on 18 March 2005
This is a very well written book by a highly successful geisha of the 1960's and 70's Japan. Hated and envied by her older geisha sister, adored by her adoptive geisha family, she went on to be Japan's most succesful geisha and retired early at the tender age of 29 to run a tea shop. Now suing Arthur Golden for breaking his vow of not naming her as his source for his acclaimed novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" as it was unheard of for a geisha to break the vow of silence on their lives. The book may not have the excitement and the attention of Golden's novel but at least it's a true story itself and well written enough to get the reader's interest. Worth buying in my opinion and a warning to everyone: it has a different title by a British publisher, "Geisha of Gion" as I made the mistake of buying it, only to realise it was the same book but under a different heading.
on 1 July 2006
Geisha, A Life, by Mineko Iwasaki
I bought this book some time ago but only just got round to reading it. Western ideas of the Geisha are based largely on Arthur Golden's novel, Memoirs of a Geisha and, although his depiction has to a great extent been exposed as fanciful (he was successfully sued for defamation when it was released in Japan), there is little available to give a clearer picture of this secret world.
As I started reading Iwasaki, I had some scepticism - ok, as the number one Geisha maybe the elements involving prostitution didn't happen to her personally and so on - but as I read on I realised that Golden's fiction was based on Western fantasies and simply given a feeling of 'authenticity' by adding less important details he had gleaned from interviews. Iwasaki clarifies the background to show how various historical events and mistranslations easily support what westerners wanted to believe, but it is the sincerity, uniqueness and sheer marvel
of her life as a Geisha that evokes conviction and a sense of the marvellous.
On one of my trips to Japan years ago, I once encountered a Geisha in a hotel lobby. I didn't speak to her directly - simply viewed her from some feet away. But the atmosphere was as if royalty, an A-list Hollywood star, or someone like the Dalai Lama had just walked in. The charisma, for want of a better word, was so powerful it felt like a physical force that pushed me back against the wall. Everyone in the vicinity was in respectful awe of her personage as she passed through. The Geisha is a 'study of perfection' to use Iwasaki's words, and that is the impression I got. When I read Golden, I had to jump through mental hoops to make any connection with the people he was describing, even if conditions had changed drastically.
Iwasaki's account was more recognisable. It is an autobiography, not a novel, but the uniqueness of her type of life carries the reader away into a spellbound world. As a Geisha, she epitomised the highest ideals of Japanese art, both in her knowledge and in her practice, but furthermore she herself was dedicated as a living example of the ideal, much the way a monk or a senior military person dedicates themself to a particular way of life. This took an exacting toll on her, especially the levels of politeness expected of her when jealous rivals were rude (or in one case put out a cigarette in her palm - she later learnt how
to charm her enemies), or the physical demands of formal dance
performances which she was expected to do within the honour system.
Some of the book is hilarious, especially her meetings with Prince Charles and the Queen and her views on them. She lived in a world of vast wealth, much of which she gave away, but was unhappy that, although the geishas had great control over their personal lives, the choices they made, and whether they wanted to work as geisha, they had little independence in the sense that their education in non-relevant disciplines was limited and this gave them less preparedness if they wished to leave the profession. Eventually she retired, at the height of her fame, and many geishas followed her.
Geisha, A Life, is a fascinating account of a very unusual life, of strong feminist principles, of insight into the (relatively) closed world of Japanese art, etiquette and diplomacy; and most of all it portrays what it takes to be one of the highly skilled, highly disciplined and increasingly rare devotees of the world we distantly glimpse and call Geisha. Golden is a remarkable (if morally questionable) bestselling author - his book leaves you with a feeling of perverse titillation perhaps. Iwasaka, on the other hand, is a skilful writer that creates a moving tapestry in a remarkable tale of courage and fortitude.
Her book is an inspiration.