GEISHA, A LIFE by Mineko Iwasaki


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An exponent of the highly ritualized—and highly misunderstood—Japanese art form tells all. Or at least some.

In her homeland, Iwasaki’s account begins, “. . . there are special districts, known as karyukai, that are dedicated to the enjoyment of aesthetic pleasure.” This “flower and willow world” has been a very specialized field for Japanese women for the last 300 years, she adds, and it endures even today. During the 1960s and early ’70s, “when Japan was undergoing the radical transformation from a post-feudal to a modern society,” the now-52-year-old Iwasaki trained to become “certainly the most successful” geisha of her generation; had she not taken up this line of work, she writes, she would instead have become a Buddhist nun or a policewoman. Attaining the top spot, as in any other show-business venue, meant waging crafty campaigns against jealous rivals; training endlessly in the arts of singing, dancing, conversation, and walking in a mincing gait; putting in 20-hour days; and cultivating the friendship of the otokosh (dressers), who assure that all is well in the kimono and obi department while acting as “the standard brokers of various relationships within the karyukai.” This account, the first of its kind from a contemporary Japanese woman, does a good job of spelling out the “aesthetic pleasure” component of the geisha’s world, although the author is quite reticent about other kinds of pleasure that the geisha is alleged to provide; on this point, Liza Dalby’s Geisha (1983), set at about the same time as Iwasaki’s memoir and offering another firsthand view, is more forthcoming. Iwasaki’s narrative can sometimes be a little dense; as a not untypical passage puts it, “I decided to try to orchestrate the company myself by asking the okasan of the ochaya to invite certain geiko to attend the ozashiki for which I was booked”—quite a mouthful for the uninitiated.

Still, a valuable look at a little-known world, and an intimate glimpse into Japanese culture.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-7434-4432-9
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Atria
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2002


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