Geisha of Gion: The True Story of Japan’s Foremost Geisha: The Memoir of Mineko Iwasaki

ISBN: 074343059X
ISBN 13: 9780743430593
By: Mineko Iwasaki Rande Brown

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GEISHA, A LIFE ""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 apost-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.

Reader's Thoughts


Geisha of Gion is the story of one of the geishas that Arthur Golden based his book Memoirs of a Geisha on. I always enjoyed reading Memoirs of a Geisha, though I know it's not accurate and even perhaps exploitative -- it's certainly felt to be so by some people, in any case -- and I did want to read Mineko Iwasaki's words herself. A lot of people seem to have found that her tone was very grating: her self-assurance, her blithe assumption that the world would cater to her and she would never be wrong. I felt that too, but I wonder how much of it is due to the different cultural backgrounds most readers have to her.It's a fast read, and quite focused on the material aspects of living as a geisha: how much it cost, what the kimono were like, how they wore their hair... There are glimpses of an emotional life, but I could have done with knowing Mineko better, and knowing the price of the clothes she wore a little less. It's still an interesting glimpse into another view on the world of geishas -- though I hesitate to say the 'real' world, as this is just one view of it, from a woman of considerable pride and self-assurance.

Christina Parker

The most amazing autobiography I have ever read. Her memory goes so far back that I question some of the validity behind some of her story... but hey, some people can remember what decisions they made when they were five if it changed the entire course of their life. It was something of a shocker to read about how 'normal' her life was, seeing as she was closer to our time than mentioned in the "Memoirs of a Geisha" book that was loosely based off of her life. It was nothing like how she lived it. For one, Memoirs takes place years before Mineko's birth, during world war II and she was born about four years after the bombing in Hiroshima. Her stories of people she encountered throughout her life were both funny and sad, and to go with her through these ups and downs was a wonderful journey. Her life was so interesting, and she was so influential to the Geiko society that a relaxing normal life is well deserved. I hope she is happy where she is now and if I ever met her my heart would melt! I would love to hear the stories straight from her. Such an amazing, strong-willed woman. If you enjoyed Memoirs, please, please, please pick this up and read about how Geisha life really was like! You won't regret it and you'll put the book down with a great sense of happiness and closure.


Certainly an enlightening read about what it means to be a Geisha. I heard talk about this book mostly in relation to Memoirs Of A Geisha, a story I enjoyed, but this book definitely disproves a lot of the details about the life of a Geisha as depicted in that work of fiction.As for this book itself - it was rich in detail, which I appreciated. I did wonder at times how Mineko could remember things from the past in such detail however, especially from when she was still young. Sometimes I didn't really like her as a narrator either. She seems to have been raised as a princess, and sometimes I really got annoyed by this air of superiority. Maybe it's just a distorted image one gets because of the examples she used in the book, but there was often a case where she said that she'd gotten compliments about having done this or that particularly well.. which eventually got on my nerves. I understand that she's a legend in her field (and a bit of a workaholic) and probably earned the right to be proud of what she's achieved in life, but sometimes it made her seem condescending towards others. It wasn't always pleasant to read about.Overall though it's a very informative book, if you want to learn to look beyond the stereotypes of traditional Japanese culture and Geishas.


First off, unlike most of the other reviewers, I've actually never read Memoirs of a Geisha. I picked this up because I've always been curious about geishas and I have a love of memoirs. I found Mineko's writing immediately engaging -- I think her skill as a geisha really comes out in the way she writes. Her words are precise, but captivating and she really captures the emotional tone of a scene. Mineko's life is fascinating and otherworldly. She presents snippets of her life, leaving the reader to fill in details: a scene from her infancy, a scene from her toddlerhood, vignettes along the way to her being whisked into the secluded world of geisha-hood. The book toes the line between a description of specifically Mineko's life and exposition of the life of a geisha. Unfortunately, by compromising in to the middle ground, it does an adequate job to both sides, but is stellar on neither. I learned a lot of the terminology, economy and practical matters that go into being a geisha; however, while Mineko states several times that she has a passion about the lack of education that geishas get, this passion is not demonstrated at all in the book and the emotions that the geishas have are obscured. Similarly, Mineko's decision to retire as a geisha and become an art dealer happens over the course of a mere handful of pages and seems to have no basis in the rest of the book.Mineko also is very clearly a spoiled girl and woman, who is very used to being catered to. While she occasionally shows insight to that, there are also huge portions of the novel where she seems to have no insight, which left me wondering whether the injustices that she complains of were true, or figments of her unrealistic expectations.


When I started reading this I had no idea this was the Geisha that told the Karyukai secrets to Arthur Golden when he was doing research for his book. It soon became clear as a lot of things rang the same, or had the same tone to them. This book received 3 stars rather than 4 from me because of a two things:1) It wasn't as engrossing as I was hoping.2) I felt like a lot was lost in translation. You would be reading along and then all of the sudden, it seemed as if you were jumping into something else. There were many, many times where I had to go back to the previous page to make sure I was reading correctly.I am sure that Mineko is an amazing storyteller, but somewhere in there, some of that was lost to translation and parts of her story were cut out in order to make the book shorter and more condensed. But what I really wanted was more detail. I was left with a lot of questions. I am glad that Mineko came out and told her story, because despite the anger it incurred from the Gion and geisha society...I fear that someday in the near future these arts will be lost to us. I hope that is not so. If nothing else, they are changing. To record a spot in time every now and then is a blessing. I would recommend this book if you are deeply interested in Japanese culture, and in particular Geisha culture, but if you are looking for something with jazz and interest, pick up Memoirs of a Geisha instead. A little less accurate and true-to-life, but much more engrossing.

Regina Lindsey

Geisha: A Life by Mineko Iwasaki4 StarsIn 1999, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha was a runaway best-selling novel, which was followed up by a blockbuster movie based on the novel. For his book Golden interviewed Mineko, who is the first Geisha in 300 years to go public with her story. Beginning her training at an okiya in Gion, the Geisha District of Kyoto, at the age of five Mineko was adopted by the okiya’s owner and handpicked as the eventual successor. Eventually becoming the number one geisha of the District, Mineko was earning $500,000 in 1960 and entertained high profile people like Prince Charles, President Ford, and Henry Kissenger. She has really great insights into these men that rang true and a very funny story about Prince Charles’ faux pas during his banquet. While she was initially drawn to the career because of her love of dance, the grueling schedule, the constraints of Gion, the politics, and the female rivalries became too much to bear. For a time her health even began to suffer. She made the unusual decision to leave the life and settle down in marriage: “….there was no way I could stay in the system and do what I wanted to do. The whole reason why the organization of Gion Kobu had been systematized in the first place was to ensure the dignity and financial independence of the women who worked there. Yet the strictures of the Inoue School kept us subservient to its authority” (pg 239)Don’t read this book simply because you have a special affinity for Golden’s work. You will be sorely disappointed. She does a good job of shattering some of the myths perpetrated in the book (and does so with an acidic tongue). This is, however, a very detailed look at the history of Geisha’s and the minute details of their training as well as their daily lives. Mineko is a good person to tell that story, as she seems to have a good memory with attention to detail. Add this to the mystique of these women and it is a fascinating account especially for anyone with a more than a passing interest in Japanese culture. There is some fair criticism out there about Mineko’s domineering personality that comes across on the pages, but I don’t think this is unusual for someone who has completely dedicated his/her life to a single endeavor.


I enjoyed this peek into a fascinating culture. I read the fictional Memoirs of a Geisha by Golden first (which is based on Iwasaki's life) so was looking for some additional background reading when I found this autobiography. Definitely seemed much more like real life than the novel!


This was a pretty good book, but it was a little dry, probably due to the translation. Main point: Geisha are NOT prostitutes.

Violet Crush

I loved Memoirs of a Geisha, both the movie and the book. So when I found out that the Geisha on whom the book was based on or rather inspired from, has written an autobiography. Apparently, Ms Mineko Iwasaki was very upset over the way Geisha’s were portrayed by Arthur Golden and that he breached an understanding that her name was not to be mentioned anywhere, but he did, in the book as well as in interviews. She also got death threats from people who thought she had defaced Japanese culture. So she decided to write a book of her own.Iwasaki’s parents were distraught when she decided to become a Geisha when she was just 5 years old. How a girl so young could make such a decision and how could the parents agree to it is something beyond me, even though she has tried to explain it. She goes to stay in an Okiya (a geisha house) and she is initiated into the trainings and numerous classes when she turns six.A woman who is training to become a Geisha has a very disciplined life. There is traditional dancing, singing, playing instruments and also studying. Would-be Geisha’s are allowed to study until Junior High, in fact it’s kind of a rule.Iwasaki excels in dancing and she is introduced as a maiko when she is 15 years old. After a few years of working as a maiko she becomes a geiko at age 21, which are the same names for a Geisha, just different hierarchies. She soon becomes one of the top geisha’s in Gion. In fact, today she almost has a legendary status.What surprised me most was how systematic and well organized the world of a Geisha is. There is a list of all the girls that are going to come out as maiko’s. There is a Kimono Dealers association. There is a very strict hierarchy which if broken can result in serious consequences. The earnings of all the geisha’s are reported to the Geisha Committee (I think that’s whats it is), so everyone knows who the highest earning geisha for a particular year is.The Geisha world itself is so complicated or may be I felt that way because I had not heard a lot about it. There is a rule of what kind of and what design a Kimono can have depending on seasons. Same goes for hairstyles and ornaments. It was exhausting just reading about it.It is very clear that Ms Iwasaki loved and respected what she did and she has tried to dispel all the myth’s regarding geisha’s. She often sounds a bit egoistic and someone that could do no wrong. But we also need to understand the world she lived in, a world when no one, including one’s sister cannot be trusted. She lived by the motto: The Samurai betrays no weakness, even when starving. Pride above all. I can understand how easily pride can be mistaken for ego in the geisha world.There are lots of minute details on a lot of things like the music school, the dance school, the different kinds of geisha’s, the customs and traditions. There are also descriptions on Kimono designs, hair ornaments and the kind. For e.g take this:My Kimono was made out of figured satin in variegated turquoise. The heavy hem of the train was dyed in shades of burnt orange, against which floated a drift of pine needles, maple leaves, cherry blossoms and chrysanthemum petals. My obi was made of black damask decorated with swallowtail butterflies. I wore a matching obi clasp of a swallowtail butterfly fashioned out of silver.There are many passages like these which some people may find dry and boring. But I loved them, it helped me immerse myself in the book more. In fact 2 days after finishing this book I struggled with picking up another that was as engrossing as this one.If I have to compare this book with Memoirs of a Geisha, I would say both are very different from each other. In Memoirs of a Geisha, we get a young, naive and endearing Sayuri, where as here we get a strong willed, dedicated Mineko. Arthur Golden seems to have picked the main storyline from one of the minor characters and mixed it with Iwasaki’s story to make it more dramatic. If you are looking for a “Memoirs of a Geisha” kind of book, you will be disappointed. But both are brilliant in their own way, one as page turning fiction and one as a real look into the Japanese culture. The simple fact that Geisha, A Life is a true story gives it a different feel altogether.


Li este livro e fiquei um pouco baralhada.Já li há muito tempo um outro titulo, que até foi produzido um filme baseado no mesmo, Memórias de uma Gueixa que gostei muito até.Ao ler este, confesso que fiquei cheia de dúvidas, é inevitável compará-los não em termos de escrita é claro, mas em termos de contexto histórico. Ambos são passados no mesmo sítio, cidade, e no mesmo tempo histórico, antes e depois da grande guerra.Este livro está melhor conseguido em termos técnicos e foca-se mais nos pormenores técnicos, práticas, conceitos, rituais... O outro relata-nos também alguns detalhes mas o tema central são os conflitos amorosos da personagem principal.Sei por exemplo que neste livro fiquei a saber o quanto ganha uma gueixa, quanto custa uma festa em que elas participam, o n.º de festas em que uma mulher participa por noite, além do custo "legal" de uma festa, há também as gratificações etc etc. no outro livro nunca o ficamos a saber.No inicio disse que fiquei baralhada porque há situações antagonistas do tipo, neste livro diz que uma gueixa pode se envolver amorosamente com quem entender, pode ser com o seu grande amor e que toda a comunidade pode o ficar a saber não tem de ser às escondidas, desde que esteja autorizada/abençoada pela Mãe ( que neste caso será a pessoa que a adoptou, ou seja, a dona da okiya em que trabalha). No outro livro não, até há um exemplo de uma das gueixas que se envolve com um homem (que de facto era o grande amor) e quando é descoberta e é expulsa.Fico sem saber se uma gueixa pode ou não se envolver amorosamente num contexto sincero é claro.Outro exemplo do outro livro. Diz-nos que quando se chega a altura de uma rapariga perder a virgindade, sendo esta (a virgindade) o bem mais precioso que uma mulher pode ter, é por isso negociado com todos os potencias clientes até se chegar à quantia mais elevada, sendo isso determinante para o estatuto que a gueixa passa a ter na comunidade. Aqui neste livro fala-se que tais práticas não acontecem na profissão de gueixa mas sim nas cortesãs da época, que muitas vezes acabam por se confundir por haver tantas semelhanças.Gostei do livro, fiquei a saber um pouco mais sobre a cultura mais tradicional japonesa, apesar de ter ficado baralhada, e tudo o que pensava que já sabia afinal fiquei a saber que nada sei (como dizia Sócrates). Também achei que o fim foi um pouco atabalhoado, tudo contado à pressa sobre pessoas que tinham até algum peso em toda a história, saltando muitos anos, mas também concordo que se calhar se nos fossem contar pormenores das mesmas, podia se tornar um fim aborrecido.

Maria M. Elmvang

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.


Mineko Iwasaki's memoir is a really interesting counterpart of Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" (if I remember correctly, he used interviews with her as a primary source material for his novel--is that right?), particularly if you're interested in understanding the more factual or detailed inner workings of the Gion Kobu (major geisha) district. It gets off to a pretty slow start, but once the book hits her entrance into training and professional work, it flies by. One thing that was particularly fascinating was being introduced to the (at least perceived) independence of many maiko/geiko in the industry. Perhaps this is a limited vantage point, as Mineko Iwasaki was the most powerful and successful geiko of her career-generation (and, according to some, in 100 years)--thus, we aren't really as aware of the hardships less successful women in the industry might have had. Nonetheless, her discussion of her extraordinary financial independence and freedom to move around (particularly in terms of 'political' appearances and sexual relationships outside of marriage) was rather illuminative for a reader (like me) knowing no more than Golden's novel and the accompanying film. I don't think this necessarily discounts Golden's novel, because it's absolutely one of my favorites no matter what anyone says, but rather acts as a really revealing and genuine accent to the novel. For example, Iwasaki notes that "mizuage" has a double meaning in 'industry women'--for maiko/geiko, it is simply a sort of initiatory ritual as women move towards 'maturity' in their professional career, accompanied by donations (towards kimono, etc.--not involving sex) and a change in the geiko's status, whereas the same word for women working in the so-termed pleasure quarters involves precisely what Golden does in his novel--patrons bid for sexual favors with the prostitute, for lack of a better term. Thus, the confusion that arises in a Western perspective on geisha culture. And ultimately, what the reader is left with by the end of this memoir is a rare glance into a culture that prizes aestheticism and artistic inheritance above all else (even at the cost of becoming static or falling behind the pace of the rest of the world). Really heartfelt, if not the most well-written text I've read, and a bit slow-paced at times. But certainly well-worth the read, if you're interested.

Sara Murphy

I enjoyed this book of Geiko life immensely. The entire time I read this, I thought fondly of Liza Dalby's "Geisha", written about the same period. Mineko Iwasaki was honest about her personal feelings and personal trials. She also wrote with passion on her love of dance. While reading this book, I felt like I was walking beside her as she went to dance class and Ozashikis at night. Her hard work throughout her life inspired my respect for her and the Geisha tradition even more than ever before. I recommend this book for anyone interested in Japan, Geiko or Maiko. This book was entertaining all the way through and I would gladly read it once more just for fun.


This is one of the first autobiographies I've ever read, and it's made me want to read more. I'm not terribly into non-fiction: frankly, I find it boring, but maybe I'm just choosing the wrong books.I thoroughly enjoyed Geisha of Gion, partly because it read like a story, partly because of the glimpse it gave into the life of a Geiko of Gion Kobu (a subject I am personally fascinated with), and partly because it was true.It is difficult to say how much of the account is the unbiased truth, how much the narrow observations of a single, privileged individual, but one should remember this is, after all, a memoir.Mineko's candid recounting of her hectic and demanding life, from the age of five to her sudden retirement at twenty-nine, is an insightful glimpse into the cloistered 'Flower and Willow World': its requirement of excellence, its opulence, and tradition.The narrative itself flows, but it is also stilted: full of impulsive decisions, anecdotes both meaningful and trivial, sudden changes of topic, and unresolved endings. But that is essentially what makes it so charming: that what you are reading is an account of a real person's life, full of inconsistencies and human error. Full of small triumphs and sudden joys. Full of life, as it were. There was no author behind the unfolding of the tale, no grand design for the conclusion. Just a person who wanted to tell her story, as it was.

David Nicol

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.

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