Saturday, 6 May 2017

Geisha of Gion - Mineko Iwasaki

'I entertained many important people that year. In April 1970 I was invited to an informal banquet for Prince Charles. The party took place at the Kitcho restaurant in Sagano, generally considered the best restaurant in Japan.'

The book cover has a photo of
Mineko at 23 years old.
Geisha of Gion (or Geisha, A Life, as the US version has it) is the autobiographical account of Mineko Iwasaki, the most famous geiko (only the geisha in Kyoto are called geiko) in Kyoto before her retirement at 29.

I think that for a book like this, it's very important that you know how it came to be. Mineko Iwasaki was one of the geisha Arthur Golden interviewed for his novel Memoirs of a Geisha (yes, that one turned into a movie, no, I'm not ashamed that I've seen it countless of times). She later sued him from breach of contract and defamation of character as she had wanted to remain anonymous and the acknowledgments specifically thanked her as a source. She went on to face death threats and wrote this book to tell the true story of her life. (She is quite identifiable in Memoirs of a Geisha, even though it's largely fiction.) It's a pity most people will probably never come across this one, since the movie is so popular.

Anyway, I picked up this book because I like Memoirs and felt almost obliged to have read the true account, lest I get too consumed by what may have been but wasn't. And I honestly wasn't expecting it to be much, because naturally the real thing just can't be as exciting and adventurous as a beautiful fairytale about the same subject. But this was, not necessarily exciting and adventurous, but beautiful and thoughtful.

The book starts from the beginning and continues until it reaches the end, as they say. It starts with young Masako (her born name) and her childhood with her family, which she states was the happiest time of her life. She joins the Iwasaki okiya when she's five years old, out of her own free will, and decides to become a geiko because she loves to dance. She works in her profession for 15 years, mostly seven days a week, even on days like New Year. She doesn't rest as much as any human being would because as the atotori, or heir, she feels obliged to work very hard. Eventually the restrictions of the profession catch up with her and she retires, feeling that she wants to do more.

What I really enjoyed about the book was how she explained the cultural aspects of being a geisha. She does it skilfully and tastefully, not expecting the reader to be a moron but realising the cultural difference. I learned a lot of things that Memoirs got wrong, but also others I hadn't known enough about to even think of. It does help that Mineko was the most successful geiko probably ever, so a story of her life is inherently more interesting that the account of anyone else's. She also tells it with a humble sense of gratitude; acknowledging was she is but not boasting about it. Additionally, she provides the kind of criticism to system one simply cannot offer without being fully involved in its workings.

'When I was in active service I commissioned a new kimono every week and would rarely wear any kimono more than four or five times. I have no idea how many kimono I actually owned during my career, but I imagine it was over three hundred. And each one, not including the enormously expensive robes I commissioned for special occasions, cost between $5,000 and £7,000.'

That's her, by the way.
She laments towards the end of the book that she believes that the geisha culture is dying, as the wealthy with the free time to spend time with the geisha are disappearing from Japan. This was another interesting piece of information to me, and I'll be sad with her if this does happen. The sort of culture she describes is so different from any I have ever known, I believe it's all of our loss if we lose these sorts of intricacies.

All in all (again here I'm supposed to lament how difficult it is to rate a memoir but give it value for its storytelling efforts regardless), I want to give this a 5/5. While it may not have been the perfect book, I applaud her for coming out with this story and specifically, her story. It's not like anyone else could have ever told this specific one otherwise. Bottom line: if you were to read only one book about geisha in your lifetime, it should definitely be this one.

For the Helmet 2017 reading challenge I put this in category 36: A biography or a memoir!

On the topic of Memoirs of a Geisha

Gosh, writing this is making me hate that thing. Not only does it attempt at having an American explain a world foreign to him and so very complex, it makes geisha seem like proper prostitutes. I'm sure some of them do that, but it's a very stigmatising and hurtful thing to assume about a group of artists from a different ethnic background you know nothing about. Rightfully so, in Geisha of Gion Mineko takes every opportunity to assure the reader that geisha don't sleep with people for money, to the point where it seems a little desperate. But what else is the for her to do, really?

Memoirs also goes on to claim things like 'a geisha can only be half a wife' and 'it is not for geisha to want. It is not for a geisha to feel.' which are generalising weird presumptions that, according to Mineko, are not even truthful. How is that okay, even in the name of artistic license and all that?

As if that wasn't enough, there's the whole mizuage thing. This is a coming of age ceremony for a maiko where the topknot of her hair is cut in a symbolic manner, but Golden turns this into a virginity sold to the highest bidder. Again, this was probably a thing in some places, but to normalise that for everyone, especially when you're basing your story on the life of somebody who has actually existed? Yikes.

Also, Golden's novel is heavily laden with this "west explains east" thing, where a whole culture is reduced into bite-sized tidbits and erotic, mysterious storytelling, written by someone who's not knowledgeable enough to understand what they're actually talking about. Additionally I think with a title like Memoirs of a Geisha, even if the book says it's all fictional, it's bound to make some people think otherwise. Again, if you read one book about geisha, please have it be Geisha of Gion instead.

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