Iwasaki, Mineko 1949-
IWASAKI, Mineko 1949-
PERSONAL: Born 1949, in Kyoto, Japan.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Atria Books, Simon & Schuster Publicity Dept., 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
CAREER: Geisha and author.
Geisha, a Life, Atria Books (New York, NY), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: Mystery surrounds the world of the Japanese geisha, both in Japan as well as in other countries of the world. The veil of mystery is part of the illusion necessary for the practicing geisha, but some of that mystery is caused by misunderstandings. Mineko Iwasaki, in writing her memoir Geisha, a Life, tries to illuminate the profession to which she dedicated almost three decades of her life, retiring from her role while she was at the height of her career and considered one of the most famous of all geishas.
American literary views of the geisha range from John Patrick's dramatization of Teahouse of the August Moon, published in 1954, to Arthur Golden's 1997 book Memoirs of a Geisha. However, until Iwasaki wrote her memoirs, no one in the three-hundred-year history of the profession had ever read an account of the life of a geisha from inside that secretive world. The world of the geisha is constrained by many ancient rules. One of them is the rule of silence; that is, geishas are told that they should never reveal the details of their lives to the outside world. However, Iwasaki became frustrated by the public misunderstanding of her profession, and after retiring from her role as geisha and entering the twentieth-century, she set out to clear the misconceptions. The result, stated a Kirkus Reviews writer, provides a "valuable look at a little-known world."
Iwasaki entered into the world of the geisha when she was only five years old. She looked upon her early entry as a privilege and honor. It was something she knew she wanted to do since she was only three. She was subsequently adopted by the Iwasaki family and became heir and successor to the Iwasaki geisha house when she was ten. From the age of five until she was fifteen, she was trained in stylized movements, from the way to use a fan to how to walk, a style of short steps that make the geisha appear to be floating. She also studied dance, music, and the traditional and intricate details of the Japanese tea ceremony. She was also trained in how to carry on a conversation with her customers, which she claims were predominately men, but occasionally women.
At the age of twenty, she "turned her collar," or went through a rite of passage, from geiko, or "woman of art," to maiko, or "woman of dance." Iwasaki vehemently states that women in her profession are not prostitutes or courtesans. Rather, she says, her training was more aligned to that of a ballerina, concert pianist, or opera singer.
Iwasaki's life was filled with constant practices and rehearsals. Once she was ready to debut, her life did not become much easier, as she frequently had to attend eight to ten banquets a night, performing for her guests. She would get out of bed at dawn to begin her rehearsals, then later to wash and dress, both elaborate ritualistic undertakings, and would not return from the banquets until early the next morning. She also appeared at public events a few times a year. These were annual dance programs that were very spectacular and drew audiences from all over the world. As Rosemary Sayer, writing for the Asian Review of Books online put it, in many ways "the life of a geisha is really one of a highly trained actress performing on a stage."
It has been reported that during the 1960s, at the height of her career, Iwasaki was earning about $500,000 a year; her picture adorned everything in Japan from calendars to shopping bags. Prince Charles, President Gerald Ford, and Henry Kissinger were among her guests. On a more personal level, some of her kimonos are said to have cost $5,000 and weighed more than forty pounds. Since Iwasaki only weighed ninety pounds, carrying the kimono on her small body was a feat in itself.
In a review for Time: Asia online, Alyssa Kolsky wrote that she found Iwasaki's book "alluring." Kolsky was captivated by the details of "the day-to-day minutiae of one of the world's most fascinating, secretive and oldest professions." Although Iwasaki loved her profession, at the age f twenty-nine she decided to retire. At heart a feminist of sorts, she fought to make changes in the ancient profession. She wanted geishas to have more control over the money they earned. She also wanted the women to have more access to education outside of the profession and claims that the life of a geisha is too sheltered from the modern world. When she was twenty-one she knew nothing about money and did not know how to use the simplest electronic appliance. When she retired, she thought that she would open a beauty parlor. Instead, she met a man who would soon become her husband, a traditional Japanese painter. Today, she enjoys being a mother.
The result of Iwasaki's willingness to open at least some of the doors of her world makes her book, according to Oscar Johnson from the Asian Reporter, "a read as pleasant as it is informative." However, a Publishers Weekly reviewer found Iwasaki's literary stance a bit too objective and likened it somewhat to the profession of the geisha. The reader becomes like a customer, stated the reviewer, "looking at a beautiful, elegant woman who speaks fluidly and well, but with never a vulnerable moment."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Asian Reporter, October 15-21, 2002, Oscar Johnson, "A Real Geisha Memoir", p. 15.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2002, review of Geisha, a Life, p. 1198.
Publishers Weekly, September 9, 2002, review of Geisha, a Life, p. 56.
Asian Review of Books Online,http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com/ (December 19, 2002), Rosemary Sayer, review of Geisha, a Life.
Time: Asia Online,http://www.time.com/time/asia/ (January 13, 2002), Alyssa Kolsky, "Real Geisha, Real Story."*