The mystery of the geisha, with their painted faces and elaborate kimono, has long been a source of fascination for people worldwide. But it has also led to fantasies and misunderstandings about their true roles.
Celebrated as the most successful geisha of her generation, Mineko Iwasaki, 53, talked recently about her memoir “Geisha, A Life,” in which she reveals the reality behind this unique aspect of Japanese cultural history.
In the book, Iwasaki, a daughter of artist parents, describes the long years of intense and demanding training in dance, music, traditional arts and manners she underwent since the age of 5 in the Gion Kobu entertainment quarter in Kyoto.
She also writes about entertaining world leaders and celebrities; her struggles to overcome envy and ostracism by fellow geisha; and her five-year affair with a famous actor and her belief that he would divorce his wife to marry her.
But despite her devotion to dancing, and the rich rewards of her profession, Iwasaki opted to retire at 29 at the peak of her career as the star geisha.
She said she became disillusioned with the intransigence of the archaic geisha system and discouraged by her inability to effect change, such as improving educational opportunities, financial independence and professional rights for geisha.
At a recent presentation at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Iwasaki said she decided to write the book because she felt it was time to speak out about the strange things she experienced in the geisha world since becoming a “maiko,” or apprentice geisha.
Iwasaki said she is the first geisha to reveal to the public her own story in the 300-year history of the geisha world.
Iwasaki, the model behind U.S. author Arthur Golden’s best-selling fiction “Memoirs of a Geisha,” drew media attention when she filed a libel suit against him in April 2001 for breaking a confidentiality agreement and disparaging her reputation.
Iwasaki declined to reveal the details of the ongoing suit, but commented, “My name was identified in the book and he used a lot of private information without my consent.
“That is a fiction. My book is my own biography,” she said. “You can read both and compare, but I know what I have written is the truth.”
In the West, indeed even in Japan, there is a perception that geisha are prostitutes. Iwasaki clarified that in Kyoto’s entertainment quarter, the “karyukai” (flower and willow world), which is served by professionally trained geisha to provide aesthetic entertainment, is separate from the “kuruwa” — the red-light district.
Iwasaki recalled that during a two-month book promotion tour at the end of last year in the United States and Western Europe, children in the audiences would dance along whenever she performed her traditional steps.
“Please be like the children and look at karyukai without holding any prejudice,” she said.
After hitting the shelves in the U.S. in October, Iwasaki’s book made the top 10 best seller list in San Francisco within a week. In Scotland, it was so popular that Iwasaki said she autographed 400 copies in an hour.
Already available in English, German and Spanish, the book will be released in French, Swedish, Dutch and other languages this year.
Iwasaki said younger geisha and maiko were delighted by her book and told her they now take more pride in their profession.
“I used to be pessimistic about the future (of karyukai), but after I wrote the original Japanese version of this book, I felt encouraged,” Iwasaki said.
“There was an increase of a few dozen young women as candidates for maiko after the book was published, and I believe the karyukai will not disappear in the next 10 or 20 years.”
Iwasaki, who now lives in Kyoto near Gion and assists her husband, Jinichiro, in his business in selling and restoring Japanese paintings, said she is writing her next book about people who have helped her in her geisha career and plans to have it published within the year.
“Many Westerners, especially men, think Japanese women are submissive to men, but I can tell you, Kyoto women are independent and confident,” Iwasaki said.
“They are the ‘mountain gods’ who run affairs from the innermost circle of the family. So I suggest you never regard Japanese women as fragile things.”