Translator: Rande Brown
Publisher: Atria Books
Pub. Date: 2002
Genres: Memoir, Autobiography
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden, was published in 1997 and acknowledged Mineko Iwasaki as the real-life geisha that the author interviewed. After it was translated into Japanese, Iwasaki saw her name in print without permission and claims that Golden’s book misrepresents what it is to be a geisha. Iwasaki’s memoir tries to break the stereotypes perpetuated in Golden’s book.
I haven’t read Golden’s book or watched the movie adaptation, but there are several parts that are very clearly directed at non-Japanese readers. The book repeatedly describes why geisha aren’t prostitutes and that mizuage isn’t what we think it is. I believe a lot of what she says about life as a geisha, but one passage made skeptical of either her message in it or the translation. On page 188, Iwasaki wrote,
I don’t have the exact figures, but I believe I was earning about $500,000 a year. This was a good deal of money in 1960s Japan, more than that earned by the presidents of most companies. (It is also the reason the notion that geiko perform sexual favors for their clients is so ridiculous. With this much income, why would we?)
There are a lot of things that people would do for a large sum of money. I don’t believe that geiko perform sexual favors for money, but the reasoning here isn’t sound to me. While this passage is questionable, I have learned from Iwasaki that geiko are not in any way prostitutes but are artists.
The tone of Geisha, A Life (a.k.a. Geisha of Gion) is pretty calm and clinical. Some of the writing feels stilted, but this might be due to the translation. This isn’t helped by her tendency to go off on tangents and the general lack of transition sentences.
The memoir covers her life from young childhood to her marriage after she retired from being a geiko, her preferred name for a geisha. At 5 years old, she permanently moved into the Iwasaki okiya in Gion Kobu where she grew up learning the customs of the maiko and geiko. She explains how she came to be adopted by the Iwasaki family, what she learned, and what happened to her as an adult.
Iwasaki character grows and changes in the book, but most of the other characters do not. She always loved to dance, and the parts about her dancing are beautiful and passionate. She relates her relationships and hardships with some geiko, like her biological older sister and the one who burned her hand with a cigarette. The now-retired geiko reflects on how she changed as the book goes on. The other person who changes in Old Meanie, but this might be more Iwasaki’s perception of the woman than her actual personality. This might also happen more in memoirs than other books.
I liked the descriptions of places, dress and processes. They were detailed enough to give a clear picture of what happened with the geiko and maiko when she was young. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about geisha culture from reading her memoir, and it makes me hungry for more information. There are also two sections of photographs of her at different moments in her life.
If you’ve read or watched Memoirs of a Geisha, you should read the memoir of this real geisha. Otherwise, this is a beautiful memoir to read if you are interested in geisha and geiko.