History, Iwasaki-Mineko, Memoir, Non-Fiction, social commentary

#535 Geisha, a life by Mineko Iwasaki

Geisha, a life by Mineka IwasakiGeisha, a life by Mineko Iwasaki

The Geisha lifestyle is very interesting. It’s a cultural niche that seems strange to the world outside. For many of us in other countries, it’s a bit difficult to comprehend but Mineko is wonderful at explaining the world she lived in for so many years.

When Mineko was little several of her sisters had been sold into the life of Geisha. They were either geiko’s or they worked for okiyas. Mineko was singled out at only five years old to be adopted by an okiya. The owner of the okiya wanted someone to pass her life on to, as she didn’t have any children of her own.

From a young age, Mineko was groomed to be a geiko. She was devoted to dance and often took many more lessons that most girls. She was formally adopted by the okiya and changed her name from Masako Tanaka to Mineko Iwasaki. She came to find out that one of the other geiko living in the okiya was one of her sisters. Her sister was much older and had two children, both boys.

As a child, Mineko had time to relax and learn, but when she became a maiko her world changed. She was constantly busy. She worked all the time often getting only three hours of sleep a night. She became the top maiko in Gion.

From a young age, Mineko was not satisfied with the traditional way things were done. She didn’t like that dancers got paid very little for large performances. She didn’t like that people thought it was ok to assault geiko and taunt them. She didn’t like that some things were so out in the open. She didn’t like that girls left their formal education at fifteen to become geiko. Mineko challenged the system, but never got much of anywhere. Finally, she retired at the age of twenty-nine. She went into a different life.

Mineko did inspire some changes in the world of geisha. Today she is married and lives with her family.

What I liked

This is the best book I have read on more modern-day geisha practices. I have read several books about the world of Geisha, but this one had the most information, the most accurate information I might add. Who could have more accurate information about this secret little world besides someone who actually lived it?

I liked that Mineko wasn’t entirely enchanted with the whole thing. If she had been we might not have gotten the view we got. She might have hidden a few things that she told. As it is, I’m sure she didn’t tell all, but she told more than most would.

Mineko is spunky. She admits to doing things that most Japanese women would not admit to. In Japan women mold themselves to act and look a certain way. For example, they think it’s weird for a woman to open her mouth really wide in public. It’s a thing; it’s called ochobo. Women want their mouths to always appear small and dainty and if you’re opening it wide to yawn or to eat a burger, you’re not fitting the ideal of a Japanese woman. Weird. I know.

Mineko breaks these rules. She stands up for herself. She actually gets violent. Look, I know you may think that since karate comes from Japan everyone goes around karate-chopping each other and there are big elaborate fights out in the streets, but that’s not going on. Japan is actually quite a peaceful place, especially the women. They don’t go around throwing wooden shoes at men and bonking them on the head with wooden blocks as Mineko did. It’s refreshing that she doesn’t exactly fit into that Japanese woman mold we’re so used to seeing.

What I didn’t like

This isn’t really about Mineko, it’s about another well-known book about Geisha. I’m speaking of Memoirs of Geisha by Arthur Golden. Look, I love that book. I’ve read it several times. I think it’s great. What I see when I read Mineko’s book and what I know of Arthur’s book is that a heck of a lot crosses over. There are so many things in Mineko’s book that appear as if they were lifted straight out of the text and put in Arthur’s book. I know Arthur did a lot of research for his book, but at times it seems he took events and situations from Mineko’s life and plopped them down into his story.

There was legislation that changed how the world of Geisha and prostitutes worked in Japan between the time Arthur set his book and the time that Mineko was a real life Geisha. I don’t know if this makes some of Arthur’s Geisha practices false or now illegal. Basically, I can’t tell if Arthur just didn’t do all of his research or if the way he described things used to be the way things were done and then they became illegal. I’m speaking specifically of the ceremonious deflowering called mizuage that Arthur details in his book. Mineko went through no such thing and actually got to choose who she wanted to have sex with. She was free to have sex with whoever she wanted. Nobody bid for her virginity.

The reason I mention any of this is because I think people should do their research. If you’re going to write about another culture, make sure it’s correct information. Don’t say Geisha sell their virginity when they don’t. Don’t say Mormons sneak around kidnapping people and saying crap like, “From 4 to 6, over the moon,” when they don’t. Don’t write about people have various pieces of anatomy sideways. Make sure you know your stuff.


I found this book highly interesting. I recommend it for anyone who wants to learn more about Geisha.

Weigh In

Would you find being a Geisha exciting?

Do you think you could make it through dressing up elaborately every single day?


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