanishing World” really helpful to help me achieve this and it helped me get an A grade combined with the other half of my coursework which is fantastic.

I love Japanese culture and history and your books gave me a great insight into this especially your novel, The Last concubine as it gave me access into other aspects of the history, particuarily of women’s lives which I had not originally thought about. I really hope to visit Japan one days and gain more knowledge on the subject of geisha, cortesans and concubines as the subject is fasinating yet undoubtedly tragic.

Thank you for your books and I hope you keep producting.
Thanks very much 🙂

Anna Young

Hikari [Katarina] November 24, 2010 at 11:11 pm

Dear Lesley,

Firstly let me congratulate you on your amazing, captivating writing skills. I’ll happily admit I was hooked from those first few words!

For me, who’s is half Japanese half Russian-American, I was really glad to read all about my mother’s homeland’s history. I’ve not been to japan yet, but i wish to do so, as i long to visit my grandmother who lives there. It was enlightening to read about the world in which my great-great grandparents would have lived in.

It was originally my Grandmother, who was visiting for my 18th birthday, who introduced me to your stories. She found them enjoyable and full of creative passion, something I craved for in novels.

I would like to thank you deeply for writing these novels, as i feel like they bring me closer to the country my mother was born in.

Kind regards
Hikari Katarina Nickolavich

Hikari [Katarina] November 24, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Dear Lesley,

Firstly let me congratulate you on your amazing, captivating writing skills. I’ll happily admit I was hooked from those first few words!

For me, who’s is half Japanese half Russian-American, I was really glad to read all about my mother’s homeland’s history. I’ve not been to japan yet, but i wish to do so, as i long to visit my grandmother who lives there. It was enlightening to read about the world in which my great-great grandparents would have lived in.

It was originally my Grandmother, who was visiting for my 18th birthday, who introduced me to your stories. She found them enjoyable and full of creative passion, something I craved for in novels.

And I’m pleased to see that your writing clearly differentiates the geisha from the concubine, and the concubines from the courtesans. There is constantly confusion over what exactly they are and I’m glad that the novels are staying true to what the roles of the women in these positions

I would like to thank you deeply for writing these novels, as i feel like they bring me closer to the country my mother was born in.

Kind regards
Hikari Katarina Nickolavich

Julija February 16, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Dear Lesley,

Might I start off by saying I am a huge fan of your work. I have never been so immersed in a novel as I have in The Last Concubine. In fact, your exquisite portrayals of the Edo Period inspired me to recreate that era for my International Baccalaureate Theatre arts project. I have decided to create a play centered on a concubine’s crumbling sense of identity in the oppressive walls of the women’s palace.
I just wanted you to know that you are responsible for my obsession with Japanese culture! I have you to thank for that, and am very grateful that I stumbled upon your book. I would like to thank you for writing these novels, and in future I’m hoping to publish one of my own stories about Japan’s history.
Best wishes,
Julija

Nettie January 16, 2013 at 5:44 pm

It was fun to read the other e-mails. I don’t think anyone mentioned the past life connection. I too had a passion for the Japanese culture, especially the Geisha and concubine. I came to find out that I had been both in other lifetimes and this connection carried through to some men that I knew in this lifetime, even to a similar experience or energy as it were. I felt myself immersed in the energy of these women and the desire to please a man.
I did visit Japan with my first husband in the early 70s and felt I was home at last. So it seems like my experience as a Geisha must have been mostly enjoyable, I did bring into this life also the concubine energy and it attracted men that didn’t want commitment, that treated me like their concubine. I am happy to say because of my spiritual path, Eckankar, I have been able to bring an end to this cycle, and more fulfilling relationships followed. Nettie

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