Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki

Titled as a memoir, I’d say this is somewhere between a celebrity memoir and an autobiography (in the sense that it starts when she’s born, and follows her until the “present” when the book was written). I say celebrity memoir specifically because Mineko often terms herself as one of the most successful and known geishas of all time (she quotes what others have said of her), and most of the book follows her life as she meets famous and important people, one after the other, from all specialities and disciplines from all over the world. For instance she describes some of her meetings with internationally known persons – in a way that is “insider” styled, for example: the Queen was as rude as to not eat any of the food presented her – so I decided to retaliate (shortened version). Like a celebrity memoir it has that insider quality, where she will explain her impression on these people, and also will nostalgically talk of all the people she’ve met in her lifetime.

As far as a memoir go, there’s one main problem I have with it. It’s very clear, from the first few pages of the book, that Mineko Iwasaki’s life was a life of privilege to a large degree – especially in comparison to her peers. This in itself is of course not a problem – it is after all a memoir on her life. What I had trouble with was her own self censuring, and seeming lack of acknowledging of the fact that she came from a highly privileged position – in many of the stories she tells. Perhaps this isn’t something that would bother everyone, but it unfortunately did stare me in the face throughout the book. What I mean by self censuring is, for example, she often writes that she has no true friends but will later talk of the things she did with her friends. It did make me wonder, in a larger scale – not just Mineko Iwasaki’s book, the things an author will edit out completely in a memoir and when biographies written through a third person can be beneficial in that sense. I think one downside to her not giving full credit to her privileged position is that the women around her not of her fortune are only seen through her eyes – often as petty, mean, scatterbrained or lazy, which aren’t necessarily unfair based on her experience but does come off a bit one-dimensional in comparison to her own role and importance. But again, it’s possible this aspect of the book will not be as problematic to other people as it was for me.

That being said, for a person interested in Japanese culture and history, this book is absolutely worth reading. She described the different aspects of the geisha occupation – it might actually be more useful to talk of it as the geiko and maiko, but oh well. She describes the difference between the different “levels” of the journey, the transitioning ceremonies, the hair styles and clothes and all of the other things related to her work in particular. She talks of the tea ceremonies and other aspects of the era and the discipline she was involved in. One of the things I found the most interesting to read was her description of how one enters a room, I’ve seen this in motion many times (in Japanese television) but she described it in detail and it amazes me how much thought are given to the minuscule movements. I think that is in general one of the things so beautiful with the Japanese traditional culture; it is really the minuscule, yet weighed and elegant, movements that make up many of the ceremonies and performances of the dance, the theatre, etc. It’s also interesting because of the time her story is set, right in between eras possibly, as the traditions from before her time and in her early years had at the time she wrote the memoir lost some of its status and importance.

There is one other thing I was unsatisfied with. She talks of her good times, her bad times but mostly the many delightful things the work as a geiko and a maiko, as a part of the movement really, gave her and how much beauty she found in the dance, the clothes and so many other aspects of it. Yet in the last 20 something pages, after she writes of her quitting and getting out of the Gion Kobu, she starts to criticize all of the things that really sucked about the whole thing (the rules, the strictness, lack of freedom and independence etc.). Sometimes she does write about the negative aspects of her life, throughout the book, but it’s rarely to do with the actual society she was a part of in its entirety, it was rarely a critique on the decision makers or the power figures behind the structure of the entire movement. Instead this is left to the last two or three chapters, and in itself I don’t mind the critique – in fact I found it refreshing as a balance to positive light. However, I wish it was instead woven in to the entire book, blended into its core rather than being a last-minute rant. Especially because she had interesting things to say on the ways the industry should and could’ve changed for the better, and she mentions things she’s tried to do herself to make it change but doesn’t go into any detail. I think the book would have truly benefited from having this critique be more fleshed out to give a balanced account of this part of history – but of course, it is a memoir and so it was up to Mineko Iwasaki to decide what mattered for her to highlight of her life.

All in all, it’s a highly readable and enlightening book on Japanese culture and history especially in the post-war times and how Japan moved into its modern society, even if the book does have its flaws.


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