"Geishas are professionals who make a living by using their artistic skills, but many people have a mistaken image of the world of mystery and shadows" Quote from Mainichi Daily News Interactive
Mineko Iwasaki is the real geisha behind Sayuri in Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a geisha. He interviewed her prior to writing his novel, and she gave him a wealth of material about the geisha world. She even mentioned parts of her own private life, believing that he would respect her privacy. However when she read the Japanese version, she was horrified and initiated legal action. Few people understand why, so I will try to enlighten you.
I read Memoirs of a geisha several years ago and although I thought Golden had painted an overly-black picture of geisha life, on the whole I thought it was original and cleverly contructed. Having read Iwasaki's own biography, Geisha of Gion, I realised why she was so angry. Many of Golden's ideas were not his own - he simply copied characters and events from Iwasaki's life. Worst of all, he twisted perfectly happy memories and experiences into a horrid, dark tale of pain and loneliness. To understand the details, please read my node on Geisha of Gion (coming soon). He might claim his work is fiction, but to Iwasaki there were too many similarities to separate it from her own life. If you imagine the happiest days of your life, then someone changing them into something sad and cold in a bestselling book, you might begin to understand how she feels. It isn't about money - she made enough as a geisha. She may not have mentioned it publicly - but I guess these would be very, very private feelings, especially as she is Japanese.
Mineko Iwasaki was born in 1949 in Kyoto and given the name Masako. However she left her name and old life behind when she moved to the Iwasaki okiya, in Shinbashi, at the age of 5. The mama-san of the Iwasaki okiya had seen Masako and believed she could become a good geisha. Her parents owed the mama-san a lot due to the problems one of their older daughters and an Iwasaki geisha, Yaeko, had caused. As tradition dictated, Masako had to severe all ties to her parents and siblings, changing her name and was adopted into the Iwasaki family, becoming the atotori or heir. It was a sad day and sometimes she wondered what life would have been like if she had stayed with her biological family. But she wouldn't have changed her mind if she could go back in time.
A year later, she began her training to become a maiko, the step prior to becoming a geisha. Life was challenging but that was the way it had always been in Gion Kobu. Mineko was treated far better than Sayuri in Memoirs of a geisha. As atotori she had a high standing but more importantly, she worked hard and became highly accomplished in the arts of entertainment. She loved traditional dance the most, enjoying the flowing movements and feeling graceful despite the weight of her kimono - it weighed 40 lbs!
She "turned the collar" at 20 - this means she changed her red, maiko's kimono collar to the white one geisha wear. Her skills earnt her the respect and admiration of all of the Gion community. She denies this, but many regarded her as the best geisha of her day. Mineko-san performed many times, across Japan and not just in events like the Miyako Odori. She made a famous advert for Suntory and performed for Prince Charles, as well as his parents Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. She has an interesting story to tell about the Royal couple - I might tell you it later.
A few pages that might interest you concern her attitude to those men who tried to molest her. The image of a Japanese woman most Western people have is of someone rather weak and submissive. Not Mineko-san. Read on.
......I was totally disgusted. 'It's not a good idea to mess with a woman of today,' I hissed. 'You'd better be careful from now on.' Then I forced myself to go limp. When he relaxed his hold, I grabbed his left hand and sank my teeth into his wrist. He immediately left out a scream and released me. Blood was dripping from his hand. The other two men were staring at me in wide-eyed amazement. All three fled.......
And in another case, after being groped by a customer with a bad reputation. (By the way, the wooden blocks were used when chanting sutra
......I had no idea if he got away with this kind of behaviour with the other girls, but he certainly wasn't going to get away with it with me.
The altar room was right next to the kitchen, and in it I saw a set of wooden bricks lying on a cushion.....I went in, picked up one of the blocks, and turned towards the obnoxious man. I must have looked quite menacing because he took off down the corridor. I ran after him. He sprinted into the garden and I followed, shoeless, long train trailing behind me.
I chased him up and down the stairs to the first floor of the ochaya, not bothering to imagine how this scene must have looked to the other guests. When I finally caught up with him....I whacked him on the head with the block. It made a hollow sound. 'Serves you right!' I cried.
The man just happened to go bald soon after that.
Mineko Iwasaki left the world of the geisha at the age of 30, the height of her career. She closed down the Iwasaki okiya and took the priceless collection of kimono and jewelled ornaments with her. Mineko-san is currently married (happily I would presume) and focuses on raising her family. I wish her every success in her legal action against Arthur Golden and hope she can reclaim her past from him and his publishers.
Mineko Iwasaki, Geisha of Gion (London, 2002)
Mainichi Daily News Interactive (http://mdn.mainichi.co.jp/japano/0111/011130ex-geisha.html)