Geisha in Rivalry

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Geisha in Rivalry
Author Nagai Kafu
Original title 腕くらべ
Set in Japan, early 20th century
  • 1918 (Japanese)
  • 1963 (English)

Geisha in Rivalry (腕くらべ?, Ude kurabe, 1916-1917), also translated under the title of Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale, was first published in Japanese in 1918 and was first translated into English in 1963. The author, Nagai Kafu, a Japanese novelist, was born in 1879 and died in 1959. Kafu was an editor of literary magazines before investigating Tokyo’s geisha world and writing novels.[1] Rivalry is set in the early twentieth century (it begins around 1912) in Tokyo’s Shimbashi geisha district. Rivalry aims to capture the lives of Shimbashi geisha at a historically popular time for geisha.

Plot summary[edit]

Rivalry begins with the return of the story's protagonist, Komayo, to the geisha world. Having left the pleasure quarters to live in the countryside, she returns several years later because her husband has died, leaving her to fend for herself. She decides that she would rather relive her days as a geisha than to live as a peasant. Upon her return, she is reunited with a lover from her past, Yoshioka. The two had spent time together before Yoshioka left the country to study abroad. Yoshioka feels a rekindled desire for Komayo and calls for her often to spend much of her time with him attending events. Soon he suggests that he should become her danna. Although Komayo would be glad to have the financial support, she shies away from his proposal. Komayo and Yoshioka go on a weeklong vacation to hot spring resorts, but Yoshioka has to leave early, unexpectedly. Komayo stays and runs into Segawa, a man whom she desires instantly. After a brief, unforgettable affair, Komayo returns to Tokyo.

At the Kabuki theater Yoshioka overhears a conversation about the love affair between Komayo and Segawa. He seeks revenge by becoming involved with Kikuchiyo, a promiscuous geisha from Komayo’s okiya. As the novel progresses Komayo discovers that Yoshioka betrayed her. She’s hurt but pursues her relationship with Segawa with renewed determination. Segawa does not reciprocate the same devotion as Komayo. After a performance, Yoshioka’s first mistress, Rikiji, seeks her revenge on Komayo by introducing Segawa to a wealthy former geisha, Kimiryu. This new geisha’s financial situation pleases Segawa’s mother who never approved of Komayo.

The novel concludes with Komayo alone. The man who offered to support her and the man she loved have left her for other geisha. The mother of her okiya dies and her husband, Old Gozan, recognizes his inability to continue the house on his own; he passes it on to Komayo. She realizes that the geisha okiya means a lot to her. Gozan’s offer adds a glimmer of hope for Komayo with a life running the household herself.

Background information[edit]

Female entertainers in Japan emerged during the 7th and 13th century. They performed for the nobility. During the Edo period prostitution was legal and was mostly within walled in districts such as Yoshiwara, which were licensed by the Tokugawa Shogunate, known as the pleasure quarters. In the 17th century, high-class courtesans known as oiran, or men working as geisha, would perform at parties. During the 18th century, dancing women called odoriko became popular and began entertaining men at banquets in unlicensed districts. From this time on, the word geisha referred to women entertainers.

After the Meiji Restoration the government passed a law liberating prostitutes and geisha. This caused many controversies because the distinction between the two can be unclear. To clarify, the government intervened and stated that geisha were more refined than prostitutes; geisha were expected to be single and if they decided to marry then they had to drop their professions. They were not prostitutes, did not prepare food, and could not be considered wives. They performed at business banquets and were encouraged to have a danna for financial support but that commitment remained optional. Later, greater misunderstandings between geisha and prostitution emerged from the aftermath of WWII when the U.S. occupied Japan. Prostitutes hired to serve American GIs starting calling themselves geisha, which blurred the conceptual line.


Nagai Kafu’s Rivalry tells the tale of a geisha walking the fine line between companionship and love. Throughout the novel, it becomes evident that a geisha should never fall in love, for she will surely be taken advantage of if she does. Kafu stresses that men are unreliable and that their intentions are never as they seem. It is hard for a geisha who is so dependent on men not to eventually fall in love, but it is this detachment in itself that will ultimately lead to her independence. She must use her power over men to get what she wants and keep her emotions in check. Rivalry shows a woman’s struggle to balance the geisha life with her desire for independence.

Main characters[edit]

  • Komayo – protagonist, has been a geisha since she was seventeen or eighteen, was named Komazo before debut
  • Yoshioka – methodical and calculating businessman who first met Komayo seven years ago when her name was Komazo
  • Rikiji – Yoshioka’s first mistress, not pretty but is skilled
  • Kitani Chojiro – also known as Old Gozan, is a storyteller married to Jukichi, has one surviving, ruined son and a son who died young
  • Jukichi – plump and dependable woman who oversees the Obanaya, married to Old Gozan
  • Segawa Isshi – Onnagata (female impersonator in Kabuki) actor who becomes Komayo’s lover
  • Kikuchiyo – sister in the okiya, nicknamed “Chinese goldfish” and is described as gaudy and kitten-like, Yoshioka takes interest in her after Komayo’s affair with Segawa
  • Hanasuke – sister in the okiya and a friend to Komayo as they went through hard times, is sturdy and hardworking, not particularly pretty, holds her money close
  • Sea Monster – antique dealer who becomes the danna of Komayo, he knows she will put up with him because she needs his money
  • Kimiryu – former geisha in Rikiji, patron died leaving wealth, becomes Segawa Isshi’s lover, approved of by Segawa’s mother

Peripheral characters[edit]

  • Eda – Yoshioka's good friend
  • Kurayama Nanso – rather nostalgic and old-fashioned novelist and play critic, becomes caretaker for the Segawa estate, has a particular fondness of the pine on the Segawa property
  • Ochiyo – Nanso’s wife, puts on the dance performances in the fall and spring
  • Yamai Kaname – rather modern literary artist contributing to young people’s magazines, known for his cheating
  • Takijiro – son of Jukichi and Gozan, was a law student but was expelled for misconduct, starts up a brothel
  • Ranka – new geisha serving Segawa and Yamai, name means orchid


  1. ^ Winterton, Bradley. "'Rivalry' of the Steamy and Sensitive Variety." Taipei Times 2 Mar. 2008: 18. 21 May 2008 <>.

Bibliographical information[edit]

  • Nagai Kafu, Rivalry. A Geisha's Tale. Translated by Stephen Snyder. New York : Columbia University Press, 2007.
  • Nagai Kafu, Geisha in Rivalry. Translated by Kurt Meissner with the collaboration of Ralph Friedrich. Illus. by Shin Misho. Rutland, Vt., C. E.Tuttle Co. [1963]
  • Winterton, Bradley. "'Rivalry' of the Steamy and Sensitive Variety." Taipei Times 2 Mar. 2008: 18. 21 May 2008 <>.

External links[edit]