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Geisha, A Life

Mineko Iwasaki with Rande Brown
Geisha, A Life
(Atria Books, 2003)

So, what was is the life of a geisha really like? Not the made up fantasy of a Western man’s best seller on the subject, but an authentic geisha, or “artist” in Japanese. Mineko Iwasaki was a geiko, or “woman of art,” an “Iwasaki Atotori” successor to the house of Iwasaki, the most prestigious in Japan, starting at the incredibly young age of five.

The tradition, now in steep decline in Japan, was strictly regulated and formally stylized. When she was 29, and at the apex of her career, Mineko abandoned it for marriage and an ordinary life. She was exhausted from the stress and artifice it took to maintain the illusion of perfection in minutely detailed manners, costume, makeup, dance, rituals, and polite conversations with clients. Her life was a combination of a diva surrounded by adoring fans, a party girl, a little bit of a therapist, a breadwinner for the household, all portrayed as the embodiment of someone who always bends to the will of others. Yet, Mineko, stubborn at heart, desperately craved the one thing she was denied—solitude.

Her sisters were also trained to be geikos and they all endured a turbulent early separation from their parents. Thrust into an adult world of lessons, sponsors, and bosses, for years she suckled on the breast of her older sister in order to fall asleep, and when particularly stressed would hide deep inside a closet. The legal issues of her formal adoption into the house of Iwasaki and the problems and perks it created are a snapshot of a feudal society that valued a specific kind of woman so highly it could take her from her parents before she was properly weaned. Her story illuminates the daily life of both the senior geikos and their maids showing the kindness and cruelty of their hothouse life together.

The training at the Inoue School of Dance, the best of its kind, was imbued with the old-style way of life. The relentless discipline of her classical dance lessons left her exhausted with little over four hours a night sleep, but they were mandatory for someone of her station. Sexually innocent, she was almost raped by a cousin, who was discreetly moved to another part of town by Mama Masako, a frugal banker who oversaw how every yen was spent, a rare attainment in such a male-dominated society.

Mineko went from apprentice to a full-blown professional master of tea ceremony, banquet etiquette, conversation, and the costume attire of a Heian princess. Each kimono ensemble cost tens of thousands of dollars, and was accompanied by ornate hair accessories, fans, and purses. Yet in the end all this splendor and power was not enough. She fled to the refuge of normality and lack of title. But fortunately for all of us, with a tone of humility and regret she wrote a clear unencumbered memoir superbly translated from the Japanese by Rande Brown. Geisha, a Life paints a picture of an era, forever faded like parchment, into history.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN-JUL 2003

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