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


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


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.

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.


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.

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.


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.


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


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.


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.


Originally read in December 2004, I picked it up on a whim simply because I was studying Japanese at the time, not realising the true reason why this book was written.I then had to study and compare this with Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha”, months before it’s theatrical release in the West in late ‘05 and then began to understand that she more or less gave him the keys to her world, thus eventually to his fame and fortune as the story was loosely based on Iwasaki herself.As with most things very traditional, old, respected and being a world typically closed off to the general public, let alone foreigners, anyone who gets an insight, only to then write fiction about it from a totally different cultural view risks controversy as well as upsetting their very source.It seems Iwasaki was blamed for “exposing” her world despite it being an attempt to rid the negativity known with geishas from the West and wrote this to counter the fiction that was being readily soaked by the unsuspecting West.You have a choice. Forget the movie for a moment, it is Hollywood after all.You can read a fictional tale from Mr Golden based on Iwasaki herself, or you can read the real deal from the woman herself, her thoughts and feelings included as she only knows them.Or alike me, you can read both, compare and contrast and make your own judgement on where the truths may lie :)

Anna Kalyta

The first book I ever read about Geisha, as with most people, was Memoirs of a Geisha. Going through the Wikipedia page for it, however, showed up a lot of criticism, especially for inaccuracy about the Geisha lifestyle, and especially from Mineko Iwasaki, the prominent Gion-Kobu Geiko that Golden had interviewed for research purposes for the novel. Without her permission, he spun Memoirs as a biographical account of her life, though told fictionally, which caused a lot of controversy, especially for Iwasaki, in terms of her giving information to outsiders, something unheard of in the Geisha community. The Wikipedia page trawl then led, as it often does, to somewhere entirely different; Mineko Iwasaki, of course. Through that, I saw that she had written her own memoirs, and I became keen to read them. I read this book a long time ago, however, this recent re-read was much more attentive, and I nourished my reading with other research, giving the whole experience much more substance. As a translated book, the writing style is very simple, through no fault of either Iwasaki, or her translator, Rande Brown. Japanese is an inherently difficult language to translate into English, with much lost in translation. However, despite the simple writing style, I found this a very gripping read. The simplicity lends itself to an ease of reading, which enables the reader to look at other information along side to supplement the read. Obviously, the real account of Iwasaki's life is much less sensationalised, as often is with real life, and embellished fiction. Gone are the silly little additions, such as her blue eyes, or her love for a important gentleman of society. Gone is her rivalry with another Geiko; instead, a much more honest rendition of her troubled relationship with her own biological sister is told through her own eyes. Details are in abundance, from the Okiya's renamed dog, Big Tom, to the beautiful descriptions, if slightly overdone in places, of Iwasaki’s kimono. Iwasaki puts to rest, quite firmly, any misconceptions about Geiko being anything to do with prostitution, a belief held strongly in our Western world. She speaks of Geiko with both reverence, and sadness; her disapproval of their unchanging ways is tangible, and also the key factor which led her to retire at an extremely early age of twenty-nine. Despite the negatives Iwasaki teaches us, and the warnings she gives of the Geisha culture of Japan, he book charmed me, I must say. I have always been enamored by the Geisha culture of Japan, and Iwasaki’s account of her life brings colour, richness and depth to clinical, cold fact. Though not as dramatic, or emotive as Memoirs of a Geisha, I far prefer Geisha; A Life, purely for its honesty, and its happiness to merely tell the truth, without need for glamorization, or excitement.


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.


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.

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.

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