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


I'd vaguely remembered hearing/reading something (maybe on NPR or 50bookchallenge posts) about Mineko Iwasaki, the prime source & inspiration for Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha: A Novel, being disappointed with the portrayal of the geisha life in that novel, and therefore, she had written her own memoirs. So I checked this book out from the library and I now see where her concerns lie. Mineko (born Masako Tanaka) joined the Iwasaki okiya as a child, due to some family issues. She was fascinated by the dance, striving to reach perfection as the only way to make everything right. She debuted as a minarai, or apprentice geisha, at an unusually young age and worked herself nearly to death for the next few years. As she matured, she became one of the most popular geisha of the Gion area. Eventually, she started to burn out and made the decision to end her career rather early. Falling in love may have had something to do with her decision as well. The two sections of pictures were very helpful to identify certain elements of the dress, as well as get a feel for the flow of her life. The writing style is relatively plain and straightforward, what I would expect of an autobiography, as opposed to a work of fiction. Some of the fine points of the social standings and rituals got a little confusing, however. It was interesting to read these two books back to back - seeing what small incidences in Iwasaki's life Golden chose to modify into major plot elements, and vice versa. For example, Golden chose to move his story back one generation (Iwasaki was born in 1949), probably in order to add WWII as a dramatic plot point. The attribution of a certain ritual of the oiran (courtesans) to the geishas was probably what made Iwasaki upset. (and I wouldn't blame her!) Recommended to anyone looking for a more realistic portrayal of the waning "flower and willow world" of the geisha.


This book, like most non-fiction, had a bit of a slow reading pace. There were a few events that truly drew me into Mineko's story, though my review is going to be mostly about about the comparison of this book to Memoirs of a Geisha.It's kind of upsetting to me to see so many people say they changed their view of the fiction novel because of this book. Memoirs of a Geisha is a work of fiction- not everything is portrays will be straight on. The biggest confusion present is the use of mizuage-- instead of being about income, in Memoirs it follows the form of mizuage which is used for the high-end prostitutes and courtesans, where they are ceremoniously deflowered by the highest bidder as explained by Mineko. I personally believe this to have been a stylistic choice of the author. Fiction is meant to entertain-- and that was a choice the author made, still based somewhat fact, as it is a true use of mizuage, even if it is not that of Geisha. I can forgive this. It is a work of fiction- fiction does not have display full truths. That is why it is fiction. It's not fact.I personally think this is a good that people should read after reading Memoirs, but that they should also retain their love for the fiction book because it was written to entertain. Mineko's book was written to inform, and the two can coexist. I personally hold a respect for both.


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.


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.


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!


Before reading the book, "Geisha, a Life", I was not familiar with the art of Geisha and what it truly encompassed. I was hoping that Mineko Iwaskai's tale would teach me about this cultural tradition, and also convey an entertaining, emotional and thought provoking story through the first person narrative of her story.I was vastly disappointed. While she does explain the demands of her training and professional schedule throughout the book, there is really little insight into the lifestyle. There are many detailed accounts of each kimono and fashions worn, and even some long trailing historical references but the heart of what it means to be a Geisha was never really explained - at least not in any real life or emotional context. The answer supplied was merely that a Geisha's main duty is to make their clients feel important and happy. I'm also not entirely sure of the authenticity of the story. I am sure that most of what she tells us about her training and professional career may be true, but I find it hard to believe the great detail that she shares when recalling stories from events that happened to her from age 3 - 5. I don't know of many people that can remember that age frame even vaguely, let alone in the amount of detail she tells.The book held more of a high school research report feel to it, than a heartfelt recounting of one's own life. Perhaps this is due to the cultural taboo, and the unwritten rules of the karyukai that have prevented these artists and dancers from telling their stories in the past. Perhaps Iwasaki felt compelled to tell her story, but still maintain some sense of mystery/secrecy to the full tradition. I can't say for sure, but I do know that this book did little to expand my knowledge of the Geisha, and provided even less of a captivating story on an entertainment level.

Gerry O'Malley

Mineko Iwasaki’s autobiography GEISHA, A LIFE (GEISHA OF GION in the UK) doesn’t break any new ground in describing the unique and strange way of life of the “flower and willow world” that exists in the Gion area of Kyoto. Iwasaki provides some interesting detail about the daily life, training education and schedule of a geisha (more appropriately called geiko in Gion) and much of it has the authenticity of a first-person account. Iwasaki lived this life and her recollection seems bona fide. The only part that seems creatively written is the beginning – there is nothing as irritating as when an author claims to remember events and conversations from their youth. Iwaskai claims to remember specifics of her childhood from when she was younger than the age of three! The first several chapters seem wildly unlikely. The story picks up when, at the age of six, Iwasaki is adopted by the okiya and begins her intense training. Iwasaki loves to dance and is determined to accept nothing less than excellence in her performance. Iwasaki’s efforts to master the traditional arts of tea ceremony and dance and entertainment are admirable. Her descriptions of the kimono and other accoutrement required of the geisha are enlightening and demanding. The act of sliding open a door and entering a room has about 12 different and unique steps – screw up one step and the whole evolution is ruined. Iwasaki is determined to be perfect in a highly demanding and exact series of arts. The problem is that Mineko Iwaski doesn’t come across as a very likeable person. I didn’t feel any affection for this person whatsoever and her constant pronunciation of herself as “the best” and “most famous” and “Number 1” geisha in all of Kyoto gets very tiresome and seems contradictory to the humility that is supposed to characterize the Japanese personality and the geisha culture especially. Iwasaki doesn’t seem to have much insight as to how her actions controvert the principles of obedience and service that she espouses. This whole book is a violation of the geisha code of silence and discretion – Iwasaki tells very detailed anectdotes about celebrities including some very unflattering stories about members of the British royal family. Iwasaki is shocked and offended by the “rude” behavior of Queen Elzabeth at a dinner (she just sat there and didn’t eat anything, which is a terrible etiquette infraction according to Iwasaki). The geisha ends the chapter with the sentence “As far as I’m concerned, there is never an excuse for bad behavior”. The very next chapter is a description of her five-year affair with a married actor and her violent and destructive tantrum when she discovers that he was lying to her about divorcing his wife. Iwasaki doesn’t see her destruction of a fur coat and her lover’s family pictures as an example of her own bad behavior. Similarly, Iwasaki doesn’t see her abandonment of the okiya and her decision to destroy it and build an apartment building and open a nightclub as anything other than an expression of her independence. Her actions seem hypocritical and selfish. While reading GEISHA, A LIFEI was reminded of another very similar (fiction) book and movie, MEMIORS OF A GEISHA. Many of the anecdotes and details of life in Kyoto and Gion in particular seemed almost identical between the two stories. Apparently, Arthur Golden, the author of MEMIORS OF A GEISHA interviewed Iwasaki for research and appropriated many of the details of her life into his novel. Iwasaki was reportedly furious that Golden had exaggerated and actually misrepresented some of the elements of her story and sued him for breach of contract and defamation. Golden has listed Iwasaki as a reference for the book, when, according to Iwasaki, she had been promised anonymity. The revelations of geisha life in Golden’s book resulted in a backlash and death threats against Iwasaki. This autobiography is reportedly Iwasaki’s attempt to set the record straight, yet in my opinion, she comes across as churlish and calculating with no reluctance to expose the secrets and of her clients or other geisha.


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.


reading the book is far better than watching the movie , more details of Japan's famous geisha life .

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.


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.


I did not like the 'other' book "Memoirs of a Geisha"; although it was interesting to learn about the geisha culture, I didn't like the sexual storylines involving children and very young women that the novel portrayed. Apparently the 'other' book was based on the life of THIS geisha (or geiko), but she was not too pleased with her portrayal either. So she wrote this one ("Geisha: A Life") to counteract the popular opinion portrayed that geishas were high-class prostitutes. If there was one thing she wanted us to learn, it was the falseness of that insinuation.I love to read about world cultures; I have had very little opportunity to travel and get to know the world, so reading is my best way to learn. I'll be honest, I am baffled by the seemingly opposite culture that Japan possesses (possessed?) compared to our own. I have long been aware of these differences, but to see them played out in the life of an individual was eye-opening. The ideal Japanese woman in her situation felt that her pride was more important than anything. That it was better to take all the blame than to lose peace. That the best way to gain the upper hand is to never ask people to treat you better. The group is more important than yourself, even when the group damages you.I guess I see what she's saying...but as with most cultural norms, it would only work in a society where all others are striving for the same. I can't even imagine being such a doormat here and having it turn out well for a woman. Of course, I have a lot to learn about grace and turning the other cheek--I'm not claiming she's completely incorrect. It was simply quite obvious the entire time I was reading, that my social values did not match hers. It made for some fascinating reading, though! Kind of like a train wreck that never actually happened despite me waiting for it. I do recommend the read...I just can't give it 4 stars because it's not in the category I'll probably ever read a second time.

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.


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.

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.

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