Geisha: a life by Mineko Iwasaki – continued

 I have  finished the novel by this impressive Kyoto geisha. It’s really a novel you read from cover to cover. It’s filled with anecdotes and she explains all Japanese customs and words, so you understand why certain things are done. This is useful information for a European who isn’t familiar with Japanese culture.

She was a very succesful geisha of her time (’60-’70), but in her 15 years as professional artist she always tried to change the system. Mineko explains how a girl can become a geisha. Specifically in Kyoto, they make a distinction in geisha: a maiko, is from age 15 to 20 after which you become a geiko (an adult geisha). Kyoto was well-known for its maiko and is considered a symbol of Kyoto.

I understand now that a geisha is an artist, trained in specific dances, calligraphy and tea ceremonies. They entertain at ozashiki (singular for in Japanese a plural form isn’t written apparently), which are posh banquets, where they dance, play music or have conversations with important guests. Mineko explains that for each guest they do extensive research (country, company, sector, interests, dislikes), what not a lot of people know. It is expected of them to make sure the guests aren’t bored and always entertained. But geisha generally perform intricate dances in theatres and at the annual event (1st April – 30th April): Miyako Odori (or Cherry Blossom dances).

But the thing I learned the most from this book is that they are independent women, living in a community of women who arrange and manage things very well.

What she stresses are the misconceptions of the geisha. Many believe they perform ‘special services’ and go to bed with male clients (which she doesn’t deny sometimes happens, and often result in very succesful marriages), but they are not … you know. People confuse them with courtesans called oiran. Many clients for the services of geisha are women as well as men, and are hired to perform at special occasions as business parties and such. In many cases for family celebrations. It is highly doubtful someone hires a (you know who) to an occasion like that!

Mineko became an atodori (successor) of an okiya (a geisha lodging) after being adopted at the age of 5. She needed to be adopted, because only those who carry the Iwasaki name could become the owner of the okiya Iwasaki. She owned the okiya till her 29th, after which she retired as geisha, married and followed other interests.

Ok, seeing I’ve written too much, much more than I intended, I will leave it at this. Do read the book and get to know the world of the geisha, which no longer has the same prestige it once had. To me, this book was an eye opener. I hope it will be for you as well.

Categories books

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