Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki (translated by Rande Brown)

Geisha cover

“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.

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