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Geisha, a Life: A Life Books

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Mineko Iwasaki

Rigorously trained in all the traditional arts, Mineko Iwasaki grew up knowing she would become a geisha. One of the great geisha stars, she writes here not only about her own life but about the geisha system itself and the finer points of being a geisha. … see full wiki

Author: Mineko Iwasaki
Genre: Biography & Autobiography, Social Science
Publisher: Diane Pub Co
Date Published: July 02, 2004
1 review about Geisha, a Life: A Life Books

Moving Real Story Behind Memoirs

  • Jun 5, 2008
Pros: Well told story, many interesting events.

Cons: It took me a little while to warm up to the material.

The Bottom Line: This book was well done and give so much insight to the more popular "Memoirs of a Geisha."

It would be impossible to evaluate this book without comparison to the hugely popular Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.

However, where "Memoirs" is fiction, Geisha, A Life is autobiography. In fact Mineko Iwasaki is credited by Golden as a source for his novel. As reported in Asian Week from 2001: "In the course of my extensive research, I am indebted to one individual above all others ... Mineko Iwasaki,” Golden wrote in the book’s acknowledgments." She was one of the geisha interviewed before he penned his novel and there are an uncanny number of parallels between her actual events and some of the things that transpire in the novel.

Iwasaki sued Mr. Golden for breach of contract and defamation of character, a suit that was settled out of court in 2003. Although no written contract existed Ms. Iwasaki states that she spoke to Golden with the understanding that he would protect her identity and that of her family.

In 2002, Ms. Iwasaki tells her own story.

Born Masako Tanaka, she was the youngest of eleven children. Her family had aristocratic roots, but intervening generations had become less prosperous. Her parents were hardworking artists and artisans, but seemed to have little resources to support such a large family. Older sisters had been sent to the okiya to receive training as a geiko, or traditional entertainer, more familiar to most readers as the term geisha.

I wasn't sure what to think shortly after starting this book. It was very apparent to me that there was very much in common with the Golden novel. The language of this book is not near so pretty, but Ms. Iwasaki tells her story in a lively and engaging way. Considered Japan's number one geiko before her retirement, the reader can understand why. She is a spunky lady, and from her telling, was so from a very early age.

Obstinate and tenacious, Mineko learns from an early age that she loves to dance. Training is rigorous; every motion is carefully choreographed. Her love of the dance is a theme that recurs throughout the book.

One of the things that I loved so much was the description of kimono, the ceremonial dress of the geiko. Some of these costumes cost many thousands of dollars with a tremendous number of human hours involved in their creation. Ms. Iwasaki describes her acquisition of new kimono in some part as a desire to support the artisans that create them. The parts of the dress are very specific, and the decoration and embroidery intensely ornate. Gold and silver thread are often used on the hand-dyed and woven silk. She also describes detailed landscapes embroidered on the kimono.

This autobiography covers Mineko's intensive training that leads up to her career, the endless dance lessons, and tea ceremony lessons, and the networking within the community to make certain that she is on everyone's "A" list.

The preparation and pace of a geiko's career is grueling. I certainly never considered that it would be impossible to urinate while wearing the elaborate costume. The support staff for a geiko is also mind-boggling. The geiko's income supports her household which includes maids and managers, hairstylists and dressers. Mineko never seemed to have much of a concept of money, but her adopted parent, Mama Masako is a thrifty manager and Ms. Iwasaki never seemed to do without anything that she wanted.

Throughout the book, the author questions some of the traditional beliefs, and her unwillingness to totally buy into the system leads her to retire at the height of her career at the age of 29.

Ms. Iwasaki shares some interesting anecdotes that involve some players on the world stage, from Prince Charles to his parents, to Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger. She goes so far to imply that the Queen has bad manners. There are two sections of photo inserts, some in color. This makes this book much more interesting in my estimation because the reader is dealing with reality rather than a pretty fiction. I found myself getting more interested as the book progressed which was a happy surprise.

This is a most interesting look at a very secluded and secretive profession.


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