This novel is Mineko Iwasaki’s memoirs of her life as one of Japan’s finest and most popular geisha of her time.

Author :  Mineko Iwasaki with Rande Brown

Publised:  2003

Publisher :  Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster UK, Ltd.)

ISBN: 0-7434-6900-3

No. of  pages :  334

Her Story :

Madam Oima, the proprietress of the Iwasaki okiya, a highly successful geisha house in Gion Kobu,  was happy to find her successor in the pretty, captivating face of five-year-old Mineko.  She petitioned little Mineko from her parents and thus started the career of one of the most foremost geishas in Japan.

At a very early age, Mineko Iwasaki was trained in Japanese dance, music and the arts  in preparation for an illustrous career as a geiko (geisha) and as an honored successor to Madam Oima.  As Japanese art is obsessed with perfection,  Mineko embraced this cultural virtue as her personal creed so that her beauty and relentless mastery of the arts brought great honor and fortune to the house of Iwasaki.

Although Mineko was always surrounded by beauty and privilege,  her life was a life of  self-imposed hard work to be the best — constant training, rigid self-discipline, and grueling schedules.

Mineko Iwasaki

In her memoirs, the author takes care to point out that real geishas are artists, exceptional in the art of traditional Japanese entertainment, which include the highly ritualistic tea ceremony,  traditional dance forms, and the art of conversation, to name a few.  Perceptions of geishas as stylized prostitutes are Western misconceptions which are rooted in the confusion between courtesans (an entirely different group) and geishas.  Being a geisha is to embody the Japanese art form–bringing Japanese artistic perfection to life.   So a geisha is an artistic entertainer par excellance, nothing more.

Mineko’s memoirs chronicles her years as a geisha until her shocking retirement from the business at age 29.

At present, the author is in her fifties and lives with her husband and daughter in Kyoto,  Japan.

The Review :

Through one geisha’s story, we get to take a good look at the mesmerizing and quite secretive “flower and willow” world.  This is a wonderfully descriptive account of the geiko community that upholds and celebrates the perfect feminine.  This is quite an eye-opener, actually, and casts huge doubts on the credibility of works that portray geishas as women of ill-repute.

Overall, it really isn’t a very compelling read but the author has many little stories that keep one’s  interest up — like the time when Prince Charles autographed her favorite fan, uninvited or when she decided to subtly flirt with the Duke of Edinburgh in full view of Queen Elizabeth II, as a little revenge for the Queen’s refusal to eat even a little of a meal which was meticulously planned for the royal visit (Mineko saw this as an unforgivable breach of etiquette).

As informative and interesting these accounts are, one is left with a feeling, though, that the author never allowed the reader to know her very well.  Perhaps, the author is a naturally private person; and also perhaps Ms. Iwasaki  does not possess the expressive skills of a writer.   Rande Brown, who is named as co-author must simply be a translator and not a real writer as well.  This is quite evident in the way the book is written—simple, sometimes bland and amateurish; but, its simplicity is what makes the book very readable and friendly to those who usually shun memoirs.

On The Side :

A little research into Mineko Iwasaki reveals that the author was the major inspiration for Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha“.  However,  she sued Mr. Golden for libel and defamation of character in 2001.  Mineko claims that Golden’s book twisted her accounts, betrayed her confidentiality and that his acknowledgement of her being his primary source, has earned her the contempt of the present geisha community.  It is Golden’s depiction of the geisha as a highly cultured prostitute that has earned Mineko a lot of flack, even to the point of receiving several death threats for violating the traditional code of silence.  The suit was settled out of court in 2003.

The New York Times and The Independent have better accounts of this dispute.    An interview granted to The Boston Phoenix talks about Mineko Iwasaki’s decision to publish her memoirs, her corrections on the common misconceptions of geishas,  and her early retirement.

In A Nutshell :

Geisha of Gion” has given me the impetus to select  “Memoirs of a Geisha” as my next read.   Despite having been disparaged by Ms. Iwasaki as an inaccurate depiction of geishas, it nevertheless must have been a result of research into geisha culture and interviews of other geisha.

From the pen of a genuine geisha, and not just any geisha but from the best there was, Geisha of Gion“, though, is the work to take seriously.  I consider myself privileged to have learned about this secretive world from someone who had lived in it and is actually in its roster of  legendary characters.

My Mark  :   Very  Good

Advertisements