Geisha, a Life

Geisha, a Life

4.2 77
by Mineko Iwasaki, Rande Brown Ouchi
     
 

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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

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
The geisha has long been a mystery to those in the West. In her compelling memoir, Mineko, often called the best geisha of her generation, reveals the secretive world that inspired a bestselling fictional counterpart, Arthur Golden's bestselling Memoirs of a Geisha.

Mineko's remarkable story dispels Western myths about the geisha as prostitute and describes a demanding life as a highly trained artist. With an even and objective voice, she tells of leaving home at the age of four to enter a geisha house. Here, Mineko made her fame and fortune as a dancer. Appearing and entertaining at as many as ten parties an evening, she would dance for ten minutes at each and earn tens of thousands of dollars for the night's work. Mineko also covers the importance of appearance, describing the elements of beauty, including the kimono. These garments were a special -- and costly -- part of a geisha's appearance, and could only be worn a few times.

In Geisha, Mineko Iwasaki leads us through a fascinating profession. While a glossary of Japanese terms would have been helpful, nothing detracts from this powerful and intimate glimpse into a mysterious world.

This is a fantastic book that will enthrall its readers. Glenn Speer

Publishers Weekly
From age five, Iwasaki trained to be a geisha (or, as it was called in her Kyoto district, a geiko), learning the intricacies of a world that is nearly gone. As the first geisha to truly lift the veil of secrecy about the women who do such work (at least according to the publisher), Iwasaki writes of leaving home so young, undergoing rigorous training in dance and other arts and rising to stardom in her profession. She also carefully describes the origins of Kyoto's Gion Kobu district and the geiko system's political and social nuances in the 1960s and '70s. Although it's an autobiography, Iwasaki's account will undoubtedly be compared to the stunning fictional description of the same life in Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. Lovers of Golden's work-and there are many-will undoubtedly pick this book up, hoping to get the true story of nights spent in kimono. Unfortunately, Iwasaki's work suffers from the comparison. Her writing style, refreshingly straightforward at the beginning, is far too dispassionate to sustain the entire story. Her lack of reflection and tendency toward mechanical description make the work more of a manual than a memoir. In describing the need to be nice to people whom she found repulsive, she writes, "Sublimating one's personal likes and dislikes under a veneer of gentility is one of the fundamental challenges of the profession." Iwasaki shrouds her prose in this mask of objectivity, and the result makes the reader feel like a teahouse patron: looking at a beautiful, elegant woman who speaks fluidly and well, but with never a vulnerable moment. (Oct. 1) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Now in her fifties, Mineko Iwasaki was once the best geisha of her generation, retiring at 29 because of disillusionment with the archaic system of her profession. Her intimate autobiography takes readers into the secret world of the karyukai, where geisha are trained in the arts. She dispels the myth that geisha are prostitutes. In fact, they are professional entertainers who perform at exclusive banquet facilities known as ochaya. Iwasaki left her home when she was five to live in the karyukai and seldom saw her parents. She was surprised to find two elder sisters working there, sisters she had known nothing about. Initially she lived a pampered life. She excelled at the dance, but also played musical instruments. After she made her debut, she was much in demand, but her popularity did not come without a cost. She writes, "It's hard to imagine living in a world where everyone—your friends, your sisters, even your mother—is your rival. Inevitably, all of this took a psychological toll...I suffered periodic anxiety, insomnia, and difficulty speaking." She used comedy to ease the stress. She met a famous actor, fell in love, and became his lover even though he was married. He promised to divorce but never did. Finally, she met an artist. They married 23 days later and now have a daughter. Behind the smiling faces and perfect grooming of geishas is a life of pain, stress, disappointment, limited opportunities, a narrow education, and hard work. Iwaski's book is a vivid picture of a hidden part of Japanese culture. Sixteen pages of photos accompany the text. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002,Simon & Schuster, Washington Square Press, 297p. illus., Ages 15 to adult.
—Janet Julian
Library Journal
Iwasaki, who started training for her demanding profession at age four, here takes readers into the rarely glimpsed world of the geisha. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An exponent of the highly ritualized—and highly misunderstood—Japanese art form tells all. Or at least some.

In her homeland, Iwasaki’s account begins, ". . . there are special districts, known as karyukai, that are dedicated to the enjoyment of aesthetic pleasure." This "flower and willow world" has been a very specialized field for Japanese women for the last 300 years, she adds, and it endures even today. During the 1960s and early ’70s, "when Japan was undergoing the radical transformation from a post-feudal to a modern society," the now-52-year-old Iwasaki trained to become "certainly the most successful" geisha of her generation; had she not taken up this line of work, she writes, she would instead have become a Buddhist nun or a policewoman. Attaining the top spot, as in any other show-business venue, meant waging crafty campaigns against jealous rivals; training endlessly in the arts of singing, dancing, conversation, and walking in a mincing gait; putting in 20-hour days; and cultivating the friendship of the otokosh (dressers), who assure that all is well in the kimono and obi department while acting as "the standard brokers of various relationships within the karyukai." This account, the first of its kind from a contemporary Japanese woman, does a good job of spelling out the "aesthetic pleasure" component of the geisha’s world, although the author is quite reticent about other kinds of pleasure that the geisha is alleged to provide; on this point, Liza Dalby’s Geisha (1983), set at about the same time as Iwasaki’s memoir and offering another firsthand view, is more forthcoming. Iwasaki’s narrative can sometimes be a little dense; as a not untypical passage puts it, "Idecided to try to orchestrate the company myself by asking the okasan of the ochaya to invite certain geiko to attend the ozashiki for which I was booked"—quite a mouthful for the uninitiated.

Still, a valuable look at a little-known world, and an intimate glimpse into Japanese culture.

From the Publisher
Kirkus Reviews [A] valuable look at a little-known world, and an intimate glimpse into Japanese culture.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780786251582
Publisher:
Gale Group
Publication date:
03/28/2003
Pages:
474
Product dimensions:
6.38(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.98(d)

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

In the country of Japan, an island nation in East Asia, there are special districts, known as karyukai, that are dedicated to the enjoyment of aesthetic pleasure. These are the communities where the professionally trained female artists known as geisha live and work.

Karyukai means "the flower and willow world." Each geisha is like a flower, beautiful in her own way, and like a willow tree, gracious, flexible, and strong.

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. I want you to know what it is really like to live the life of a geisha, a life filled with extraordinary professional demands and richly glorious rewards. Many say I was the best geisha of my generation; I was certainly the most successful. And yet, it was a life that I found too constricting to continue. And one that I ultimately had to leave.

It is a story that I have long wanted to tell.

My name is Mineko.

This is not the name my father gave me when I was born. It is my professional name. I got it when I was five years old. It was given to me by the head of the family of women who raised me in the geisha tradition. The surname of the family is Iwasaki. I was legally adopted as the heir to the name and successor to ownership of the business and its holdings when I was ten years old.

I started my career very early. Events that happened when I was only three years old convinced me that it was what I was meant to do.

I moved into the Iwasaki geisha house when I was five and began my artistic training when I was six. I adored the dance. It became my passion and object of greatest devotion. I was determined to become the best and I did.

The dance is what kept me going when the other requirements of the profession felt too heavy to bear. Literally. I weigh 90 pounds. A full kimono with hair ornaments can easily weigh 40 pounds. It was a lot to carry. I would have been happy just to dance, but the exigencies of the system forced me to debut as an adolescent geisha, a maiko, when I was fifteen.

The Iwasaki geisha house was located in the Gion Kobu district of Kyoto, the most famous and traditional karyukai of them all. This is the community in which I spent the entirety of my professional career.

In Gion Kobu we don't refer to ourselves as geisha (meaning "artist") but use the more specific term geiko, "woman of art." One type of geiko, famed throughout the world as the symbol of Kyoto, is the young dancer known as a maiko, or "woman of dance." Accordingly, I will use the terms geiko and maiko throughout the rest of this book.

When I was twenty I "turned my collar," the rite of passage that signals the transformation from maiko to adult geiko. As I matured in the profession, I became increasingly disillusioned with the intransigence of the archaic system and tried to initiate reforms that would increase the educational opportunities, financial independence, and professional rights of the women who worked there. I was so discouraged by my inability to effect change that I finally decided to abdicate my position and retire, which, to the horror of the establishment, I did at the height of my success, when I was twenty-nine years old. I closed down the Iwasaki geisha house, then under my control, packed up the priceless kimono and jeweled ornaments contained within, and left Gion Kobu. I married and am now raising a family.

I lived in the karyukai during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when Japan was undergoing the radical transformation from a post-feudal to a modern society. But I existed in a world apart, a special realm whose mission and identity depended on preserving the time-honored traditions of the past. And I was a fully committed to doing so.

Maiko and geiko start off their careers living and training in an establishment called an okiya (lodging house), usually translated as geisha house. They follow an extremely rigorous regimen of constant classes and rehearsal, similar in intensity to that of a prima ballerina, concert pianist, or opera singer in the West. The proprietress of the okiya supports the geiko fully in her efforts to become a professional and then helps manage her career once she makes her debut. The young geiko lives in the okiya for a contracted period of time, usually five to seven years, during which time she repays the okiya for its investment. She then becomes independent and moves out on her own, though she continues to maintain an agency relationship with her sponsoring okiya.

The exception to this is a geiko who has been designated as an atotori, an heir to the house, its successor. She carries the last name of the okiya, either through birth or adoption, and lives in the okiya throughout her career.

Maiko and geiko perform at very exclusive banquet facilities known as ochaya, often translated literally as "teahouses." Here we entertain regularly at private parties for select groups of invited patrons. We also appear publicly in a series of annual performance events. The most famous of these is the Miyako Odori ("cherry dances"). The dance programs are quite spectacular and draw enthusiastic audiences from all over the world. The Miyako Odori takes place for the month of April in our own theater, the Kaburenjo.

There is much mystery and misunderstanding about what it means to be a geisha or, in my case, a geiko. I hope my story will help explain what it is really like and also serve as a record of this unique component of Japan's cultural history.

Please, journey with me now into the extraordinary world of Gion Kobu.

Copyright © 2002 by Mineko Iwasaki

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Kirkus Reviews [A] valuable look at a little-known world, and an intimate glimpse into Japanese culture.

Meet the Author

Born in 1949, Mineko Iwasaki was Japan's star geisha until she retired at the age of twenty-nine. She now lives in a Kyoto suburb, with her family.

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Geisha, a Life 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 77 reviews.
K_malinczak More than 1 year ago
Okay, so I'm going to be very blunt and honest in this review and probably in the rest of my future reviews. I'm always honest, but sometimes I hold my opinions back a little bit for fear of offending someone. I just can't do it anymore. And when it comes to this review, I have some very strong opinions. First of all, I would venture to say that anyone that reads/read this book has already read Memoirs of a Geisha. This memoir is supposedly the real story of the geisha that Memoirs was based upon. It was written by Mineko Iwasaki herself with the help of an English translator. Now I can say that I have read both books, and Memoirs of a Geisha beats the pants off of this very informative, but slightly dry attempt at the same. Listen. I know parts of Memoirs of a Geisha are fictional. But some of the things that Mineko said about the book I find slightly offensive. She has said that Memoirs of a Geisha made the Geisha appear to be a high-classed prostitute. I never had that opinion after reading it. At all. In fact, quite often the author made the distinction between traditional courtesan and Geisha. Also, I want to talk about the Mizuage tradition. Mineko has stated that it was never a ceremony where a maiko's virginity was auctioned off to the highest bidder. As gross as this is, Mineko is being very misleading and she is/was not speaking the truth. During the time that Mineko was a Geiko, the practice had been outlawed, but before the 60's, it was commonplace. It was officially outlawed in 1959, but carried on for awhile after that. Now notice for a second the setting for Memoirs of a Geisha. Most of the book was set before World War 2. The whole virginity aspect was still very much a part of Geiko culture then. So like I said, Mineko was being very misleading in her book. I could go on and on about the disagreements I have with the things Mineko has said, but I think by now you get the point. I didn't dislike reading it, I found it to be very informative. But I also found it kind of dry and written with an air of condescension. Mineko thinks very highly of herself.I'm not saying that she shouldn't be, but I felt I was being talked down to for a good portion of the story. I gave it four stars, because it was a well-written piece of non-fiction, and I happen to be very interested in Asian culture, especially the Gaiko/Maiko culture. There is not a lot of information out there, and I will read whatever I can get my hands on. That being said though, I will probably never re-read this, but I will re-read Memoirs of a Geisha. There's actually a story there and quite a few facts. I would recommend reading this if you are interested in Japan or Geisha culture. Otherwise, it could go either way.
MoonDancerNJ More than 1 year ago
Whether you have read Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" or not, I highly recommend this book as a true reference to what this ancient clandestine lifestyle of the geiko (woman of art) is truly about. Mineko Iwasaki graciously lifts the veil on this 300 year history, and takes great care in dispelling much of the western misconceptions regarding this practice of Japanese entertainment. Details of customs, costume, protocol and more of this fading culture lie within her pages. Immerse yourself in this 'flower and willow world'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was a wonderful true story, and I thought it was interesting to know that the author also helped Arthur Golden with Memoirs of a Geisha--that is, she told him what it was like to be a geisha. I haven't read Memoirs, but if it's as interesting as this, I'd say it's worth reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mineko Iwasaki's story was something unbelievable. It cleared up the mystery and stories behind the Japanese geisha like none other. It completely sucked me in, and I've read it many times since. Compared to any other books about the Japanese geisha out there, this one is definitely the best. It's full of honesty, heartbreak, and most importantly, the true meaning of the geisha.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A great cultural insight into the life of the forbidden Geisha. Dispelling western misconceptions of Geishas, 'Geisha, A Life' is one woman's great journey as a Geisha. A definate read to those who prize culture,I highly reccomend it to anyone who has already read 'Memoirs of a Geisha'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really recommend this biography. It shows the truth. I think everyone who's read or watched Memoirs of a Geisha should read this book, so they can see how it really is. Although it may seem boring to some in comparison to Memoirs of a Geisha, at least it's honest. Besides, fiction is supposed to be more dramatic and colorful than real life, I guess some people can't accept that. I really enjoyed this book, and think that it should have been made into a movie instead of Memoirs of a Geisha.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought that this book was kind of a let down after reading Memoirs of a Geisha. This book was just a little bit boring... it didn't hold my attention as much as I thought it would. There were also so many people that were involved in the story, and their names kept changing, so I got really confused. But overall, it was an interesting read. It was a glimpse into a world in which hardly no one knows about. Yes, it may not be better that Memoirs of a Geisha (in my opinion) but I still enjoyed it, none the less.
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This is one of the most romantic yet descriptive geisha books I have ever personally read. I have read many! Top of my recommendation list for anyone who wants to take a trip back in time to the Real Japan and the Real Geisha Girls! You won't be disappointed! Enjoy and have a safe journey. :-)
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VERY GOOD
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Gives you an actual accounting and behinds the scene look at geishas as they really are and not as the media and public would have you think. The geisha who narrates the book is a very proud and comes across as arrogant sometimes but I would recommend book for those interested in geishas.
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