Book Review: Geisha in Rivalry

nagai_kafu Geisha in Rivalry was  published in 1918. The Japanese title is Udekurabe 腕くらべ, which literally means competition. 

Nagai Kafû 永井 荷風 (1879-1959)  is a very famous author in Japan of the first half of the 20th century. He spent many years in the United States and Europe. He studied French and was influenced by especially Émile Zola (1840-1902) in his early works. Later on Nagai turned more to Japanese themes and is known for his romantic inspired novels focusing on traditional Japanese settings in Late Edo and Meiji Japan.

Geisha in Rivalry is a book in which Nagai brings back the nostalgic atmosphere of the late Meiji Era. He seeks for the reminiscences of the old tradition with a melancholic undertone but is even critical in some ways. His narration is very lively and colorful.

Being a geisha is giving Komayo a hard time. After her husband had died she moves from the countryside back to Tokyo and takes up again her former profession as a geisha. She now lives in the Shimbashi quarter, the heart of the demimonde. She had been away for six years — Can she survive?

Back on the scene of the amusement quarter, nothing has changed, but she is older now, and although she knows the business well the competition is very tough. Most of the other geishas are not friends but mean rivals. They are described as mean, shallow and money driven women.

Komayo falls in love with a famous actor. The romance seems perfect for her and she dreams of marriage. Suddenly she aknowledges, that her handsome lover is playing around with her. And she is a victim of a terrible intrigue initiated by a jealous geisha.

This sounds like a romance novel, but it is worth reading because of the detailed and skilled narration. It is giving you insights into the sociocultural background of the amusement quarters of that time. Interestingly also because Nagai himself lived in a geisha house himself. He gives a lively description of manners, fashion design, dress code and pictures multiple people of the floating world.

The Japanese text of Udekurabe is available on

永井 荷風. 腕くらべ, 1918. Nagai Kafû: Geisha in Rivalry, translated by Kurt Meissner, 1963.

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