The Appropriated Geisha: Using Their Role to Discuss Japanese History, Cultural Appropriation, and Orientalism

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2015


For centuries, geishas had been misunderstood and had been appropriated to symbolize any number of equally misunderstood tropes and concepts. By utilizing the fact that students in the introductory-level survey course Geisha in History, Fiction, and Fantasy remained intrigued both by Japan itself and by geisha since the publication of the 1997 bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha (and its controversial 2005 film adaptation), as well as by questions of appropriation, the geisha themselves could provide a lens through which to analyze questions of appropriate cultural interaction from the Meiji Era (1868–1912) to the present. By looking at how geisha were utilized to portray Japanese artistry, grace, and not least of all femininity, as well as how they often served as a symbol for Japan as a nation and culture—particularly abroad—students could explore whether our own contemporary appropriation, and scrutiny of it, was novel or unique.