Geisha, A Life is the amazing story of Mineko Iwasaki, who was selected at three years old to be the heir to the Iwasaki geisha house, or okiya. She left her birth family to become an adopted part of the Iwasaki family, and was trained as a Japanese maiko (woman of dance) and later as a geiko (woman of art) from age 5 onwards. She would work hard and make many sacrifices to become the best-known and most successful geiko of her generation, but would give it all up at the young age of 29 when she realized how artistically stifling the geiko profession had become, and that she wanted her own life.
A geiko (what the geisha were called in Kyoto, Japan) were trained professionals in traditional Japanese arts, such as dance, music, flower arranging and tea pouring. They were also entertainers, hired to work at parties to keep the conversation and the drinks flowing. Geiko entertained the rich and famous from Japan and worldwide. As we learn from Mineko, a geiko’s life was anything but slow. Even as a seasoned geiko, Mineko still ran between dance and music lessons, multiple appearances, photo shoots and parties she was hired to work at, most nights not getting to bed until 3am and rising again at 6am.
The book is, by turns, funny, sad, heartwarming, interesting, and inspiring. The loss of Mineko’s family, and by default, her childhood to the geiko profession and the Iwasaki family, is extremely heartrending. Her drive to become the best geiko and her love for the dance is amazing; Mineko went years with barely any sleep, hardly any friends, and no free time at all, devoting all of her time to her job. The descriptions of the elaborate costumes, makeup, training and rituals of geiko life are so vivid you can almost see them. The book provides several pictures of Mineko and her family and friends, which I liked as well.
When Mineko’s book was released, it was very controversial. No other geiko or geisha in the history of the profession had ever come forward to discuss their life or training. While there was no written rule against this, it was frowned upon for professional and historical reasons. Mineko decided to write the book at fifteen years old in order to educate people on the geiko profession, and also to voice changes to the profession she felt would be crucial to the future of the geiko art form. Thanks to how the system was set up, the geiko were essentially highly trained, underpaid performers who made little or no money after investing all of their time and effort in training and performance. The instructors, the owners of the teahouses where the geiko performed, and the owners of the okiyas made all of the money. Geiko did not have more than a junior high school formal education. Mineko felt this would ultimately dead-end the profession.Ironically, following her own retirement, seventy other geiko retired, which some felt may have prematurely hastened the dying-out of the geiko.
Mineko also sought to clear the record about the geiko lifestyle after she was misled by Arthur Golden, well known as the author of Memoirs of a Geisha. Golden sought out Mineko while doing research for the book, and she provided him with inside stories and information on the life of a geiko…provided that he keep her contributions confidential. Golden made the mistake of thanking Mineko in the afterward of his book, and many felt she had betrayed geikos and geisha everywhere by working with him and providing him information. Mineko sued Golden as a result. Thanks to Golden’s book, the reputation of the geisha became confused with that of high-class prostitutes. By writing her book, Mineko clears up many of the misconceptions and prejudices from Golden’s book and establishes the geiko as artists rather than prostitutes.
In the end, I was glad that Mineko took control of her own life, met someone wonderful, and left the geiko life behind. I was inspired by her commitment to her career and ultimately her commitment to herself. She sought to be the best at all times, even when she made mistakes. She befriended many of her customers over the years, and became an idol to later geiko. There is something for everyone to learn from Mineko’s life. A great read.
Here is a wonderful segment on Mineko and the geiko. Check it out.