Nagai Kafu (1879 to 1959-real name Nagai Sokichi) wrote about the world he lived in and loved, Geisha girls, exotic dancers, and prostitutes. Maybe he is not among the immortals of Japanese literature of his period. He was not an man of extreme culture and erudition like Ryunosuke Akutagawa . He did not write a dozen novels like Junichio Tanizaki that belong in the canon. His face did not wind up on Japanese currency like Natsume Sosoki but he lived out the adage that one should write about what you know and love. Here is a quotation from the Japan Times in which Kafu kind of sums up his life: "in Tokyo and even in the Occident, I have known almost no society except that of courtesans."
Kafu attended a university but did not graduate, he studied French Literature as so many Japanese writers have. He began to sell his short stories at age 19. In 1903 his family sent him to Tacoma Washington (USA) to stay with family friends in hopes he would be turned away from his obsession with the pleasure quarters of Tokyo. From there, I do not know why or how, he ended up in college in Kalamazoo Michigan (USA). He then worked briefly for a Japanese bank in New York City. While in the USA his only real interest was touring as many brothels and disreputable bars as he could. Given the choice between living in a fancy area of New York City and a very poor area he choose the poor area to be close to the cheapest brothels. Back in Japan he had two marriages that lasted less than a year each, lived for a while in a Geisha house, went to France for a year or so and published a collection of short stories on his trip to the USA and one on his trip to France. Both of these collections were banned in Japan shortly after publication as they focused on the world Kafu knew and loved, brothels, bars and the poor side of town. I think he wrote the only Japanese account of a visit to cheap American and French brothels prior to WWI.
Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale is set in the pleasure quarters of Tokyo. One of the questions often asked in discussions on Japanese literature is whether or not a geisha should be seen as a kind of prostitute. In Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale they are treated as enterprising women who take a bit of cultivation but they are seen as basically prostitutes. There is no negative value judgement made on the women in the life. Kafu spent as much time and money as he could in the pleasure quarters. That and writing his stories was his life He never married again after his two youthful marriages and had no children. I could not help but wonder if maybe his two wives were both unable to live up to the standards of the professional women Kafu knew. We get a good look at the day to day business of the life of a geisha. We see the varying status of the women in the profession. We see that the Geisha try to find wealthy patrons or even husbands to set them up in their own geisha or tea house. In one very well done scene a woman who used to be part of the scene returns for a visit to lord it over her old coworkers now that she is married to a wealthy former client. A tea house in the world of the pleasure quarter is a place where a Geisha and a customer could go for a liaison. Some of the lower class tea houses were also brothels. As a geisha aged and found no patrons she would often become more or less a woman on demand prostitute. The geisha may have been trained to create an illusion of culture and refinement but they had no delusions about what their clients ultimately wanted from them. The pleasure quarter is a too be expected entity in a society which expected women to be virgins at marriage and men to be experienced. Made into a movie this book would have an R or maybe even an X rating. We also learn about the men who live off the earnings of the geisha ladies, tea house girls and dancers. They are referred to as the "parasites of the quarter". We also learn a bit about the theater of the time. Geisha girls all wanted to have the most famous actors of the time as their clients.
Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale is a an enjoyable read with well developed characters. It gives us an open eyed look at life in the pleasure quarters of Tokyo in the 1910s. It does not feel like a near 100 year old novel (of course it is a brand new translation by one of the highest regarded translators of Japanese literature.) I would endorse it to anyone interested in older Japanese novels. I took a quick look at the Wikipedia list of novels published in 1918. I have read only a few of them but I am quite sure Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale would shock many of the original readers (and authors) of these books. I am glad I read Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale. I sort of think of Nagai Kafu as the Japanese literary match for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It it also reminded me of a work I recently read for the classics circuit, Nana by Emile Zola which was set in the pleasure quarters of 19th century Paris. The attitudes of Zola and Kafu to the world of the demimonde are very different.