Geisha of Gion by Iwasaki Mineko


Standing in my local secondhand bookshop I had a desire to read something about Japan and found myself looking at ever-so-slightly foxed copies of both "Geisha of Gion" and "Memoirs of a Geisha". I knew that Iwasaki had been Golden's muse for "Memoirs", indeed she had sued him for revealing that fact, and so, ever the historian, I decided upon autobiography over fiction.

Geisha of Gion is a prettily drawn insight into the Karyukai of Kyoto and life within the Iwasaki Okiya, where Mineko, born Tanaka Masako, began training at the age of five. Her memory and descriptions of kimono and the details of her arts are exquisite. I particularly appreciated that she does not shy away from using the proper Japanese terms and then interpreting them for us, rather than simply using English substitutes as one often finds in books edited by Americans for Americans. If you are looking for a book filled with Japanese culture then it certainly meets that criteria and I certainly appreciated that element of the book. However that was not, in the end, the element which I found most intriguing.

One of the reasons autobiography is it's own category rather than being lumped in with non-fiction is not only to classify it as written by the subject of the book but also because classifying autobiography as non-fiction is problematic. No matter how well researched, the content will always be from the point of view of that one, intrinsically biased, person (indeed there is no real research requirement unless the author wishes to impose one upon themselves, legal clearance that is doesn't defame anyone is all that is really required.) Sometimes the author's bias or desire to impress a particular belief upon the reader is so glaring that it adds an element of fascination in itself. While neither "Memoirs of a Geisha" nor its author are never mentioned by name, Geisha of Gion is nevertheless heavily influenced by Golden's work. It is clear that Iwasaki wishes to correct some of the impressions left by Golden particularly in two respects: the suggestion that a geisha is a high class sex worker and that Iwasaki's father simply sold her to the okiya against her will.

The first issue is simply stated and backed up by, amongst other cultural experts, my Japanese teacher :) Prostitutes exist, Iwasaki informs us, but they are oiran (courtesan), not geisha(entertainer or artist.) The mizuage (or coming of age ceremony) for the two types of women is different, for both it occurs when the geisha first menstruates and at both her best clients receive small pink cakes with a tiny red nipple on top, representing a breast. The difference lies in that for the geisha it is simply a celebration of her coming into womanhood and parties are held and gifts received, only for the oiran is the girl's virginity sold to the highest bidder. Geisha do not give sexual favours for their fees. Geisha often have boyfriends (who sometimes become husbands) but sexual liasons are carefully managed and outside of the professional requirements of a geisha. How much of Iwasaki's story is sanitized in this respect is of little consequence.

The second impression Iwasaki is at pains to make is that of her father's character as a loving father, sadly misunderstood by her four older sisters who were also sold to the okiya and to this day are still angry and or bitter to varying degrees. I found it heartbreaking to read as this woman now in her thirties and a mother herself insisted that at the age of five she and she alone made the decision to go to the okiya to become a geisha like her sisters. Again and again she describes how her father resisted the okiya 'mother' when she requested their youngest daughter come into her service. She describes how when she first agreed to go to the okiya it was simply some kind of trial which she could have ended at any time - a special arrangement because the okiya mother was so desperate to have this child as her heir because she was so very beautiful. I have no doubt that Iwasaki believes everything she has written in this book but I simply don't believe that her father had not entered into a similar contract as he did with his other four girls, nor do I believe her protestations that he was so concerned for her welfare. She describes how, at eight years of age, she went to court to be adopted by the the okiya mother (as she had to be to become the heir to the okiya) and took the Iwasaki name. The judge asked her to say which family she chose to belong to - after choosing the okiya, she promptly threw up. Clearly she was desperately torn by the decision and yet she wants desperately for us believe that her father was a loving man, or at least that her father loved her if not her sisters.

Of course if his situation was such that he needed to sell his daughters into service then that is sad but understandable and perhaps he was a loving man - unfortunately Iwasaki presents an enormous paradox regarding this. She explains fairly well the reason that he was forced to sell his first daughters (very much against their will to this day) and yet she is also keen to impress upon us how successful her parents were as artists, particularly her father - revered and also ... making very good money, certainly at least by the time the third fourth and fifth daughters are sent. Nor does it explain why the couple went on to have so many more children - eleven in all (her mother is described as having a weak constitution) five of girls sent to the okiya. But Iwasaki does not present her father as an angel - she reveals man prone to sudden violence when angered but who treated her as special and mostly she was spared the violence. In fact she seems disturbingly proud when describing violence or raging committed by her father in defence of her after her brothers and sisters had teased her in some way or, in one shocking case, when a chicken has pecked at her and has its neck wrung in front of her when she is three years old. Clearly she cannot deny the violence and neglect her father displayed towards his children but she is determined to believe that she had a special place in his heart.

The overwhelming sense that she is special was no doubt encouraged by her father and by her being given the place of atotori - or heir to the okiya - at such a young age (she was wanted by the okiya because she was so breathtakingly beautiful even as a three year old doncha-know?) and narcissism permeates every line of this book. One is left with the impression of an extremely sad little girl who, desperate for attention, love and a place in the world, latched on to her place in the okiya and became, quite simply, a spoiled brat. This manifested in what was no doubt an extraordinary dedication to her arts but a failure to mature socially and emotionally. Iwasaki displays the same sudden explosive temper as her father and his mother before him had, sometimes in legitimate defence of herself but sometimes far too violent for the situation or sheer tantrums (such as the violent destruction of the fur coat of the wife of a man with whom she had an affair for many many years) and she describes each one with the same utter conviction that she was justified. When she describes the cattiness and cruelty of the other geisha, first within the okiya and later, seemingly, across the karyukai of the entire country, she puts every incidence down to pure jealousy and protests that she siply didn't understand it. I'm sure jealousy was a large part of it and any woman knows how bitchy and cruel women can be to each other but the character displayed by the author is certainly one which would not endear itself to other girls and I have no doubt she did not help the situation.

Geisha of Gion is definitely worth the read, not only for the insight into this area of japanese culture but as a fascinating study of the effect this odd situation in which she suffers being abandoned by her birth parents but is sold into a life in which she is paid deference at an age when she has no abiility to understand it as anything other than that she is superior to all around her. There are many stories of being sold into service and being treated poorly (as were her sisters) but this is a different psychological story and a new one for me. It would be fascinating to read the accounts of other sisters - particularly Kuniko who lived in the okiya with Mineko. Kuniko did not have the potential (read beauty) as a geisha and so was essentially a maid but she had intelligence and so became an integral part of the behind the scenes in the okiya and, it seems, a much more grounded personality than her sister and would have quite the tale to tell.