The most recommended books about geisha

Who picked these books? Meet our 15 experts.

15 authors created a book list connected to geisha, and here are their favorite geisha books.
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Book cover of Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West

Thomas Lockley Author Of African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan

From my list on Japan’s global history.

Who am I?

I first came to Japan knowing nothing about the place I was going to live. With hindsight, that was perhaps foolish, but it started my adventure in Japanese history. At first, I stumbled through blindly, reading the odd book and watching dramas and movies for fun. But then I discovered Yasuke, an African who became samurai in 1581. He focused me, and I started reading to discover his world. History means nothing without knowing what came before and after, so I read more, and more, until suddenly, I was publishing books and articles, and appearing on Japanese TV. It has gone well beyond the African Samurai now, but I am eternally grateful to him for his guidance.

Thomas' book list on Japan’s global history

Thomas Lockley Why did Thomas love this book?

As with number 4, I recommend anything by Leslie Downer, but can only choose one, so chose this. It gave me a view of Japanese history that I had never encountered before and told the story of Japan’s first truly global superstar, Kawakami Sadayakko. It is criminal that this lady is not better known, as she was a key player in the formation of the modern Japanese entertainment industry and the popularization of Japanese culture around the globe. Very well written and researched. An excellent read.

By Lesley Downer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Madame Sadayakko as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The author of Women of the Pleasure Quarters shares the story of the famous geisha whose life inspired Puccini's Madame Butterfly, from her training and participation in secret geisha traditions to her defection from her lucrative career to marry the penniless actor and political maverick Otojiro Kawakami and her rise to international celebrity. Reprint.


Book cover of Miss Jill: A Novel

Isham Cook Author Of The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai

From my list on written by foreigners in China.

Who am I?

Having lived in China for almost three decades, I am naturally interested in the expat writing scene. I am a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction on China, past and present. One constant in this country is change, and that requires keeping up with the latest publications by writers who have lived here and know it well. As an author of three novels, one short story collection, and three essay collections on China myself, I believe I have something of my own to contribute of documentary value, although I tend to hew to gritty, offbeat themes to capture a contemporary China unknown to the West.

Isham's book list on written by foreigners in China

Isham Cook Why did Isham love this book?

Emily Hahn, prolific author and New Yorker correspondent whose sojourns in Shanghai (1935-39), Chungking (1939-40), and Hong Kong (1941-43) coincided with the Japanese invasions of these cities, fictionalizes the life of Canadian Lorraine Murray, turned high-class prostitute in Shanghai after living as a foreign geisha in Japan. Hahn was fascinated by sex workers and hung out with them (Hahn and Murray were roommates), but the novel later morphs into the autobiographical as the beautiful Hahn ingratiates herself with Japanese military officials until she’s forced into a Hong Kong internment camp for several years. Hahn is more reporter than novelist, but her flair for detail and eyewitness authenticity brings Shanghai to life in a way the historical novelist cannot. Especially hilarious is Jill’s hotel scene with the British john who thought he was getting a freebie.

By Emily Hahn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Miss Jill as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A novel about an enterprising Shanghai streetwalker from the “American literary treasure” and author of the memoir China to Me (The New Yorker).

 
Meet Miss Jill, a young woman pursuing the oldest profession in prewar Shanghai. Fifteen, blonde, and full of personality, Jill begins her career as a Japanese banker’s mistress. Soon after, she becomes a European prostitute in the house of Annette, and believes that any day now she’ll be married to a nobleman. But none of her adventures prepare Miss Jill for the war and her subsequent internment.
 
An early feminist and an American journalist who traveled to…


Book cover of The Bone Witch

Caitlin Seal Author Of Twice Dead

From my list on spooky YA zombies, ghosts, and demons.

Who am I?

I am a writer and all-around nerd living in California. When I was a kid, I loved scaring myself silly with ghost stories. My school’s tiny library had a stock of Goosebumps books that I devoured like candy. Ever since, I’ve loved stories about the things we are afraid of—especially the ones that make us question where that fear comes from. The books on my list blend my love of horror and fantasy. They are stories to make you shiver, and stories to make you think. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

Caitlin's book list on spooky YA zombies, ghosts, and demons

Caitlin Seal Why did Caitlin love this book?

Rin Chupeco is one of my all-time favorite authors. Her writing is lyrical without being overdone, and her worldbuilding is always top-notch. The world of The Bone Witch is soaked in magic both beautiful and terrible. Tea doesn’t mean to raise her brother from the dead, but once she does there is no going back. She is a bone witch, powerful and terrible, but also still very much a girl trying to remain herself as the world forces its expectations upon her. This book is great if you want something with spooky vibes that isn’t actively trying to scare you.

By Rin Chupeco,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Bone Witch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

"A high-fantasy Memoirs of a Geisha, Chupeco's latest excels in originality" -Kirkus Reviews
A story of scorned witches, sinister curses, and resurrection, The Bone Witch is the start of a dark fantasy trilogy, perfect for fans of Serpent & Dove and The Cruel Prince.
Tea can raise the dead, but resurrection comes at a price...
When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother, Fox, from the dead, she learns she is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy means that she's a bone witch, a title that makes her feared and ostracized by her community. But Tea…


Book cover of Memoirs of a Geisha

Michael Grothaus Author Of Beautiful Shining People

From my list on reads set in Japan.

Who am I?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan, and my new novel, Beautiful Shining People, is a direct result of two profound experiences I had there. The first was when I was hiking through the hills of Kyoto late one night and turned around to see a glowing creature–some have said they think I saw a kami. The second experience happened when I was in Hiroshima at the Peace Park. I immediately started crying, seeing all the schoolchildren learning about the horrible atrocity committed against their ancestors. I have no idea why it affected me so much, but it was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

Michael's book list on reads set in Japan

Michael Grothaus Why did Michael love this book?

Memoirs of a Geisha is the only book I’ve actually dreamed about while reading – that’s how much it gripped me.

Not only are the characters richly drawn, the cultural details and world of pre-war Japan are so immersive you’ll feel like you are walking the streets of the Kyoto of almost a century ago. This book also fascinates me because it is the only one Arthur Golden ever wrote.

I don’t know why he never wrote again, but how could he top it? It’s the perfect novel.

By Arthur Golden,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Memoirs of a Geisha as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'An epic tale and a brutal evocation of a disappearing world' The Times

A young peasant girl is sold as servant and apprentice to a renowned geisha house. Many years later she tells her story from a hotel in New York, opening a window into an extraordinary half-hidden world of eroticism and enchantment, exploitation and degradation and summoning up a quarter of a century of Japan's dramatic history.

'Intimate and brutal, written in cool, lucid prose it is a novel whose psychological empathy and historical truths are outstanding' Mail on Sunday


Book cover of Snow Country

Michael Grothaus Author Of Beautiful Shining People

From my list on reads set in Japan.

Who am I?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan, and my new novel, Beautiful Shining People, is a direct result of two profound experiences I had there. The first was when I was hiking through the hills of Kyoto late one night and turned around to see a glowing creature–some have said they think I saw a kami. The second experience happened when I was in Hiroshima at the Peace Park. I immediately started crying, seeing all the schoolchildren learning about the horrible atrocity committed against their ancestors. I have no idea why it affected me so much, but it was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

Michael's book list on reads set in Japan

Michael Grothaus Why did Michael love this book?

Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese author to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature – and Snow Country is a perfect example of why he did.

It’s the simple tale of a Tokyo businessman who meets a geisha when he takes a trip to a rural onsen (hot springs) town. It’s a melancholy tale, and you feel for the geisha and her harrowing circumstance much more than the Tokyoite.

It’s also a slim book, but one with beautiful descriptions of the snow. You can read it in one sitting, but it will stick with you long after.

By Yasunari Kawabata, Edward G. Seidensticker (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Snow Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shimamura is tired of the bustling city. He takes the train through the snow to the mountains of the west coast of Japan, to meet with a geisha he believes he loves. Beautiful and innocent, Komako is tightly bound by the rules of a rural geisha, and lives a life of servitude and seclusion that is alien to Shimamura, and their love offers no freedom to either of them. Snow Country is both delicate and subtle, reflecting in Kawabata's exact, lyrical writing the unspoken love and the understated passion of the young Japanese couple.


Book cover of Geisha of Gion: The True Story of Japan's Foremost Geisha (Memoir of Mineko Iwasaki)

John Dougill Author Of Kyoto: A Cultural History

From my list on understanding Kyoto.

Who am I?

Kyoto is one of the world’s great cities. I first came here in 1994, its 1200th anniversary, and was entranced by its many treasures. In the city’s river basin were fostered the traditional arts and crafts of Japan. This is the city of Zen, Noh, the tea ceremony, geisha, moss and rock gardens, not to mention the aristocratic aesthetes of the Heian Era. Here in the ancient capital are imperial estates and no fewer than 17 World Heritage sites, including the Golden Pavilion and the divine Byodo-in. Faced with this wealth of wonders, I tried to weave them into a coherent story – the story of a most remarkable city.

John's book list on understanding Kyoto

John Dougill Why did John love this book?

For many tourists, Kyoto is synonymous with geisha and maiko (geisha in training). With their gorgeous clothing and white faces, they epitomise exoticism. However, those of us who live here see them with greater respect, for we know how hard the training is and how they embody the rich tradition of Kyoto arts and crafts. Memoirs of a Geisha was a worldwide hit, but the fiction gave an outdated picture. Personally, I find the Geisha of Gion to be more revealing and written by a true insider. 

By Mineko Iwasaki,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Geisha of Gion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The extraordinary, bestselling memoir from Japan's foremost geisha.
'A glimpse into the exotic, mysterious, tinged-with-eroticism world of the almost mythical geisha' Val Hennessy, Daily Mail
'[An] eloquent and innovative memoir' The Times

'I can identify the exact moment when things began to change. It was a cold winter afternoon. I had just turned three.'

Emerging shyly from her hiding place, Mineko encounters Madam Oima, the formidable proprietress of a prolific geisha house in Gion. Madam Oima is mesmerised by the child's black hair and black eyes: she has found her successor. And so Mineko is gently, but firmly, prised away…


Book cover of Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha

Sheridan Prasso Author Of The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient

From my list on Asian women.

Who am I?

I have specialized in writing about Asia since first moving to Hong Kong as a journalist in 1989, and spent the past three decades trying to improve understandings between East and West. My Asian women friends repeatedly asked me why Western men expected them to pour their drinks and serve them food. I answered “because that’s what they saw in the movies.” The James Bond films perpetuating these images of servile Asian women scrubbing white mens’ backs in the bathtub were pervasive when they were growing up. I decided to uncover and explain where this history of imagery and the stereotypes they result in come from – and, as someone with an anthropological background, also explain cultural practices that foster misunderstandings. 

Sheridan's book list on Asian women

Sheridan Prasso Why did Sheridan love this book?

By reading this actual account by a woman who became a geisha herself, you will come to understand how far from reality the fictional book Memoirs of a Geisha, written by a man, really was. This is the best-ever portrait of this world and the women – far from the pining, love-besotted servants – who inhabit it.

By Lesley Downer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women of the Pleasure Quarters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, they have been intrigued by Japanese womanhood and, above all, by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of extraordinary fictional creations, from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. But as denizens of a world defined by silence and mystery, real geisha are notoriously difficult to meet and even to find. As a result, their history has long been cloaked in secrecy.

Lesley Downer, an award-winning writer, Japanese scholar, and consummate storyteller, gained more access to this world than almost any other Westerner, and spent several months living in it.…


Book cover of The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories

Marian Frances Wolbers Author Of Rider

From my list on a sweet journey into Japan.

Who am I?

I’ve been enjoying Japanese stories from the moment I first found them, a direct result of living, studying, and working in Japan for five years, from Imari City (in Kyushu Island) to Tokyo (on Honshu). The pacing of Japanese novels—starting out slowly and deliberately, then speeding up like a tsunami out of nowhere—totally appeals to me, and feels infinitely more connected to exploring the subtleties, complexity, and beauty of relationships. This is especially true when compared to Western novels, which seem overly obsessed with splashing grand, dramatic action and injury on every other page. I just love revisiting Japan through reading.

Marian's book list on a sweet journey into Japan

Marian Frances Wolbers Why did Marian love this book?

Looking for a well-curated, wide variety of Japanese short stories written by nearly all the famous modernist novelists revered in Japan? This collection contains everything from Kawabata’s "The Izu Dancer" to Satomi Ton’s marvelously deep story called "Blowfish", wherein the hero—a famously talented Kabuki actor succumbs to the kind of brain-fogging, body-busting death that only blowfish poison can deliver. The author manages to get inside the head of his character, uncovering what transitioning into death feels like, with humor sprinkled here and there, and an emotional recollection/revelation about his own actor-father dying in a theater fire. 

By Theodore W. Goossen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This collection of short stories, including many new translations, is the first to span the whole of Japan's modern era from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day. Beginning with the first writings to assimilate and rework Western literary traditions, through the flourishing of the short story genre in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Taisho era, to the new breed of writers produced under the constraints of literary censorship, and the current writings reflecting the pitfalls and paradoxes of modern life, this anthology offers a stimulating survey of the development of the Japanese short story. Various indigenous…


Book cover of The Tale of Murasaki

Pamela S. Turner Author Of Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune

From my list on pre-modern Japan.

Who am I?

I write books for young readers about history, science, and nature. I lived in Japan for six years and became fascinated with Japanese history—particularly the late 12th-century civil war recounted in the medieval classic The Tale of the Heike. I especially loved stories about Minamoto Yoshitsune, the warrior who won the war but was destroyed by his elder brother Yoritomo, who became the first Shogun and kicked off the 700-year reign of the samurai. I spent two years researching Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune and loved every minute of it. I’m also a second-degree black belt in kendo (Japanese sword fighting).

Pamela's book list on pre-modern Japan

Pamela S. Turner Why did Pamela love this book?

The perfect companion piece to The Tale of Genji, The Tale of Murasaki is a modern historical novel about Murasaki Shikibu (author of The Tale of Genji). Author Liza Dalby is a scholar of Japanese culture as well as the only Westerner ever to become a geisha. A meticulously researched, evocative window into Heian Japan.

By Liza Dalby,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Tale of Murasaki as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Tale of Murasaki is an elegant and brilliantly authentic historical novel by the author of Geisha and the only Westerner ever to have become a geisha.

In the eleventh century Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, the most popular work in the history of Japanese literature. In The Tale of Murasaki, Liza Dalby has created a breathtaking fictionalized narrative of the life of this timeless poet–a lonely girl who becomes such a compelling storyteller that she is invited to regale the empress with her tales. The Tale of Murasakiis the story of an enchanting…