Book Review: Geisha in Rivalry


‘Geisha in Rivalry’ was published in Japan 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, who was active in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. He spent many years in the United States of America and in Europe. He studied French and was influenced by the French novelist Émile Zola (1840-1902), which can be seen in Nagai’s early works. Later in his career he turned more to Japanese themes and is widely known for his romantic novels set in traditional Japan of the late Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji era (1868-1912).

‘Geisha in Rivalry’ is a book in which Nagai depicts a nostalgic atmosphere of the late Meiji era with reminiscences of old Japanese tradition. The novel is in parts melancholic, in parts critical about social issues. Nagai Kafû’s narration is very vivid and colorful.

The protagonist is a geisha of middle age named Komayo, who comes back from the countryside to Edo, where she was living with her husband. After he died, she must earn her livelihood, and returns to her former workplace in the city. She had been a geisha before. And now she to take the burden to live again in the red-light district.

Back on the scene of the amusement quarter, nothing has changed, but she has grown older now. Although she knows the business well, the competition is wearing her out. Nagai Kafû describes the world of geishas as a place where women are bitter rivals. Mean, shallow, and money driven women.

When Komayo falls in love with a famous actor, the romance seems perfect for her in the beginning, and she dreams of marriage. But eventually, she realizes, that her handsome lover is playing around with her, and she becomes a victim of a terrible intrigue initiated by a jealous geisha.

Maybe this sounds like a cheap romance novel, but it is not. Nagai Kafû is an extraordinary skilled narrator. ‘Geisha in Rivalry’ gives you insights into the sociocultural background of the amusement quarters of the late Meiji era. Interesting also because Nagai lived in a geisha house himself. He gives a lively description of manners, fashion design, dress code, and portrays multiple people of the so called ‘floating world’.

Reviewed Title
永井 荷風. 腕くらべ, 1918.
Nagai Kafû: Geisha in Rivalry. Translated by Kurt Meissner. Tuttle Publishing, 1963 (Cover).

Notice: The Japanese text of Udekurabe is available on

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