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Geisha, a Life

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"No woman in the three-hundred-year history of the karyukai has ever come forward in public to tell her story. We have been constrained by unwritten rules not to do so, by the robes of tradition and by the sanctity of our exclusive calling...But I feel it is time to speak out."

Celebrated as the most successful geisha of her generation, Mineko Iwasaki was only five years old when she left her parents' home for the world of the geisha. For the next twenty-five years, she would live a life filled with extraordinary professional demands and rich rewards. She would learn the formal customs and language of the geisha, and study the ancient arts of Japanese dance and music. She would enchant kings and princes, captains of industry, and titans of the entertainment world, some of whom would become her dearest friends. Through great pride and determination, she would be hailed as one of the most prized geishas in Japan's history, and one of the last great practitioners of this now fading art form.

In Geisha, a Life, Mineko Iwasaki tells her story, from her warm early childhood, to her intense yet privileged upbringing in the Iwasaki okiya (household), to her years as a renowned geisha, and finally, to her decision at the age of twenty-nine to retire and marry, a move that would mirror the demise of geisha culture. Mineko brings to life the beauty and wonder of Gion Kobu, a place that "existed in a world apart, a special realm whose mission and identity depended on preserving the time-honored traditions of the past." She illustrates how it coexisted within post-World War II Japan at a time when the country was undergoing its radical transformation from a post-feudal society to a modern one.

"There is much mystery and misunderstanding about what it means to be a geisha. I hope this story will help explain what it is really like and also serve as a record of this unique component of Japan's cultural history," writes Mineko Iwasaki. Geisha, a Life is the first of its kind, as it delicately unfolds the fabric of a geisha's development. Told with great wisdom and sensitivity, it is a true story of beauty and heroism, and of a time and culture rarely revealed to the Western world.

297 pages, Paperback

First published September 30, 2002

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About the author

Mineko Iwasaki

5 books161 followers
Mineko Iwasaki (born Masako Tanaka) is a Japanese businesswoman, Geiko and author. Iwasaki was the most famous Japanese Geiko in Japan until her sudden publicized retirement at the age of 29. Known for her performances for various celebrity and royalty during her Geisha life, Iwasaki was also an established heir or atotori to her geisha house (Okiya) while she was just an apprentice.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,551 reviews
March 11, 2023
The book, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden was based around interviews with Mineko Iwasaki. She was unhappy with the misuse of her words and wrote this, her autobiography after having sued him for not using her interview as background information but basing his entire book on her life story.

This book is Mineko's autobiography and details her life as a geisha from childhood up until her retirement at age 29 as a protest against the lack of education and the oppressive working life of a geisha. Some 70 other geishas followed her into retirement as a protest.

Since the age of 16 she had been the most famous, most talented and highest paid geisha (actually maiko, until she got the title of geisha at 21) of her generation, entertaining even the Queen and Prince Charles. Which shows that neither royalty nor the Foreign Office that sent them there actually care about the people of the country they are visiting, but happily take the official line.

In the West, at least, 'geisha' has always been thought of as a euphemism for a high-priced whore, but as the book shows, the women earn far more as geishas than they could ever hope to do on their backs. The world of a geisha is one where women run things and make lots of money whilst all the time looking like the epitome of sweet, submissive feminity. When they retire, that money enables them to become businessmen as the author did, despite their lack of any formal education.

For some reason that reminds me of Simone Biles, who spent her entire childhood and young adulthood working non-stop in gymnastics and got only the minimum education that the government mandates. But the money she earned, mostly endorsements, has enabled her, like Mineko, to set up businesses.

Today there are only about 1,000 geishas left in Japan. Some of them earn tens of thousands of dollars a month and not by sleeping with their clients as is popularly supposed in the West. Geishas are cultural performers who are deeply respected and prostitution is illegal in Japan. (But as common as everywhere else, see Sunshine: The Diary of a Lap Dancer where Sunshine went as a stripper to a club in Japan that recruited foreign girls, and was forced into prostitution). They aren't allowed to get married but do have babies, but there is no ban on boyfriends

I recently skimmed through the book again, hence the rewrite 11 March 2023. It is still as fascinating as it was the first time I read it in January 2004.
Profile Image for Madeline.
775 reviews47k followers
December 16, 2015
"No woman in the three-hundred year history of the karyukai has ever come forward in public to tell her story. We have been constrained by unwritten rules not to do so, by the robes of tradition, and by the sanctity of our exclusive calling.
But I feel it is time to speak out. I want you to know what it is really like to live the life of a geisha, a life filled with extraordinary professional demands and richly glorious rewards. Many say I was the best geisha of my generation; I was certainly the most successful. And yet, it was a life that I found too constrictive to continue. And one that I ultimately had to leave.
It is a story I have long wanted to tell."

We all remember Memoirs of a Geisha, right? You know, that book where a white American dude decided that he was the best candidate for writing a story about the secretive, all-female world of the Japanese geisha? Remember how well that worked out? Full disclosure: I really liked that book for much longer than I should have (I remember hearing that they were making a movie version and being really invested in who they cast), and it wasn't until I was in college that I learned some unpleasant truths about the creation of this book. For his book, Arthur Golden conducted a lot of interviews with a retired geisha, which formed the basis for the story. When the book came out, this geisha was so horrified at the way Golden had twisted her words to fit his Western worldview of the geisha that she wrote her own memoir in response. That geisha, as you can guess, was Mineko Iwasaki, and this book is the real Memoirs of a Geisha. No fetishization, no male gaze, no bullshit.

Iwasaki was a geisha (she refers to herself as a geiko, a more specific term used in the area of Kyoto where she lived and trained) starting in the 1960's, and was easily the most successful of her time - a feat which she accomplished by taking every single appointment available, not taking a single day off for five years, and sleeping three hours every night. She retired at the age of twenty-nine because, as she says in her introduction, the lifestyle eventually grew too restrictive and her efforts to implement change were ignored.

The book starts with her childhood, when she was three years old and the owner of an okiya first started trying to recruit her. Iwasaki spent her childhood living in the okiya as a sort of boarding school (it was a super weird situation, honestly, because her parents were allowed to visit but barely saw her, and also she was five) before she ultimately made the decision to be adopted by the okiya owner and live there full-time at the age of seven. From then on, Iwasaki worked full-time training to be a geiko before making her debut at age fifteen.

The detail is extensive: Iwasaki's favorite aspect of training was dance, so we learn a lot about Japanese styles of dance, and every other part of the journey from apprentice to full-time geiko. Everything is described in great (but often slightly clinical) detail, and it's worth it purely for the time Iwasaki spends describing every part of a geiko's outfit, from shoes to hair ornaments, and the kimonos she describes are so gorgeous it'll make your mouth water. There's also a lot of practical information, like this bit about how geikos' wages are calculated:

"At the end of the night, the ochaya calculates the hanadai for all the maiko and geiko who have attended banquets there that evening. They write the tallies down on slips of paper that they place in a box in the entryway of the ochaya. The next morning a representative of the kenban, or financial affairs office, makes the rounds of the ochaya to collect all the slips from the night before. These are tallied and reported to the Kabukai. The kenban is an independent organization that performs this service on behalf of the geiko association."

She also puts to rest, once and for all, the misconception that geisha are just fancy prostitutes. Remember that horrifying part in Memoirs of a Geisha where Sayuri's virginity is sold off to the highest bidder in a ceremony called a mizuage? I don't have the space to recount all the ways that's wrong - you'll have to just read the book and let Iwasaki explain why Arthur Golden is an asshole. Instead, I'll let her explain where Golden got the idea for that scene (spoiler alert! it wasn't from the geisha):

"Shimabara used to be a licensed quarter where women known as oiran and tayu (courtesans, high-class prostitutes) plied their trade, though they were accomplished in the traditional arts as well. A young oiran also underwent a ritual called a "mizuage" but hers consisted of being ceremoniously deflowered by a patron who had paid handsomely for the privilege."

Hey, Arthur Golden? If you want to write a book that proves geisha aren't prostitutes, maybe don't include a scene where the geisha has sex for money, especially if that little detail is a complete fabrication.

My only big complaint about this book is the writing itself. I'm willing the blame the dry, plodding prose on the translation; less easy to excuse is the lack of transitions and topic sentences. Iwasaki will be describing a dance class, and then in the next paragraph will have moved on to a completely different subject with no warning or explanation, and it was irritating. She writes in the Q&A at the end of the book that it took her four months to write, which I definitely believe.

But these are minor quibbles. This is a good book, if for no other reason than it's a fantastic primary source into a fascinating and misunderstood world. We should all be proud of Iwasaki for resisting the urge to go with the original title, Arthur Golden Can Suck It.
Profile Image for Kara.
654 reviews314 followers
June 15, 2020
This is Iwasaki's response to Memoirs of a Geisha. I picked this up because I thought it'd be great to get the truth behind the story. This fell flat.

The book couldn't decide if it was a memoir or a history of geisha in post-war Kyoto. If a history, it lacked description, and the author inserted too much of her annoying self (more on this later) into the story. If a memoir, the author didn't talk enough about her emotions. For example, she tries to kill herself as a young girl, and the description plus the emotional turmoil she was feeling took up all of three sentences. Yes, three sentences. Iwasaki tried to make this part memoir and part history, and she ended up with poor excuses for either.

There was also something a little off with the description. I don't know if this was the fault of the translation or Iwasaki herself. Here's a passage: "The shamisen is a three-stringed instrument that is played like a viola." I play shamisen. Besides the fact that is has strings and is vaguely shaped like a viola, it's nothing like a viola. You pick it rather than bow it, and it's held like a guitar rather than a viola. I have no idea where this description came from.

But what really, really bugged me about this book is the author's ridiculous arrogance. The bulk of the novel is spent discussing how beautiful, talented, and loved she is. She's everyone's favorite except for the people who are just jealous of how wonderful she is. She's gifted at everything she tries: from dance to basketball. She takes this to such a ridiculous level that, at one point, she insists that she doesn't fart. Yes, you read that right. Here's the passage:
The consultant came to examine me and asked if I had passed gas.
"Gas?" I asked.
"Yes, gas. Has any come out yet?"
"Come out? From where?"
"What I mean is, have you broken wind? Have you farted?"
"Excuse me," I replied indignantly. "I don't do things like that."

Apparently, biological rules do not apply to Iwasaki.
Profile Image for Sachi.
96 reviews
May 29, 2007
This woman wrote her book in a response to Memoirs of a Geisha because she felt that the book gave the wrong impression. Unfortunately for readers, this book is story after story about how great and important the author was / is. It doesn't represent life as a geisha, it represents life seeking fame.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
657 reviews
January 6, 2016
First, I would like to urge anyone who wants to learn more about geisha - READ THIS BOOK INSTEAD OF MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. The author of that, Arthur Golden, interviewed Mineko Iwasaki and twisted her tales into falsities, making it seem that geisha were high class prostitutes. This is not the case - oiran, a high class courtesan, sold their bodies, not geisha. In fact, Iwasaki was extremely upset when she realized Golden had twisted her facts on the life of being a geisha, and decided to write her factual and realistic account. Her memoir reads as a beautiful balance between her personal recollections and facts on geisha (or the term used specifically in Kyoto, geiko) life in the 60s-70s. I expected a pretty basic factual account, but was pleasantly surprised by Mineko's escapades - hiding in the closet as a kid, working her hardest to embrace her passion for dancing, chasing down the pervy men who harassed her. Put straightforward, Mineko Iwasaki is a bad ass, and I would love to meet her one day if possible. I highly recommend this memoir for anyone interested in personal stories, the lives of geisha or how Japanese society functioned in the 1950s through 1970s. 4.5/5 stars.
Profile Image for B. P. Rinehart.
747 reviews254 followers
February 13, 2021
This was an interesting read and I read it in an interesting time. Right after a controversy breaks-out over a novel that is written sensationalizing the lives of real people, I read this book which was written in answer to an author who got rich writing a sensationalized (i. e. false) version of the experiences of Mineko Iwasaki. I'd owned this book for over a year, but did not know when I was going to be able to read it. I thought now was as good a time as any. Since I got some other ground to cover I'll deal with this here: Geisha are not prostitutes. Period. They go about sex just like the rest of us: messily. In Japan they had courtesans called oiran who learned traditional dance and song, but who's main goal was 'hoing. Geisha are at best hostess, but sex ain't part of the regular job, it's the woman's own choice who she sleeps with. This book was written to be a refutation of the white fetishization of a certain novel, but I think it has a lot more going for it and I wish to talk more about it in this review.

Mineko Iwasaki was born Masaka Tanaka to Japanese nobles down on their luck after prettey much everything that had occurred in Japan between the Meji Restoration and the end of WWII. Her family's choice to stay in Kyoto after the imperial family decided to move their court from Kyoto to Tokyo saw their Noble rank be downgraded. During The Great Depression more hard times hit the family and young Mineko's father decides to sell some of his daughters to an equally struggling okiya (geisha house) called Iwasaki, which was a satellite house of a larger okiya. After WWII, Masako/Mineko is born and her family eventually recovers--unfortunately the Iwasaki okiya does not. Her father is determined that his last daughter not become a geisha, and the woman running the okiya is equally determine that Masako become the heir to okiya. By this time, the post-war Japanese government has introduced legislation banning prostitution (formally ending the oiran trade) and also debt bondage which ends the practice of indentured geisha. Unfortunately for Masako's father, one can still be a geisha by choice and our protagonist is artistically inclined and a natural prodigy of dance. Masako ends up choosing to join of her own free will despite being an introvert and independent-minded (two things that are the complete opposite of what a geisha is suppose to be). She joins at the age of 5, and of the last generation of girls who can become geisha before reform laws make junior high/middle school graduation compulsory before joining the "flower and willow world." She eventually is formally adopted by the okiya and her name is changed to Mineko Iwasaki (I will be referring to her as Mineko since one of the women who adopted her is also called Masako), and she goes on to become the most iconic maiko (junior geisha) and geiko (senior geisha) of the post-war era.

The distinction of a junior geisha as a maiko is only in Kyoto, geisha in other parts of Japan are simply called geiko (woman of art) or geisha (person of art--the term originally applied to itinerant male musicians around Japan). In Kyoto their is a whole infrastructure that is devoted to this industry. Part of the conflict that this book is really about is about how the division of labor is practiced in this industry. If I tried to explain how this whole thing worked it would be too long, but that's why you read the book for because Mineko and Rande Brown do a good job. But I will come back to why Mineko quit the job at the height of her popularity.

Talking specifically about the book, the format and actual story called back two books for me: David Copperfield & Twelve Years a Slave. The book has a very 19th century memoir feel to it and I don't know if that is Brown's academic rendering or Minkeo's traditionalist education. For me, it gave the book an interesting feel as the tone and setting felt a century apart—I was intrigued by it. The way the people and atmosphere of this book is presented does feel very Dickensian so if you like Charles Dickens, you should like this book. You fall in love with the good characters, and you despise the bad ones. Now, given the initial mission statement of this book, it assumes you know nothing about geisha, Japanese history, or have been misinformed about both, so the book teaches you in-depth on everything you need to know about this world. This is exactly what Solomon Northup did regarding his intended audiences knowledge of American Slavery. This a great beginners guide to this subject and it makes the title of the book fit perfectly.

When I think of how Mineko Iwasaki became the geisha of her generation, it seems that despite her being very much of the post-way Showa generation, she was raised and instilled with the sensibilities and work ethic of people born in the earlier generations (i. e. Meji and Taisho), so it was natural for her to be such a hard and grueling worker. Combine that with her 1st love of dance and it made her a natural fit for success despite her equally natural disdain for partying and people. I mean, she took no days off for 5 years. There is no secret to how she became number one. Mineko benefits from having some powerful people in her corner at all times (it really is who you know...) and from operating in the top Geisha district in Japan: Gion Kobu. She ends up entertaining and knowing numerous heads of state, politicians, artists, and business folks from Japan and around the world. She relates some very wild stories about that other imperial family the Windsors (let's just say she could've warned Megan Markle) and she seemed to prefer artists and academics to all other clients--the father of Shuntarō Tanikawa became a surrogate father to her and she struck-up a love affair with the actor Shintaro Katsu.

But of course there were cons. The two crazy things I learned was the intense amount of jealousy and hazing in this industry. All but the most senior geiko were vicious to her on her way to the top. The worst offender was her pure evil oldest sister who was also a geisha. Yaeko ranks among the top of most villainous women in world literature (to say nothing of her son...). When it was not hazing by others, it was the crazy harassment from men in general that she had to endure. Mostly on the street, but also some of her clients would make sure to make the case for a #MeToo movement being necessary. Thank god for taxis.

"So we support the dance but it does not support us."

The thing that ultimately causes her to quit and close the Iwasaki okiya was not any sexual exploitation, but economic exploitation. Though the geisha go out and bring in the clientele and do the hard work, they get the least amount of money in their industry. The schools and businesses around them profit the most and Mineko at the height of her success was not allowed to make any money using her artistic skills for her own profit. She wasn't even allowed to teach in the dance school that she learned her dances in despite being the best dancer there. She realized that a very small group of people were getting a large amount of the millions of dollars being made in Gion Kobu and her and most of her peers were not even being compensated with proper worker's compensation, post-junior high school education, or a pension system for older geisha. She spent a decade complaining to the authorities responsible, but they dismissed her concerns. She thought if she quit and got other geisha to defect with her it would cause a crisis that would force reform, but she underestimated the inherent inability that Japanese society had to adapting to the changing times and nothing has really changed in the Gion since she left other than the decrease in numbers of people who can teach these arts properly.

She retired in 1980, started a family with a painter, and became a patroness of the arts in Japan. It was not until some random white man wanted to write a paperback romance featuring geisha (and botched it) that she was drawn back to "the site of memory" and eventually wrote this book.

If you want further recommendations on this subject (because I know you GR folks hate to read something and get smart) I got two movies to recommend. A very hard to find tv movie adaptation of this book exist called Flower Battle (or Hanaikusa) which was made in 2007. This movie is almost impossible to watch with subtitles unless you can internet very well. An easier movie to find which I have actually watched is A Geisha (1953) directed by Kenji Mizoguchi which looks at a maiko and geiko in the immediate post-war Japan and was made by someone who has a very complicated pre-war history with the "flower and willow world."
There is also this youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/1113kuni... which seems to be from somebody who works in the geisha industry. I was able to corroborate many of Mineko Iwasaki's descriptions of the different dances and even the details of how maiko and geiko dress from just browsing through these videos.
Profile Image for Ingrid Lola.
145 reviews
March 12, 2013
Yeeah ... Mineko Iwasaki unfortunately comes off as very unlikeable in this book. The overtone that she is trying to prove something (that Arthur Golden was "wrong" [even though he was writing fiction, which I feel she should understand, since she knows everything about art and all?]) is very, very strong. Like way too strong. Like it kind of made me laugh. It just didn't read well at all.

I would love to have read more about how Mineko challenged the system (like she claims she did, but never says exactly how) instead of about how amazing she was and that everybody loved her and that these the way Arthur Golden portrayed geisha in Memoirs of a Geisha is WRONG. (Even though the ambiguity and mystery of geisha is part of their aesthetic... I wish she would have gone into this more.)

Even from the first few chapters I wasn't sure if I believed that her account is really "true." It just feels so off. Like, she keeps repeating that she insisted on not drinking sake until she was at drinking age, with lots of strange side stories to back this up, and the way-too-detailed and uninteresting story of how she lost her virginity to a man she truly loved of her own free will, and it was wild and beautiful and perfect, and blabla...which was obviously in there to challenge Arthur Golden's statement that she told him her virginity was auctioned for the equivalent of $850,000, which he also claims he has on tapes he recorded when he interviewed her for his book in 1992. Strange.

Anyway. It was way too stilted to feel like a real, genuine account to me. Even if it is, her tone and presentation made it feel like it wasn't.

Profile Image for Carol Rodríguez.
369 reviews25 followers
November 6, 2019
Cuando Arthur Golden se estaba documentando para escribir su archiconocida novela “Memorias de una geisha”, entrevistó a nueve geikos de Gion, entre ellas a Mineko Iwasaki, con la condición de que no revelara su identidad. Golden incumplió su palabra e incluyó a Iwasaki en los agradecimientos del libro, pero no solo eso, si no que había moldeado una historia que corría paralela a la vida de Iwasaki, pero a la que dotó de connotaciones negativas y falsas, desvirtuando por completo el oficio de las geishas. Cuando el libro se publicó en 1997, Mineko Iwasaki empezó a recibir amenazas de muerte por no haber respetado el código de silencio de las geishas y, además, se ofendió por el uso que Golden había hecho de su biografía, así que le demandó por incumplimiento de acuerdo, difamación y violación del copyright y comenzó a escribir su verdadera historia, que salió a la luz en 2002 y es este libro del que hoy estoy hablando. El juicio entre ella y Golden, por cierto, se resolvió en 2003 con un acuerdo amistoso.

Yo leí “Memorias de una geisha” hace mucho tiempo, allá por 2005, y me gustó mucho, me pareció una historia muy trepidante y apasionante y la devoré en pocos días. Pero claro, mi visión de las geishas pasó a ser confusa, porque tenía entendido que no eran prostitutas y el libro de Golden afirmaba todo lo contrario. Más tarde investigué, quería tenerlo claro, y resulta que existen grandes diferencias entre lo real y lo que Golden contó, así que mucho cuidado si os aventuráis a leer su libro, porque la trama engancha y el salseo está servido, pero no se puede tomar como un documento histórico veraz.

Lo que hace Mineko Iwasaki en su novela es contar su vida hasta que se retiró y limpiar la profesión de geisha. Nos explica cómo funciona todo, las fases por las que atraviesa una aprendiz (maiko) y las vicisitudes del oficio; cómo se gestiona una ochiya (casa de geishas); habla de aprendizaje, rivalidad y amistad; aclara qué es realmente el mizuage y afirma que lo que contó Golden es falso y que eso de pujar por la virginidad de la geisha se llegó a hacer en algunos círculos reducidos, pero no era la práctica habitual y que se prohibió del todo en 1959, cuando Japón ilegalizó la prostitución. Nos dice que la traducción de “geisha” es “artista” y que en los años en que ella ejerció la profesión (décadas de los 60 y 70 del siglo XX), su trabajo era entretener, servir, tocar el shamisen y danzar en recepciones, tanto de hombres como de mujeres o mixtas, y que no había nada sexual por en medio. Básicamente, un espectáculo o intercambio cultural que incluso las geishas casadas pueden seguir ejerciendo. El tema de los benefactores de geishas, que también fue algo muy criticado en el libro de Golden, tampoco es como él lo contó, porque él daba a entender que un hombre se obsesionaba con una geisha y se ponía en modo baboso, la mantenía, le compraba cosas… y resulta que en realidad los benefactores pueden ser hombres, mujeres o grupos, y sus donaciones van a parar a un fondo de la ochiya que sirve para mantener ésta y a todo el personal que trabaja ahí (maikos, geishas, limpiadoras, cocineras, mantenimiento…). Es una inversión para proteger y sustentar este modo de vida.

Se puede decir que, mientras ejerció, Iwasaki tuvo una vida apasionante, porque conoció a grandes personalidades internacionales, como el director Elia Kazan, Isabel II de Inglaterra, Elizabeth Taylor… O celebridades a nivel nacional, entre los que se incluyen políticos, gente influyente de las finanzas o el actor Shintaro Katsu, con quien mantuvo una peculiar relación amorosa. Su vida en esa época fue un cúmulo de fiestas, viajó por todo el mundo, ganó muchísimo dinero, participó en películas, anuncios, campañas publicitarias… Fue la geisha más famosa de su tiempo y en Japón es toda una celebrity muy respetada aún hoy. Si buscáis una foto suya de cuando estaba en activo, corresponde al ideal de geisha perfecta que todos tenemos en la cabeza. Pero en la novela también cuenta que no todo era tan de color rosa, que era una vida cansada en la que siempre tenía que estar perfecta, sonriente y locuaz; trabajaba todos los días y a diario se desplazaba a cantidad de fiestas y recepciones, además de ofrecer espectáculos en teatros. En varias ocasiones sufrió crisis de agotamiento y ansiedad por las que tuvo que ser incluso hospitalizada, así como afecciones de riñón que casi le llevan a perder uno de estos órganos. También da a entender que conocer a tantos famosos le acabó dando igual, que llegó un punto en que se limitó a hacer su trabajo. Se vislumbra cierta toxicidad, asuntos turbios, invitados que abusaban de las drogas y el alcohol… En fin, que nada era tan idílico como parecía y esa vida que parecía apasionante era en realidad una fachada del agotamiento y la desolación que Iwasaki estaba experimentando. Y en los albores de los años 80, a los 29 años de edad, agotada de todo y habiendo perdido la fe en el sistema de los karyukai, se retiró para formar una familia, creando con ello un gran impacto en la sociedad japonesa.

Lo que más me interesó del libro y me gustó es todo lo que cuenta acerca del funcionamiento de las ochiya y la forma de vida de maikos y geishas, pero en general es una obra que me ha dejado un sabor agridulce y creo que es por cómo está escrita. La narración me ha resultado fría y la transición entre escenarios y momentos es muy abrupta; nada expresa un sentimiento profundo, a veces parece un cúmulo de datos. Algunas cosas resultan un poco repetitivas y, otras, que me parecían muy interesantes, se resuelven en dos líneas. La propia Iwasaki me ha parecido un tanto prepotente en ocasiones; sí comenta algunos errores que comete a lo largo de su carrera, pero en general se pinta bastante perfecta. Por ejemplo, cuando tenía tres años ingresó en la ochiya y en el libro narra conversaciones que tenía con geishas y maikos en ese momento y que me parece extraño que recuerde tan bien y en las que, además, siempre sale victoriosa, con un lenguaje y forma de comportarse que no corresponden en absoluto a una niña de esa edad. Hechos como este me han ensombrecido la lectura porque me cuesta creer algo así. Se nota mucho que Iwasaki escribió esta novela en caliente, con un sentimiento de venganza hacia Golden, y eso le hace un flaco favor, ya que es lo que la hace parecer brusca. O también puede parecer así de fría porque acabó muy cansada de su vida como geisha y por eso tal vez no transmite sentimiento en su novela, donde llega a un punto en que expone más el peso de la fama que otra cosa. O que simplemente no es escritora y la estructura del libro es desigual debido a esto, porque salseo hay, pero es una narradora tan aséptica que no lo parece. También debo decir que los paralelismos que Iwasaki afirma detectar en la obra de Golden entre su biografía y el personaje ficticio de Sayuri, no me han parecido tan evidentes.

El caso es que me quedo así, con esos sentimientos encontrados. Y sé que es un libro que me va a hacer pensar y que probablemente vaya mutando mi opinión sobre él, pero de momento me quedo un poco entre dos aguas.

3,5 estrellas
Profile Image for Cheryl.
464 reviews594 followers
September 21, 2015
I started reading this as a memoir and realized my mistake because I was yearning for more emotion, more of an understanding of the narrator. I should have been reading it as an autobiography instead though, because it certainly has the texture of the traditional autobiography (rumors are, it was ghost-written). There is a lot here about the Japanese culture and the pictures really help you place the descriptions.

Mineko Iwasaki tells the story of her life as a geisha in Japan. Written after the famous Memoirs of a Geisha, there is much speculation (even an alleged lawsuit) about the nonfiction being written as a rebuttal to the novel. In an online interview with Golden about his novel, it is alleged that he had a fax that shows how the geisha asked him to put her face out there more, which leads you to believe that once the book became a hit with millions of dollars, she wanted more. Golden created composite characters and different settings and scenarios so that the novel could read like fiction, thus honoring the protection-of-privacy deal he'd had with the real-life geisha. In the end, she seemed to dislike the fictional portrayal.

What I didn't like was the anger and chiding that loomed throughout the autobiography. The author wanted people to know that geishas are not what they seem. Yes, we get it. It was the way in which she wrote it though, that was off-putting: "We are de facto diplomats who have to be able to communicate with anyone. But this doesn't mean we are doormats." Statements like this wouldn't have been necessary to say had she just shown it.

And then there is the chiding: "This is why the whole notion of geisha houses being dens of ill repute is so ridiculous. Men are barely allowed inside..." There were not a lot of scenes of the geisha entertainment; instead, the author and her translator chose to focus on the dancing and dance lessons. Besides talking about her long-term relationship with a married man and some meetings with royalty, she doesn't really go into a lot about the entertaining.

After reading Arthur Golden's well-written, Memoirs of a Geisha, and feeling some sympathy for the orphan girl forced into that life, reading this true story was a bit difficult, since the real geisha insists that it was her choice, at five years old, to leave her parents, that she could visit them at any time, and that she had the upper hand at her geisha house. Really?
Profile Image for Ailsa.
158 reviews215 followers
January 9, 2018
"I believed that self-discipline was the key to beauty."

Mineko Iwasaki successfully sued Arthur Golden for modelling his novel Memoirs of a Geisha on her life. I can't really blame him. This memoir gets three stars solely due to how fascinating it is to see what it takes to become the most successful Geiko* of a generation.**

Geisha of Gion is far from a perfect read. My gripes, in no particular order:

1) Other reviewers suggest that Iwasaki had a ghost writer. If she did, she was robbed. There was no natural flow between her anecdotes. One sensational incident after another, with little insight to how in made her feel or how it affected her life.

2) I don't believe all of her stories. She claims to have slept only three hours a night for years on end. She claims to of had a premonition of a friend's death. (She has a lot of foreboding premonitions that turn out to be spot on.) This memoir begins when she is three years old. She claims to have an acute memory but it's a bit too much to swallow. I can't remember what happened last week as clearly as she recounts the events of her early childhood.

3) Her eldest sister (literally and symbolically) Yaeko is a cartoon villain. She must of been seriously unhinged. Why did the mother of the household hand her such an important responsibility over Mineko? It is never explained.

4) Mineko Iwasaki is easy to dislike. Being groomed from a young age to be a heiress must warp your personality somewhat, I'll admit. She was such a precocious child (and precocious adult) and she can't understand why she has no friends. She is often self-important and sanctimonious. When she is sitting next to Queen Elizabeth II at a dinner Iwasaki notices that she doesn't touch her dinner:

"I always try to eat whatever my host has been kind enough to serve me. To refuse would be discourteous and, if I were a visitor of state, it could even be construed as an affront to the nation, to say nothing of all the people who have worked so hard to prepare the meal."

Iwasaki avenges her nation (and the chef) by flirting with the Duke of Edinburgh. Cut her some slack, Mineko. She's just flown half way around the world to be at some boring state dinner. Japanese cuisine is an acquired taste. Especially in the 1970's when even sushi was completely exotic to the British palette.

5) Iwasaki always happens to be the best at everything and will tell you so herself. She takes up golf:
"I took private lessons for a few weeks and was soon scoring in the 80s and 90s. No one could believe it"

Whenever she visits Gion: "When I tell them my name is Mineko, they invariably fly into a tizzy and ask, 'Are you the real Mineko? The legend? It is wonderful to spend time with them."

No wonder all her peers had tall poppy syndrome.

6) While she goes into some detail about her dancing and the importance of kimono, sometimes she just throws a piece of info at you without context. For instance, once she was adopted she suckled her elder sister's breast to go to sleep... she continued to do this until she was over 10 years old... excuse me? Was this normal in Japan at that time? Or was it unique to Mineko? Why did everyone in your adopted family just go with it? Some elaboration would have been fantastic. At another point, she goes to get her face shaved which she has done regularly since she was a child. Is this still done in Japan? To what end?

Mineko Iwasaki is a formidable woman and her achievements are extraordinary. I just wish her tale was in the hands of an experienced biographer who could breathe some life into her story.

*Geisha can refer to men or women and simply means artist. In Kyoto, the term Geiko is used to describe what those in the West would describe as a Geisha.

** It also gets three stars because boo the patriarchy. Yay! for women telling their own stories.
Profile Image for Claudia.
954 reviews533 followers
Shelved as 'dnf-not-my-cup-of-coffee'
August 28, 2020
Memoirs of a Geisha is based on the life of Mineko Iwasaki, the author of this book. While the former is fiction, this one is the true account of her life.

Being an autobiography, I expected to be credible, but when I read such passages, my trust in what follows fades into inexistence:

"The lady looked at me for a second. Her body was very still but I saw her eyes widen.[...] "You know, Mr. Tanaka, I have been looking for an atotori [...] for a very long time and I have the oddest sensation that I may have just found her." I had no idea what she was talking about. I didn't know what an atotori was or why she needed one. But I felt the energy in her body change." This at the age of 3. Wow...

There are others like this and all the introspection, clear and vivid memories, the perspicacity to read one's emotions, not to mention taking her destiny into her own hands until/at the age of 5, made me roll my eyes way too often.

Add to this a very dull writing (or maybe it's the translation, I can't tell) and the result is an incredulous and bored me abandoning the book at 23%.

As much as I loved Golden's book years ago, this was utterly dissapointing.
Profile Image for Sushi (寿司).
610 reviews131 followers
July 4, 2020
Quello di Golden era bello ma questo è superiore. Se a Golden ho dato 5☆ a questo metto 5☆ con lode o extra.
Stupendo. Assolutamente stupendo. Non so che dire. Sicuro mi ha insegnato anche cose che ancora non conoscevo. Consiglio. :)
Profile Image for Rowena.
500 reviews2,463 followers
November 1, 2011
One of my favourite books ever! Mineko's story is so fascinating, filled with tragedy, love and intrigue. Also great introduction to Japanese culture.
Profile Image for Brittany McCann.
1,642 reviews405 followers
February 23, 2016
Check out my blog to see Reviews of Books and Movies as well as Recipes and DIY projects

This book was a solid 4 star read for me. Whereas Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha was meant to entertain, Mineko Isawaki's Geisha, a Life was meant to inform.

Mineko Isawaki is most notable for being one of, if not THE most famous Geisha in Japan's history. This autobiography is told from her own view of the traditions and trails that she faced.

Mineko does a brilliant job of taking the reader through the grueling daily schedule she had from a young age as well as giving a lot of historical background to her life and the life of a Geiko (female artist). She dispels much of the rumors of geishas being little more than pleasure companions. I love the detail she gives on traditions of a geiko as well as the intricacies associated with each year and season and the symbolism and immense cost of each important occasion and dress of a geisha's career.

This book is drastically different from memoirs of a Geisha and makes you wonder how both of these stories are about the same thing. This is definitely not a re-read of Memoirs of a Geisha and stands on its own If you are interested in learning more about geisha, and as known in Kyoto as geiko, I highly recommend giving this book a read.
Profile Image for monica ♪.
506 reviews71 followers
August 2, 2014
For people who don't know about Japanese culture maybe geisha for them has 'negative' image.
But it's all wrong. Geisha don't sell their body. They sell arts!
And this book tells the very detail about Geisha and their life.
Geisha really are the real artist! They learn various traditional Japanese culture since they were very young.
And being Geiko (Geisha) is not an easy thing. They have to take so many lessons, performing those arts (dancing, singing, playing traditional music instruments, etc) while wearing heavy kimono. The kimono itself can weigh 30-40 pound!
The author is a really amazing person. I can imagine who hard it is to be a success Geisha like her.
This book is a MUST READ book for people who love Japanese culture.
And I'm so proud of Japan because of those beautiful cultures!
Profile Image for David Nicol.
Author 3 books43 followers
January 24, 2013
I really liked it for the peek inside the life of a meiko/geiko in post war Japan. Mineko herself as a child is what we in the West would call a precocious little brat, but is more of a misinterpretation of the class system.

Two things that were negatives for me though were the fact that either Iwasaki or Brown had never seen a Shamisen and/or a Viola. The text states that a Shamisen is played like a Viola.... that I would like to see.

The second thing was Mineko's assertion that she doesn't pass wind, or fart as we call it in these parts. Either it was to save face in front of her doctor, or she actually did believe that she hasn't farted in her whole life. The latter would explain why Toshio wouldn't leave his wife for her, he probably couldn't bear to spend the rest of his life with a woman who was perfect throughout the day, but would blow him across the futon at night with her trumpet bum.

The whole story is pretty much a culture shock. But an enjoyable read if you have an interest in other cultures.
Profile Image for Lady.
22 reviews1 follower
June 30, 2011
I'd give this 2.5 if I could but it doesn't deserve a three. The author is stuck up, spoiled and full of herself. She Disparages both the Queen of England and Prince Charles for trivial things that a normal person would never even consider. She acts like shes better than everyone around her and bosses people around from a young age. She spends the entire book slamming the entire geisha system and is terribly offended that everyone doesn't change and do her things her way instead. If you're reading this because this is the woman that memiors of a geisha is based off of I wouldn't bother, Very little of her life was directly used in the book and most that was has been changed around so you may not catch it anyway. Mineko is nothing like Sayuri in any way. I spent most of this book being kind of disgusted at her holier than thou attitude. At one point when shes a child she takes off her shoe and expects another little girl to scratch her toe for her!!
Profile Image for Pink.
537 reviews498 followers
December 16, 2014
You should read this book if -

You've read Memoirs of a Geisha, but now want something more.

You're considering reading Memoirs of a Geisha, but didn't realise this was the true story.

You wouldn't consider reading Memoirs of a Geisha, because of the twisted western stereotyping.

Profile Image for Patryx.
434 reviews136 followers
May 7, 2023
Ho deciso di leggero questo libro sapendo che era molto diverso da Memorie di una Geisha e quindi non posso dire di essere rimasta sorpresa dalla differenza (secondo me abissale) tra i due libri.
Storia proibita di una geisha è la testimonianza diretta di Mineko Iwasaki che è stata la geisha (termine scorretto ma per semplicità lo uso) più famosa del suo tempo: l’intento è di smontare pregiudizi e stereotipi che nella cultura occidentale circondano la figura della geisha, soprattutto l’idea che parte dei servizi offerti sono di tipo sessuale.
La scrittura, secondo me, è piuttosto piatta e, leggendo, si ha spesso la sensazione che il testo non sia stato rielaborato ma si tratta della trascrizione della risposta alle domande poste da Rande Brown, coautrice del libro. Gli eventi narrati sono interessanti perché consentono di capire meglio l’ambiente delle geishe e il tipo di vita che conducevano ma la narrazione non è riuscita ad emozionarmi, probabilmente perché il punto di vista è molto diverso da quello occidentale: in alcune situazioni la valenza emotiva attribuita agli eventi è dissonante rispetto alle mie aspettative, soprattutto in relazione alla strenua difesa che Mineko Iwasaki fa dei suoi genitori, condannando invece aspramente la sorella maggiore che non ha mai accettato di essere stata ceduta per motivi economici che, quindi, è diventata una geisha contro la sua volontà.
Memorie di una geisha invece è un’opera di fantasia, probabilmente per certi aspetti verosimile, che però non descrive l’intero mondo delle geishe (ma del resto è un romanzo, non un saggio con pretese di adesione alla realtà) e il suo autore, essendo un “occidentale”, riesce a far leva sulle emozioni del suo lettore “occidentale” con cui condivide, a grandi linee, lo stesso sistema di valori. Forse anche il libro di Mineko Iwasaki descrive solo una parte di quel mondo e, se si è curiosi di approfondire, il riferimento anche ad altri autori giapponesi può aiutare ad avere un quadro più completo (ad esempio a me sono piaciuti molto la graphic novel Una gru infreddolita: Storia di una geisha e la serie tv The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House ).
Profile Image for Tracey.
2,031 reviews47 followers
December 19, 2007
I'd vaguely remembered hearing/reading something (maybe on NPR or 50bookchallenge posts) about Mineko Iwasaki, the prime source & inspiration for Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha: A Novel, being disappointed with the portrayal of the geisha life in that novel, and therefore, she had written her own memoirs. So I checked this book out from the library and I now see where her concerns lie.

Mineko (born Masako Tanaka) joined the Iwasaki okiya as a child, due to some family issues. She was fascinated by the dance, striving to reach perfection as the only way to make everything right. She debuted as a minarai, or apprentice geisha, at an unusually young age and worked herself nearly to death for the next few years. As she matured, she became one of the most popular geisha of the Gion area. Eventually, she started to burn out and made the decision to end her career rather early. Falling in love may have had something to do with her decision as well.

The two sections of pictures were very helpful to identify certain elements of the dress, as well as get a feel for the flow of her life. The writing style is relatively plain and straightforward, what I would expect of an autobiography, as opposed to a work of fiction. Some of the fine points of the social standings and rituals got a little confusing, however.

It was interesting to read these two books back to back - seeing what small incidences in Iwasaki's life Golden chose to modify into major plot elements, and vice versa. For example, Golden chose to move his story back one generation (Iwasaki was born in 1949), probably in order to add WWII as a dramatic plot point. The attribution of a certain ritual of the oiran (courtesans) to the geishas was probably what made Iwasaki upset. (and I wouldn't blame her!)

Recommended to anyone looking for a more realistic portrayal of the waning "flower and willow world" of the geisha.

Profile Image for Kim-Lost-In-A-Book.
405 reviews7 followers
June 3, 2013
I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir. I think it's a very real glimpse into a world many know very little about (but like to think they know more than they do). I liked the insight to traditional Japanese culture, something I've been interested in since my youth. Mineko lead a life that most women can not comprehend, and many would probably find appalling or undesirable, but Mineko lived it well, I think. While she was naïve in many ways, in others she was quite strong and mindful of how best to handle some difficult situations. The misconceptions about geiko are long lived and sad. It's also sad that their very own culture feeds the misconceptions with similarities between the geiko and oiran "ceremonies".

I think the geiko (geisha) life is very interesting and beautiful. It is, of course, not without its flaws. Like any other society or art form. When people are involved especially people of different personalities are involved there will always be discord in some way. Mineko's story showed me that even back in the "good old days" there were still people who did not take their jobs seriously. That they didn't value their heritage and the traditions of their jobs and cultures. That is something you could never say about Mineko. She certainly valued the traditions, even while trying to modernize and improve them (ie: more academic education for the girls especially in foreign language courses). She took her job very seriously and she expected others to as well. Mineko says herself that geiko is a dying art (for various reasons, economic not being the least of them). This is a sad fact to me. I would love to see it continue for many more generations.
Profile Image for Juushika.
1,550 reviews163 followers
February 13, 2018
The autobiography of Mineko Iwasaki, the most famous geisha in Japan until her sudden retirement at the height of her career. This is written partially in response to Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha (although it never says so directly); as such, it's made accessible to a foreign audience and does much to explain the controversy surrounding Memoirs, particularly the liberties that book takes with Iwasaki's life story, as well as the way it elides geisha and prostitution. This is also a memoir in its own right. Iwasaki relies heavily on anecdotes; her memory is precise, her language evocative, her personality changeable and occasionally smug. She simultaneously loves and criticizes the hierarchical social structure, restrictiveness, skill, artistry, and effort that contribute to a geisha's craft, particularly as interacts with gender and as it has failed to change with the times; her experience and opinions are fervent and complex. This throughline isn't as solid as it could be--in particular, it wants for a stronger conclusion, perhaps an argument about what she believes the future of geisha should look like. But it's a compelling effort, and especially valuable in a world where Memoirs of a Geisha is such a problematic and popular text.
Profile Image for Lauren.
10 reviews
January 31, 2013
Where to begin... it's not that "Geisha" doesn't have an interesting story to tell, it's just a shame that Mineko Iwasaki had to be her to do the telling.

Geisha brings to us the enchanting tale of a spoiled Daddy's girl who becomes a spoiled geiko princess after she's adopted as the heir to a prominent okiya. She thus child royalty who gets what she wants, when she wants it with very little complaint from anyone. Below is a short list of what you can expect from the book:

Mineko demands things be done this way and that. She goes to dance lessons. She works really really hard and practices more than anyone else and is by far the best dancer. She was born to dance. Nobody can touch her. She's beautiful, and gets constant adoration and attention from everyone she comes in contact with. She has maids that pick up after her wherever she goes. Soon she's the top geiko in Gion, and has her schedule booked for the next five years...

After becoming a Geiko, she makes money hand over fist by learning to milk the system and schedule herself for multiple appointments in the same evening, showing up for only a few minutes at each event. At the top of her game she makes about 3 million dollars a year, has hundreds of thousands of dollars in kimono, and thus becomes so rich that she literally doesn't understand the value of money. At the age of 21, she doesn't know what "change" is or that you have to plug in an appliance before it wil turn on. Adorable, right?

One of my favorite quotes from Mineko:
"...they were among the few who relished the fact that I was such a phenomenon."

And yet, somehow, she has a hard time making friends.

Conceitedness aside, there's also contant play of double-standards in the book. One that's particularly troubling is the question of geiko serving as high-class escorts. While it's stated time and time again that geiko are not prostitutes, so sir-ee, no funny business going on here, Mineko accepts outrageous tips from men (Japan is a no-tipping culture) for entertaining them, and builds intimate friendships with married men that sometimes turn into full blown affairs. Geiko acting as mistresses is briefly acknowledged, but because Japan is a culture that associates marriage with political ties, you know, it's all good...

Much of the text is either awkwardly translated or awkwardly edited. Next to cliche expressions like "slept like there was no tomorrow," we have a smattering of words you find only on the GRE. My kindle dictionary got a good workout. Some Japanese idioms like "the scales fell from my eyes" also appear to be directly translated, but sound awkward without further explanation.

Unfortunately I find myself unable or unwilling to believe many of the stories that told within these pages. All of it is just too unreal. Should even some of it be true, it seems to me that this kind of an account would be so limited that whose to say it's "realistic" at all?

Maybe "Memoirs of a Geisha" is fiction, but I can't help but think it hold more truth than Mineko Iwasaki's "Geisha."
9 reviews1 follower
September 28, 2016
I am very fascinated by all aspects of the Japanese culture and bought this book believing that it would be an authoritative source of information about the Geisha world. The author - a successful former Geisha who inspired the popular novel 'Memoirs of a Geisha' - declared to have been disappointed by the inaccuracies in Golden's book, and commits to giving a real and honest depiction of Gion's life; I was therefore expecting and objective account of her upbringing and lots of information about the traditions on which her profession is based.

However, this book does not fulfill her promise and disappointed me. There are many descriptions of jewellery, ornaments, and kimono patterns, and long accounts of her dance lessons and recitals, but it does not go any deeper than that. Being so knowledgeable about the topic, she skips over details and explanations which are obvious to her, but probably not to her reader, who could have used them to better understand the complex world and traditions that she is distractedly painting.

Narrating her story in first-person, the protagonist comes off as detached, spoilt, and superficial, which prevented me from connecting with her and her story. The whole book is just as full of drama, jealousy, and gossip as the novel she wanted to distance herself from, leaving me confused: it is neither a novel nor an essay, and as a biography it lacks the openness and emotion to instill empathy in the reader. I understand that this may be due to the reserved and modest attitude which is customary in Japan, but this was just not the book I was hoping to read.
2 reviews2 followers
April 11, 2007
This was a pretty good book, but it was a little dry, probably due to the translation. Main point: Geisha are NOT prostitutes.
Profile Image for Kelly Furniss.
869 reviews
June 4, 2018
I have read a few books on Geisha's and always found them interesting so when I saw this recommended on a forum I ordered it. I thought it was a really good insight in to the Japanese culture, customs and traditions. What really came across was Mineko's self discipline and work ethic and on reflection of her career how important it was to dispel the myth of a what a Geisha actually does.
I enjoyed this book and read it in two large chunks and the photographs included really added to the images formed. A book I would certainly recommend to anyone who has ever looked at the stunning pictures of these women and just wondered.
Profile Image for K..
971 reviews70 followers
August 12, 2012
The culture Iwasaki reveals is more than enough for me to give her a pass on the somewhat stilted writing - she isn't an author by trade, after all.

I especially enjoy the fact that she pretty much wrote this as a big "fuck you" to Arthur Golden, who ignored her request for anonymity when she helped him with Memoirs of a Geisha; it's worth noting that Golden also misrepresented many facts about the life of geisha in general.

I could not handle such a career - the lack of good sleep for such a long period alone is enough to make me cringe sympathy.
Profile Image for Maria Elmvang.
Author 2 books99 followers
July 6, 2007
Ever since I read "Memoirs of a Geisha" I've wanted to read this one, as Arthur Golden mentions this book as being one of his inspirations. On my way to Italy I found it at the airport, and immediately bought it. It did not disappoint. Where MoaG takes place around World War 2, this one describes the life of a Geisha in the 60s and 70s. You get to read about how Mineko meets Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth and several other celebrities that we 'know'. Fascinating book.
Profile Image for Teresa.
193 reviews
October 25, 2016
Novela escrita como "respuesta" a Memorias de una geisha pues la protagonista no quedó contenta por como se reflejó el mundo de las geishas. Esta sin duda, es diferente, menos glamourosa y comercial pero seguramente mucho más fiel a la realidad. Lo que más me ha gustado ha sido todo lo que se explica sobre la cultura japonesa.
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