Cross-promotional products like geisha-inspired beauty products and fashion reignites debate about cultural sensitivity

By LYNDA LIN, Assistant Editor, Pacific Citizen


Two months before the film version of Memoirs of a Geisha is scheduled to open in theaters nationwide, studio executives and retailers are already making it possible to dress, look and even smell like a geisha.

New York-based Fresh, Inc., which specializes in beauty products made from ingredients like soy, rice and sugar, unveiled a Memoirs of a Geisha-inspired beauty collection in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment, the film’s distributor.

The beauty collection, which in its press releases is touted to be the marriage of the “Asian traditions of beauty” with Director Rob Marshall’s visual interpretation of the controversial novel by Arthur Golden, features products like liquid bath soap enriched with sake, flower petal face mask and a makeup face palette of rosy hues to celebrate the “sensual allure of the geisha,” according to the Fresh Web site.

Elongated bottles of “Memoirs of a Geisha Eau de Parfum” are affixed with pink labels sprinkled with cherry blossom drawings and the kanji for “beauty,” lovely images inspired by the film’s use of flowing kimonos.

Design influences are seen again in Banana Republic’s newly launched line of Memoirs of a Geisha fashionwear, a limited edition collection of “uniquely wearable pieces with subtle Asian influence.” The fashion line includes mostly silk and velvet floral tops and dresses with kimono-style sashes, ribbons, and tassels — fashion advertised as “East Meets West.”

The movie is yet to be screened, but the season of cross-promotion has already begun. In the big business of movies, promotions like these are needed to generate the necessary buzz for the film’s release and studios often look for products that dovetail with the film’s appeal. But what happens when cross-promotional products endorse the same messages that the Asian Pacific American community has been debating as stereotypical as far back as when the Memoirs of a Geisha book was first introduced?

“I’ve been to many spas in Japan and don’t remember ever bathing in anything containing sake,” said Marie Mutsuki Mockett, a New York-based writer who blogs about Japanese popular culture including the geisha-inspired Fresh beauty products on

The products, she said, are clearly created on perceptions of quintessentially Japanese things not to shed light on true Japanese beauty secrets.

“These Memoirs of a Geisha products don’t really look Japanese and don’t have a concrete relationship to anything from the geisha world,” said Mockette, who also points out that a real Japanese geisha’s lipstick is a very specific product in Japan. “It is paint found inside a shell and applied with a brush. The items sold by Fresh don’t look at all like anything a true geisha would use.”

In reality, geisha makeup or Neri-Oshiroi is paper white, but none of the Fresh products come that pale.

It’s what can happen when cultures borrow from each other. What gets lost in the cultural re-interpretations often becomes the focal point of debate within communities being borrowed from and being represented.

With Memoirs of a Geisha, the cultural tug-of-war started as far back as 1999 when the book by Golden started a debate about the portrayal of geishas as high-priced prostitutes. In the book, a work of fiction inspired by real-life geisha Mineko Iwasaki, the light-eyed heroine Sayuri auctions off her virginity. It was a point of contention that Iwasaki herself called defamation injurious enough to sue the author and publisher in 2001.

The idea that the geisha is a prostitute is a common misperception, many argue, exacerbated by traditions of Orientalism. Especially in Hollywood where Asian women have historically been fetish symbols of exotic and mysterious foreigners.

JACL Executive Director John Tateishi says the old Hollywood sentiment of Orientalism is alive as well as evident in the promotional products.

“What strikes me is a curiosity that the producers of these products seem to want to reflect an admiration for Japanese culture and those things that exemplify its beauty and serenity,” said Tateishi. “But in reality, what they’ve done is to bastardize those qualities by a kind of stereotyping that pretends to capture the essence of beauty in Japanese culture.”

But others argue that movies are a work of fiction meant to capture fantasy rather than the truth.

“On the other hand, we are only talking about make-up, and perhaps I should lighten up!” said Mockett.

Fresh beauty products can be found online, at Bath and Body Works chain stores and other high-end retailers. And with the national presence of Banana Republic — which is also offering as a part of its Memoirs of a Geisha campaign a chance to win a trip to Tokyo to attend the film’s premiere — and the push for the movie, all things geisha will soon be available for purchase.

Neither Fresh nor Banana Republic responded to the P.C.’s questions regarding their research of real geisha culture. A Sony representative said in an e-mail that they “are happy to respond” to the question of the movie’s cultural sensitivity, which he pointed out had been addressed in mainstream media, but had not responded by press time.

“It remains to be seen what kind of message this movie and these beauty products will send to a general audience. The message is already imbued in the names of the various products with their exotic names and descriptions. It’s a message that seems to want to [describe the] Japanese as exotic, as a mystique of the Orient,” said Tateishi. “If these products are a preview of the movie, then we have a challenge before us.”


This article originally appeared in Pacific Citizen (PC), the national newspaper published by the Japanese American Citizens League, and appears here by special permission.  Please do not reproduce with seeking permission from the copyright holder.

Established in 1929, the PC covers news and events in the Japanese American and larger Asian Pacific American communities. For more information about PC‘s history, features, new web site, or subscriptions, see the IMDiversity Pacific Citizen Profile, or visit is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.