Geisha, a Life by Mineko Iwasaki and Rande Brown
“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 a post-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.
Arthur Gold’s Memoirs of a Geisha is one of the novels I’m going to revisit on Reading by Ear one of these months. I enjoyed it as a kid, but now, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the main narrative of geishas in the West comes from him, not an actual geisha. In fact, Iwasaki is the geisha Gold interviewed as research, but she regretted speaking to him and ultimately published her own memoir.
Violet, at Violet Crush, found it engrossing. The proprietor of Books and Other Stuff recommends it. The proprietor of Lotus Reads found it very enjoyable, although she wished it had a glossary. Kris at Not Enough Books also liked it, but found some of the syntax a little awkward in translation.
Geisha, a Life was published on October 1, 2002.