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The geisha, or geiko, as they are called in the Kyoto prefecture of Japan are frequently misunderstood to be sex workers catering to rich men. This concept is highly troublesome and degrading to the Geiko whose name literally means ‘woman of art’. Western media too has played its role in eroticising something of great cultural pride to the Japanese. Arthur Golden’s book ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is a prime example. For his book, he interviewed multiple Geisha but failed to produce a result true to their experiences. Distressed at the depiction of herself and her community, Mineko Iwasaki, one of the geisha Golden interviewed, collaborated with British writer Rande Brown to bring forward her own story to the public. Geisha of Gion (UK print) begins with the author recollecting the time right before she became a part of the Iwasaki Okiya (geisha house).

Geisha of Gion (2003)

Author: Mineko Iwasaki

Publisher: Poket Books

Genre: Autobiography

At the tender age of 4, Masako (later Mineko) makes the decision to go live at the okiya run by its proprietor Madam Oima. She is renamed Mineko Iwasaki (Jp. Iwasaki Mineko) and thus begins her life as a future geiko who would be best in her field for years, and who would be legendary to many more generations of geiko after her.

Her life at the okiya begins with her tagging along its older members to their places of work and meeting people around her place of living. Gradually, she meets her parents lesser and lesser till the point in time comes when she has to make a decision to separate from them completely to become the heir of the Iwasaki okiya. As a young child, she struggled to chose between the parents she loved and what she believed to be her duty. However, once everything is settled, she throws herself into dance and music classes, rigorous routine after rigorous routine taking up her days. She debuts as a maiko (apprentice geiko) when she is 15 and becomes a geiko when she turns 21.

Distressed at the depiction of herself and her community, Mineko Iwasaki, one of the geisha Golden interviewed, collaborated with British writer Rande Brown to bring forward her own story to the public. Geisha of Gion (UK print) begins with the author recollecting the time right before she became a part of the Iwasaki Okiya (geisha house).

Her professional life was a lot of things, busy being the most apt descriptor of it. She was booked years in advance, she attended to parties, danced in festivals, visited patron tea-houses, practiced routines, appeared in advertisements, met with foreign dignitaries, read up on them; and still made time to read herself a book or listen to some music before her day started.

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This went on for years, many-a-times with barely enough time to catch a quick nap before she had to get to her next appointment. This also meant that she only took care of her own routines ad nothing else. From clothes to jewellery to food, everything was taken care for her by others. Therefore, at a point of time when she decides to be independent and live in a flat by herself, it makes for quite a comical incident when she didn’t know how money worked.   

Through all of this, she also goes through what seems to be a quintessential part of almost every woman’s life – harassment. She recites incidents where male guests had tried to force themselves on her, and how she had escaped from them. On top of that, her popularity also made other geiko envious, many of whom intentionally hurt and humiliated her.

Through all of this, she also goes through what seems to be a quintessential part of almost every woman’s life – harassment. She recites incidents where male guests had tried to force themselves on her, and how she had escaped from them. On top of that, her popularity also made other geiko envious, many of whom intentionally hurt and humiliated her. Between al of this, Mineko falls in love with a married man. They date for a few years until she finally realises that he was never going to marry her. At the same time, she is also under pressure to take over as the atotori (heir) to the Iwasaki Okiya.

(Left) Iwasaki as a Maiko (Right) Iwasaki after retirement
Source: Joliegazette

She confides in her readers all she found archaic about the system she lived in, and how she tried to make changes, but to no avail. Finally, when she was 29, she made the decision to close down the okiya for good and go into business instead. She stayed a part of Gion kobu even after her retirement, attending functions as a revered guest now, instead of hosting them.

Throughout the many themes expressed in Geisha of Gion, we see a young child grow into a young adult trying to navigate her surroundings, trying to strike a balance between the highly protected world of Gion kobu and the outside world. Deep values she cultivated within herself helped her keep going through years of physical and mental excesses.

The narrative is simply written, almost conversational. The writer’s emotions come through effortlessly to the reader. To anyone who might have read ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, this book might come as a surprise but that is exactly what the writer intended to do.

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She was one of the first people, in the 300-year old history of this highly secretive community to speak out in an effort to make their institution more accessible to the rest of the world. Her hopes back-fired when Golden produced a highly sexualised version of her revelations. I highly recommend Geisha of Gion to anyone wanting to catch a glimpse of what being the foremost geiko in the most popular geisha district of Japan was like in the 1970s.


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