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Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki

27 November 2007

I borrowed this book from a friend during a trip to Japan a few years ago, primarily because my friend swore up and down that it was far and away the best and most truthful book about geisha life in Japan. I’d certainly have to agree with that assessment.

Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki

Geisha of Gion (the UK edition title; the US edition is titled Geisha: A Life) is by Mineko Iwasaki, who for many years was the preeminent geiko (‘woman of art’, the preferred term for geisha in the Japanese city of Kyoto) in Japan. Having left her birth family at a very young age to train for her calling, Iwasaki devoted her life to the study of her art and worked her way to incredible success — only to retire at the very height of her fame when she realised that she could not tolerate the strictures placed upon her and her fellow geiko by the obsessively tradition-bound ways of her profession. Iwasaki wrote the book as a response to the publication of the highly fictionalised Memoirs of a Geisha, intending to give a more credible and truthful account of her life as the successor to her adopted family’s prominent okiya, or geisha house, in the Gion district of Kyoto.

The life of a geiko of Iwasaki’s stature was nothing short of gruelling, and Geisha of Gion gives as much detail about the geiko lifestyle as one might conceivably wish to know. Long hours and late nights, rigorous classes in dance and poise and fine arts, countless hours spent applying and removing layers of makeup and heavy silk clothing, and above all the constant knowledge that a geiko is always on display from the moment she leaves the house and goes out in public until the moment she steps back inside the relative sanctuary of the okiya. The book takes care to dispel many of the stereotypes of geisha life, particularly the belief that a geisha is little more than a cultured, high-class prostitute for the rich and powerful. Yet Iwasaki also criticises her former profession, pointing out that most girls who became geiko in her day left school at the age of fourteen, the minimum standard required by law, and that all of their training and hard work left them with few truly marketable skills to support them if they chose to retire or were compelled to stop working due to ill-health or other troubles. In her opinion, the ‘flower and willow world’ (as the geisha life is often called) did not do enough to adapt to changes in society, and one of her main fears was that the very rigidity that was meant to protect the practice of traditional arts in Japan would only end up leading to their permanent disappearance.

Having skimmed through bits and pieces of Memoirs of a Geisha, I have to agree that Geisha of Gion is most definitely the better book. Far less sensationalism, far more real story. And I think that this truthfulness also makes Iwasaki’s story that much more memorable, because you can tell that she really did love what she did as a geiko, and that leaving her profession, her beloved calling, was probably as difficult a decision as anyone can make.

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