The famous novel Memoirs of a Geisha is told from the perspective of a fictional geisha named Nitta Sayuri. Sayuri has a dramatic, eventful life (with some guy by the name of Koichi causing a lot of trouble early on) but in the book’s preface, the author (writing in character as the geisha’s “translator”) acknowledges that truth really is stranger than fiction: “The renowned Kato Yuki—a geisha who captured the heart of George Morgan, nephew of J. Pierpont, and became his bride-in-exile during the first decade of this century—may have lived a life even more unusual in some ways than Sayuri’s. But only Sayuri documented her own saga so completely.”
Of course, it helped that Sayuri’s saga was made up. There may not be enough information out there to write a book about Yuki without filling in the cracks with fiction, but there can be no doubt that she led an interesting life. Morgan Oyuki created scandal and captured the headlines throughout her life and, incredibly, her presence alone may have saved Kyoto from the atomic bomb.
The Cure for a Broken Heart: 40,000 Yen
It was 1902, and George Morgan had just had his heart broken. His fiancee had split, so he took a trip to Japan to get over his feelings. George’s father was a rich man named George Morgan, and his mother was the sister of a considerably richer man, the famous banker J.P. Morgan. Yes, you may find it a bit creepy that both of his parents were born with the last name Morgan, but they were apparently unrelated. I’m skeptical.
Anyway, George was looking for something to cure his broken heart, and he found it: A Gion district geisha named Yuki Kato. He courted her for years, seeing her and asking her to marry him and visiting Kyoto as often as he could. She constantly refused, and something of a love triangle developed between her, George, and Yuki’s young lover Kawamura. The newspapers picked up on the story, and the scandal began.
Eventually, Kawamura moved away (maybe to avoid being drawn further into a scandalous story) and Yuki agreed to marry George Morgan. At this point, 40,000 yen, a tremendous amount of money back then, changed hands, and different stories give different reasons. Some say Yuki asked for the money in return for marriage, an old-school bride price situation, and others say the money was spent to release Yuki from her geisha contract. Whatever it was, George paid 40,000 yen or more to marry Yuki Kato, and this scandalous piece of news kept the Japanese newspapers talking for decades. January 20th, the anniversary of George Morgan and Yuki Kato’s marriage, is “Marry Into Money Day” to this day in Japan. It’s not a public holiday or anything, but it’s real.
With this marriage, the “Japanese Cinderella” story was born, and Yuki Kato became Morgan Oyuki. She left Japan with George, and visited America with him for a while. They found that the United States wasn’t quite ready to accept George’s young, recently geisha wife, so they left for France, where they would stay for the next decade.
In 1915, George Morgan was trying to return to France from America, as he’d done dozens of times. Due to the onset of World War I, this was no longer a simple process. To stay safe from German submarines, he took a ship to Gibraltar at the south tip of Spain, then had to travel overland the rest of the way to France. He would never make it. He died of a heart attack, and Morgan Oyuki was now a widow.
At this point, the narratives split. Some accounts say that Oyuki left for New York, where three decades of Madame Butterfly performances had apparently now made the upper class more amenable to having a former geisha around. Wikipedia even claims that it was the Morgans who brought her there, but it cites a book that’s talking about something entirely different.
What’s wrong with that story? Oyuki hadn’t been welcome in New York about ten years earlier, and she probably knew English about as well as I know Tagalog. She learned French and spoke French so often that she was only an awkward Japanese speaker when she returned to Kyoto decades later.
Using Yuki’s letters and journals, Japanese writer Sumi Kosakai discovered what is probably the real story: Yuki stayed in France, living with a French ex-legionnaire who had been sending her love letters for some time. He would die a few decades later, and she would finally decide to return home.
Regardless of which story you believe, Oyuki returned to Kyoto in 1938, where she’d remain until her death in 1963. The Japanese media still wasn’t tired of talking about her, and every couple of years another novel or play based on her life would start the whole conversation over again. A 1947 issue of TIME Magazine details a particularly successful book about Oyuki which had been serialized over 260 installments in three different newspapers. Mademoiselle Yuki had never spoken with the author and refused to see him. The author had simply decided to fill in the cracks with fiction.
Box Office, Bombs
A movie director by the name of Masahiro Makino had a theory about Yuki. He said that it was his father, Shouzou Makino, who originally advised Yuki Kato to ask for an enormous amount of money to be wed. Makino says his father also met Yuki in France later on and tried to arrange a meeting between her and her former lover Kawamura, only to have Kawamura die along the way.
Masahiro Makino theorized that the Morgan family knew that Yuki had returned to Kyoto, and so they had the city stricken from the shortlist of potential atomic bomb targets (yes, this list definitely existed, and yes, Kyoto was originally on it).
It’s not by any means impossible that the Morgan family called off the dogs on Kyoto. If Lieutenant General Leslie Groves’ book about his experience leading the Manhattan Project is to be believed, it was Secretary of War Henry Stimson who adamantly took Kyoto off the bombing targets list. There have been a number of rumors as to why Stimson did this: Some say he thought it would be against the rules of war to bomb such a historic city. Some sources say Stimson rejected Kyoto because he had honeymooned there (embarrassingly, this may be the most well-supported story out there in historical sources).
But, if you’re willing to delve a little further into conspiracy theory, Stimson had also been a partner and close friend of J.P. Morgan’s personal attorney Elihu Root, and he was certainly well-acquainted with the surviving Morgan family. If the Morgans were aware that Oyuki was in Kyoto, which they probably were, and the Morgans still had the ear of Stimson, which they probably did, then Makino’s atomic bomb theory isn’t the wildest theory you’ll ever hear. But, to my knowledge, there’s no documentation or proof of this justification for saving Kyoto, and there’s been plenty written on the subject, even if it is a little inconclusive.
Finally, An Eyewitness Account
Despite all the scandal, the hoopla, and the “Japanese Cinderella” name tag, there is at least one source which claims Morgan Oyuki lived her last few decades simply, without the money and the drama associated with her earlier years. In a letter to TIME Magazine, a man who’d met Oyuki wrote in to protest at their typically scandal-filled report of her life:
Your article about Mrs. George Morgan [TIME, Dec. 22] and the accompanying cut is both conceived and written in extraordinarily poor taste. Your willingness to accept the evidence of a cheap Japanese novelist is right in keeping with the tradition of yellow journalism.
At the request of her niece, Mrs. Sarah Morgan Gardner of Princeton, I located Mrs. Morgan in Kyoto in May of 1946 while serving in Japan with the Marine Corps. I found her through the St. Francis Xavier Church missionaries in that city, men who willingly testified to her devotion to the church and to the hardships she had suffered in Japan as the widow of an American. Mrs. Morgan herself, a charming elderly lady, who seemed more Occidental than Japanese, was overjoyed to hear news of her American relations, who are all devoted to her and have made every effort to see that she is taken care of. Far from being a rich woman, as intimated in your article, all her income is frozen in the United States.
Articles such as yours can do little else than make life more uncomfortable for people who are unable to answer them.
ROBERT W. LOCKE Princeton, N.J.
The TIME editor shrugged off the complaint with a bit of snark:
TIME trusts that its other readers were not equally offended by this story of Madame-Butterfly-with-a-difference. — ED.
To be fair, with the exception of suggesting that Yuki was still rich, TIME didn’t say much that wasn’t true.
Yuki Kato’s story has continued to inspire talk and rumors and novels and plays. Just last year, a new play called “Morgan O-Yuki: The Geisha of the Gilded Age” was put on at Ventfort Hall in Massachusetts, a mansion built by George Morgan’s parents. Fictionalized or not, her “Japanese Cinderella” story keeps echoing on through the decades, and who’s to say it ever has to stop?
- TIME Magazine, the 12/22/1947, 1/19/1948, and 5/31/1963 issues.
- Women of the Pleasure Quarters by Lesley Downer, pp. 186-192.
- The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient by Sheridan Prasso, pp. 48-9.
- Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project by Leslie Groves, pp. 275-6.
- History of Money and Banking in the United States: The Colonial Era to World War II by Murray N. Rothbard, p. 422.
- “What Future For Japan?”: U.S. Wartime Planning for the Postwar Era, 1942-1945 by Rudolf V.A. Janssens, p. 317.