PRINT December 1994


The Electric Geisha

SOON AFTER ARRIVING IN JAPAN for the first time, I tried to order traditional Japanese green tea at a kissaten (coffee shop, although the term literally means “tea shop”). The waitress informed me that they carried several varieties of “Western-style” tea to go with their French cakes, Italian ices, and English trifles, but no kissaten would serve Japanese green tea. After several more trips to Japan, I now know that there are exceptions to this rule, but not many. Mochi wa mochiya, a venerable Japanese proverb goes. If you want rice cakes, go to the rice-cake maker.

Yet why, in a culture that gleefully (even rapaciously) embraces everything from sushi pizza to Japanese baseball, does the green-tea barrier hold fast? Seeking an answer, I turned immediately to Yasuo Takahashi’s essay in The Electric Geisha, “Why You Can’t Have Green Tea in a Japanese Coffee Shop.” I learned some history: green tea was imported from China along with Buddhism in the 7th century and became available to ordinary people in the 14th century; the first coffee shop didn’t open in Japan until 1888. As Takahashi notes, “The relationship between coffee and green tea in Japan has been one of the new to the old, with a nuance of rivalry between modern and traditional, or Western and Japanese culture.”

Takahashi’s history provokes still more questions. Are there economic reasons—such as taxes or licensing rules—reinforcing the old/new or East/West distinctions? If not, what residual traditionalism preserves the purity of green tea while other aspects of traditional Japanese culture have been cavalierly theme-parked (ersatz geisha hawking everything from toothpaste to Hondas, or time limits devised to make sumo wrestling telegenic)? Takahashi’s essay does not address these questions about the deep structure of Japanese consumerism, nor is it within the scope of the volume to do so. Like most of the 24 pieces assembled here, Takahashi’s essay is descriptive rather than analytic. The Electric Geisha is the product of a research group assembled in 1988 by Atsushi Ueda, a distinguished professor of architecture at Kyoto Seika University, one of Japan’s more interesting and intellectually progressive colleges. The group sought to establish “links between popular culture and the Japanese city,” and to trace contemporary cultural phenomena (kimono dressing or tableware, package tours or taxes) back to the Edo period (1600–1867), the era preceding the forcible “opening” of Japan by the West.

Apparently intended for a Western readership, The Electric Geisha offers a crash course in the history of Japanese popular culture. It is a good read and a fount of fascinating factoids. From Takahiro Hisa’s “Tapping the Riches of Night Soil,” for example, we learn that the city of Tokyo currently produces 1,500 tons of feces daily, posing a waste-disposal problem with disastrous environmental implications. By contrast, in the Edo period, before modern sanitation plants or chemical fertilizers, excrement was a sought-after commodity. Landlords and tenants battled over who had the right to sell it to the sewage transporters and urine brokers who, in turn, hawked it at top dollar to suburban farmers. This organic night soil replenished nutrients in the earth and yielded vegetables that could be sold back to the city dwellers, where the whole cycle began again.

Disposability is a recurrent theme in these essays, but, with the exception of Hisa’s essay and a few others, there is no overt critique of contemporary Japanese culture underlying this idea. On the contrary, most of the essays are celebratory, uncovering historical continuities beneath the seeming impermanence (and Westernization) of disposable Japanese mass culture. Implicitly, this volume makes an important political point for its Western readers, challenging clichéd and monolithic notions about Japan. Through this assemblage of adroit historical sketches, Ueda and his colleagues invite us to consider the complex interrelationships among capitalism, commercialization, urbanization, and Westernization—four phenomena that, as this volume shows, are sometimes interconnected but are by no means synonymous.

Cathy N. Davidson is the author most recently of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan (New York: Dutton/Plume, 1993).


The Electric Geisha: Exploring Japanese Popular Culture, ed. Atsushi Ueda, trans. Miriam Eguchi (Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1994), 260 pages.