Thursday 17 May 2018

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

During the planning stages of my trip to Japan I asked around and checked on Goodreads for the best books set in Japan. At the top of nearly every list I came across was Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.

When it was first published in 1997, and later when the movie was released in 2005, I avoided it at all costs. My impression was that it would be some kind of tacky white American male wish fulfilment fantasy story. Not at all my cup of tea, green or otherwise!

However I succumbed to popular opinion and packed it in my travel bag with many reservations. At best, I thought it would be a good book for the plane when I needed something light and easy to consume.

As it turned out serendipity was on my side.

I also took Murakami's Kafka on the Shore to Japan. In fact, I had started reading it a few days before departure. My review for it will turn up here soon. I finished it, about halfway through our time in Japan, as luck would have it, on our first night in Kyoto.

Starting Memoirs of a Geisha in Kyoto was an inspired thing to do. We stayed in the Higashiyama area, just a handful a streets away from Gion, the main geisha area in Kyoto and where the book was set.

I knew about the controversy surrounding the author and whether or not he had permission to name the geisha who provided him with a lot of the information for the book. From this I had assumed that the book was based on her life story. It wasn't until I finished the book and read Golden's acknowledgements page that I realised this assumption was not entirely correct.
Although the character of Sayuri and her story are completely invented, the historical facts of a geisha's day-to-day life in the 1930's and 1940's are not....Mineko Iwasaki, one of Gion's top geisha in the 1960's and 1970's, opened her Kyoto home to me during May 1992, and corrected my every misconception about the life of a geisha.

 A quick check on the internet, showed that Golden had been sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Iwasaki who claimed that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity. Golden claimed otherwise, saying he had tapes and notes to the contrary. They eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money. Iwasaki then went on to write (with Rande Gail Brown) an autobiography titled Geisha of Gion (2002) which claimed to tell the real story.

Both books were best sellers and both books have been loved and hated in equal measure on Goodreads. Golden for paternalistic inaccuracies and Iwasaki for grandiose, emotionless boasting.

From what I have been able to ascertain (and please correct me if I'm wrong) there were various levels or ranks of being a geisha. The highest ranking geisha were from the Gion, Pontocho and Kamishichiken districts. A lower rank of geisha were the so-called onsen geisha, or hot spring geisha, who worked in towns famous for their hot spring baths. Lower still were the ones who worked in a jorou-ya (brothel). A maiko was a junior or apprentice geisha.

Geiko Tomeko 1930's

Another controversy surrounded the mizuage ceremony as described by Golden in his book. This is the process by which a maiko became a fully fledged geisha (or geiko as geisha were called in Kyoto). Golden describes his character's virginity being sold off to the highest bidder. It was a pretty ghastly moment in the story and I wondered at the time just how true it was.

Initially I was relieved when a google search indicated that Iwasaki strongly refuted that this ever happened to her and that no such custom ever existed. However further reading seems to indicate that it was in fact a common practice, even for the higher ranking geiko (Sayo Masuda and Liza Dalby). 1959 is the key date here though, as this is when mizuage was made illegal along with other acts of prostitution.

Mizuage still exists as a form of initiation from maiko to senior maiko, but without the sex. The ceremony now focuses on the change of hairstyle and 'turning of the collar' on the kimono. According to her autobiography, Iwasaki became a maiko at age 15, in 1964, five years after the change in law.

So after all that, did I actually enjoy the book?

Yes, I did.

I read it as historical fiction, not as a memoir, and thoroughly enjoyed the glimpse into another world in another time. It was a quick, easy read. The romantic element felt unbelievable, rather Cinderellish really. For me it let down the historical aspects that I enjoyed learning about. It also happily mentioned the names of streets, buildings and streams that I was able to walk down, through and around, imagining what it must have looked like 70 years ago.

I could do nothing but step into my shoes and follow her up the alleyway to a street running beside the narrow Shirakawa Stream (that's a tautology by the by - kawa and gawa means river or stream). 

FYI: Hitler adopted the swastika from an ancient Hindu, Buddhist symbol denoting a temple.
It is still used in Japan (& other Asian countries) to indicate the site of a Buddhist temple.
Confronting to the Western eye, but true.

Back in those days, the streets and alleys in Gion were still paved beautifully with stone. We walked along in the moonlight for a block or so, beside the weeping cherry trees that drooped down over the black water, and finally across a wooden bridge arching over into a section of Gion I'd never seen before. The embankment of the stream was stone, most of it covered with patches of moss. Along its top, the backs of the teahouses and okiya connected to form a wall. Reed screens over the windows sliced the yellow light into tiny strips.


  1. Anonymous17/5/18

    I read Amy Tan a month or two ago and she also mentions the sale (auctioning) of the virginity of young high class geishas.

    Last year I had my first overseas holiday and it was great to connect where I was with what I was reading.

    1. That might be all I need to attempt a reread of all my Amy Tan books thanks Bill!

      Matching my holiday reading to places visited has become a bit of an obsession for me. Mr Books is a very patient man! (Although I bought him the David Mitchell book number9dream, set in rural Japan and Tokyo to read as well, so he can't complain too much :-)

  2. This book is one of my favorites too. I have read twice, in fact.

    I enjoyed your review very much, Brona. It must be exciting to read a book at the setting place; you can relate more to it. Nonetheless, it is indeed best to read as historical fiction without minding which are facts and which are fiction. ­čśŐ

    1. Thanks Fanda.
      I doubt that I will want to read this again, but I am tempted to read Iwasaki's memoir and to see what life was like for a geiko in the 60's and 70's.

  3. Love your photo of the woman with the selfie stick! They weren't around yet when I was in Japan in the early 2000s but it was always so incongruous to see women in traditional dress chatting on their cell phones, or on the trains. I visited Kyoto twice and it is by far my favorite place in Japan. I would love to go back.

  4. We saw a lot of selfie sticks throughout Japan! But also a number of kind people who stopped to ask us if we would like them to take a picture of us together. I will gradually post more of our holiday snaps on my other blog called Four Seasons. I did a blossom post today to get me started.

    Although we spent three days driving around Mt Fuji, we never saw her once, so we will have to return to have another go for sure :-)


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