Cultural Appropriation of the Japanese Geisha

Cultural appropriation – or co-optation – has become an issue in the global film industry today. The globalisation of the film industry has led to a system of broadcasting the cultures and histories of various countries on an international stage. However, film industries such as Hollywood are becoming interested in the cultures of others and are engaging in what is called cultural appropriation. Initially, film industries set out to engage in cultural hybridity to “…combine local with global cultural formations in a bid to subvert potentially homogenising forces associated with cultural imperialism” (Schaefer & Karan 2010 pg. 309), when instead they are engaging in cultural appropriation which Young (2005) describes as a process where the members of one culture take something produced by members of another culture (pg. 136).

An example where cultural appropriation takes place is in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. Memoirs of a Geisha was originally a book by American Arthur Goldman from 1997 which was later adapted and released in 2005 by American director Rob Marshall. This film adaption is an example of cultural appropriation because the themes explored cause profound offense which Young (2005 pg. 135) describes as “an offense to one’s moral sensibilities” and that “such an offense strikes at a person’s core values or sense of self.” An offense raised was that of a Japanese rite of passage where wealthy patrons bid for an apprentice geisha’s ‘mizuage’ – virginity – so that she can become a full geisha. New York Times writer Sims (2001) says the novel has the geisha community concerned that it will “tarnish the industry’s reputation and bolster Western notions that geishas are little more than highly cultured prostitutes.” Other examples of this movie being culturally appropriated include: the main female leads being of Chinese descent rather than Japanese, Hollywood’s predisposition to have these Asian characters speak in stereotypical “stilted syntax and awkward enunciations” (Lims 2005), and that almost all of the scenes were shot on Californian sound stages according to an article by CBC News.

Cultural appropriation is an important issue that needs to be clamped down on as you can see. Hollywood is appropriating elements from other cultures and as a result are effectively misrepresenting cultures such as in the case of the misrepresentation of Japanese geisha as high class prostitutes when they are in fact artisans who perform music and traditional dance among other arts.


Fuuu 2005, Gallery_05, image, Flickr, viewed 28 August 2014,

Lim, D 2005, ‘Girls Gone Wild: Garish Geisha in Marshall’s Disastrous Pageant of Dragon-Lady Catfights’, The Village Voice, 7-13 December, viewed 28 August 2014,

Schaefer, D, Kavita, K 2010, Problematizing Chindia: Hybridity and Bollywoodisation of Popular Indian Cinema in Global Film Flows, Global Media and Communication, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 309-316.

Sims, C 2001, ‘ARTS ABROAD; A Geisha, a Successful Novel and a Lawsuit’, New York Times, 19 June, viewed 28 August 2014,

Young, J 2005, Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 63, no. 2, pp. 135-146.


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