Review: Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki

Title: Geisha, A Life
Author: Mineko Iwasaki
Pages: 297
Published: September 1, 2003
Buy It: Amazon | B&N | Book Depository | Also found in Scribd
Rating: 

Geisha, a Life

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.

I was first introduced to this book through a friend when we were talking about the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. He told me that he read this book, Geisha, a Life, as a more accurate representation of what the life of a geisha as well as the culture was. Intrigued, I took a look at this book. I have a yearly subscription to Scribd, so of course I looked to see if they had the book there instead of having to perhaps buy a copy (that college kid budget, you know). They did, and immediately I starting reading it and immediately I was sucked into the world that Mineko had grown up in. 

Reading this book gave me a lot of insight and truth to what the geiko (or geisha) world is. Mineko started off with how she became a subject of interest to the head of a geiko house and continued her story throughout her career. Now, not only did Mineko have a really good insight and a lot of character (she was a defiant one haha)–the book also showed how intelligent Mineko was and what her opinions on the society of the geiko world were. A big subject that Mineko talks about a lot is how the geiko profession is a way for women to become independent and be able to make their own income. If you’re not aware, Japan was still very much in the husband-makes-the-income-and-women-are-housewives society when Mineko was growing up and it’s still pretty common today as well. So on the outside it looks like geikos are in charge of their own income. While reading it, you come to an understanding that, actually, they’re still incredibly dependent. 

Mineko had a lot of opinions on the types of reforms that she wanted to put into the culture and how it actually didn’t promote independence and it was really interesting to read her ideals especially after living in that culture and being exposed to what it was. 

Overall, the writing is concise and captivating. Honestly, it was such a fun read from start to finish. Though, personally I love biographies and things like that. Reading stories of real people is a great point of interest for me. So I recommend this book to anyone else who has the same interest. Even if you’re just interested in the culture, I would read it as it gives great insight. Though, of course, don’t take ones word for the many. If you’re serious about learning the culture, read different accounts because not everyone is gonna have the same opinion!