Book: Geisha of Gion

Okay, I’m not just reading education books. Geisha of Gion has been sitting on my desk for a week or more, begging to be read. Yesterday, I finally read it.

Geisha of Gion
Written by the real-life geisha that supposedly inspired the protagonist of the same name in Memoirs of a Geisha. This book is also called, “Geisha, a Life”.

More of a ‘parallel alternative’ than a ‘fierce rebuttal’ to Memoirs.
352 pages, ★★★★

I found this book on Wikipedia while reading about Memoirs of a Geisha. Apparently, according to Wikipedia:

After the Japanese edition of the novel was published, Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he had interviewed for background information while writing the novel. The plaintiff asserted that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity if she told him about her life as a geisha, due to the traditional code of silence about their clients. However, Golden listed Iwasaki as a source in his acknowledgments for the novel, causing her to face a serious backlash, to the point of death threats.[1] In his behalf, Arthur Golden countered that he had tapes of his conversations with Iwasaki.[2] Eventually, in 2003, Golden’s publisher settled with Iwasaki out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.

Iwasaki later went on to write her own autobiography, which shows a very different picture of twentieth-century geisha life than the one shown in Golden’s novel. The book was published as Geisha, a Life[3] in the U.S. and Geisha of Gion in the U.K.

Especially considering the real-life death threats involved, I expected Geisha of Gion to be a feisty, chapter-by-chapter rebuttal to Memoirs of a Geisha (rather like Three Cups of Tea and its rebuttal, Three Cups of Deceit). But it’s not like that at all—there are absolutely zero references to the original book. Instead, it’s a flattering, alternative narrative written with geisha grace. The tone, however, an a few important details have been radically altered.

The main difference between Geisha of Gion and Memoirs of a Geisha is that the former portrays a much more positive light on geisha industry. The author claims that she never had sex as a geisha and that mizuage is not a “ritual deflowering” but merely a “change of hair-style”. She emphasises that the okiya (geisha-house) was almost constantly on the verge of bankruptcy (which destroys any claims that the okiya was making a mint through exploitation).

Mineko describes geishas as high-status entertainers:

We are de facto diplomats who have to be able to communicate with anyone. But this doesn’t mean we are doormats. We are expected to be sharp-witted and insightful. Over time, I learned to express my thoughts and opinions without causing offence to others.

That last sentence is particularly important. In stark contrast to the slightly weak, victimised protagonist in Memoirs of a Geisha, Mineko demonstrates her strength in this book by including stories of how she offended both Prince Charles and the Queen—on separate occasions!

This book’s abnormally high death rate worries me. It’s set mostly in 1970s Japan, renowned for its longevity, but people die at very young ages throughout. Disease is also more common than it should be—is there something dangerous about geisha-hood that this book isn’t telling us?

The truth, not that it matters at all, probably lies somewhere between these two books. I have no idea where; I also don’t care. Just enjoy reading them! ★★★★

 

2 thoughts on “Book: Geisha of Gion

  1. This really just highlights an issue that kinda bugs me. I think that fiction is fiction and people tend to act way too seriously to it. Perhaps it is wrong to interview someone and then use all of their details exactly and use their name and such… but any representation in a book of a person is just that, a representation. Its not necessarily true. It annoys me how people believe everything they read, whether thats presumptions about realism in books or newspapers. Any story can be told many ways, and all gain diversions from the truth through being told by a different narrator. The fact that the gaisha interviewed recieved death threats is awful, both in the fact she was threatened and that people believed the fiction they were reading.

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    1. To use her real name was wrong, especially considering that he promised he wouldn’t give her identity away—it’s even more wrong considering that geishas traditionally don’t talk about their profession. With her permission, of course, it would have been fine.

      The author said that Memoirs of a Geisha was a work of realistic fiction. But because it was fiction, he could have changed her name! The Memoirs of a Geisha author was clearly in the wrong here.

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