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Sunday, March 26, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Memoirs of a Geisha': From a silken world, feelings of betrayal

The Washington Post

KYOTO, Japan - The old magazine falls open to a page of timeless beauty. The woman in the photograph peers over her shoulder with dark, somber eyes. Today? A century ago? Her painted white face gives no clue. Nor do the scarlet, doll-mouth lips. Her dress, mesmerizing folds of gold brocade with finely embroidered silk belt, would be coveted in any age.

The woman in the picture smiles wistfully as she closes the magazine. That was her 28 years ago, she says, feigning embarrassment. She knows the years have left her beauty and elegance intact.

Mineko Iwasaki was a famous geisha in Kyoto's most prestigious geisha district until her retirement in 1980. She was the source of much of the rich texture in the descriptions of "Memoirs of a Geisha," its author says.

"I am indebted to one individual above all others. . . . To Mineko, thank you for everything," Arthur Golden wrote in the acknowledgments of the English version of the book, a stunningly popular novel of geisha life in the 1930s and 1940s that stayed on The New York Times' best-seller list for 58 weeks.

The feeling is not mutual.

"Basically, what is written in Arthur Golden's book is false," says the retired geisha, in her first interview since the book was published in Japanese in November and she was able to read it. "He got it wrong."

Her indictment is of a novel that has sold 4 million copies in English and been translated into 32 languages; Steven Spielberg is slated to direct the movie version for Columbia Pictures..

It is a story of a rural girl, sold to a geisha house in the 1920s, who navigates jealous schemes and rigid rules of the geisha world.

But Mineko, as she prefers to be called in geisha tradition, protests that the novel portrays the artisans of the "flower and willow world" of Kyoto and its fabled Gion district as prostitutes in silken finery.

"This is a libel, an infringement . . .," she says in an angry written outpouring of her complaints, which she brought to the interview.

Golden professes he is unsurprised at Mineko's wrath.

"If someone writes a book about your `family,' " he says, "the closer it is to truth, the more you aren't going to like it."

The betrayal Mineko feels is, at its roots, wispy and elusive. There are so many inaccuracies in the book, she laments. Real geishas don't tie men's shoes - maids do that. Golden got the organization of the geisha house wrong, and misunderstood the painted smile of the traditional noh dancer, she says.

Small stuff, Golden responds: "The kinds of things I got wrong don't trouble me."

There were slights, Mineko says: Her husband's name used on a gravestone in the book, her delicate and flowery calling card used in publicity for the novel.

But, reluctantly, those grievances fall away to reveal the real offense:

"He wrote that book on the theme of women selling their bodies," she complains. "It was not that way at all."

Sake in the `pleasure quarters'

There are two myths about geishas, Golden says. "One myth is that geishas are prostitutes. That myth is wrong. The other myth is that geishas are not prostitutes. That myth is wrong, too."

Do they or don't they? Men have been pondering this question for three centuries, ever since the elegant hostesses in luxurious kimonos began pouring sake for special guests in the "pleasure quarters" of Edo, Japan's ancient capital.

Geishas are expected to be witty, flattering conversationalists, entertaining men as the teahouse madam counts up the sake bills. Most geishas endure long years of strict training in traditional dance or in playing the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument. Their elaborate costumes are hugely expensive; their makeup and hair styles painstakingly laborious. They consider themselves artisans.

"The men come to them for beauty, for art, for conversations," says Mineko.

"Memoirs" dwells on those activities but its plot turns on the sexual commerce and the largely businesslike arrangements involving a geisha, her surrogate "mother" who runs the geisha house, and a wealthy patron.

Was it part of the geisha world for a man to pay for sexual company? Undoubtedly, says Golden.

Certainly, concludes Liza Dalby, an American anthropologist who trained for a year as an apprentice geisha and wrote a book called "Geisha."

Mineko says the answer is not so simple. "Sexual involvement was only a small part of (the geisha's) services. Obviously our conversation, and dances that we performed, were more important.

"In Gion, the geikos (as they call geishas in Kyoto) usually saw their sponsor home, or up to the hotel, and helped him change into a robe. Until he gets into bed she is there. Then she says good night, and goes home.

"Obviously, there are geikos who want money, and if there is money to be made, the girl will sleep with the man. That happens in any field. But that is not the majority.

"I never sold my body," Mineko says.

And now, perhaps, to the nub of her wounded pride: "Everybody who reads this book thinks that it is based on my experiences. And if that is true, I am a prostitute."

Venturing back to old Gion

At age 50, Mineko still is a part of the Gion geisha world. She lives in a Kyoto suburb in a sweeping, modern glass-walled home with her husband, Jinichiro, an artist and art restorer.

But at night they often go into old Gion, a section of narrow alleys where a nod of recognition opens rice-paper doors to private teahouses. Some of the entryways have simple wooden plaques noting the geishas who reside there - Kyoto still has 253 geishas even as changing times and a flat economy have reduced Japan's geisha population to an estimated few thousand from as many as 80,000 in the 1920s.

Mineko is at home here. She slips into a teahouse for a dinner that includes octopus eggs and pickled squid, and hams it up with the manager, another retired geisha from her glory days.

Mineko no longer wears the makeup and hair style of a geisha, or the extravagant kimonos. But she sits on her knees, straight-backed for hours. Her attention to her guests appears rapt..

She is not, Golden insists, the model for the main character in his book. Sayuri, he says, is "wholly fictional."

"I didn't ask any information about (Mineko's) life," he insists, somewhat disingenuously, since he spent more than a week in her home in Kyoto with a tape recorder in 1992, as she described geisha life. That was a favor Mineko says she granted reluctantly for a mutual friend, and now regrets.

"There are only two points of intersection between my main character and Mineko," he says. "They were both sold by their parents, and their virginity was sold" for a record price.

Mineko was born in 1949, the youngest of 11 children. Her parents came from old families but had eloped, leaving the two of them with little money. Her father decorated kimonos. Her two oldest sisters were geishas - one disappeared and the other moved back home, heavily in debt and with two small children. To settle those debts, the geisha house mother approached Mineko's parents and asked them to give her Mineko - then only 4 years old - to be raised as a geisha.

In the geisha house, "I was crying every day. I was very lonely. I could go to see my parents, but that made it harder."

She started her training in dance and etiquette before the age of 6. On her 21st birthday in 1970, shebecame a full-fledged geiko.

A chief subplot of "Memoirs" centers on that transition; the tradition of mizuage, the "deflowering ceremony" that involved bidding by rich patrons over the right to end a young apprentice's virginity. Golden said Mineko told him her mizuage in 1970 set a bidding record, just as his fictional Sayuri commanded an unprecedented sum.

Mineko says the bidding did set a record of about 100 million yen (at that time, about $275,000), "plus a mansion and kimonos. But I didn't accept it. My adoptive mother paid everything for me, and we paid for our own mizuage ceremony." The sex didn't happen.

Besides, by her time, it was illegal for her to sell her body, she notes. "I never have heard of anyone accepting money for mizuage."

Mineko's hearing may be hampered by her feelings for Gion, Japan.

"Until about three years ago, there was bidding for mizuage. For an 18-year-old geiko, the average was about 15 million yen," or $143,000, says a young geisha now working in Gion. She claims that men bid for her virginity three years ago.

At age 29, Mineko's popularity was such that she had paid off her debts and saved some money, and she quit.

Shortly thereafter, she met and married her husband and had two daughters.

"I am proud of my career. I have no regrets," Mineko says. "I thought if Japan's tradition, culture and art could be described accurately by this fiction, I would do anything to help. I wanted to convey the correct image of Japan. But now I feel bad for the Japanese people. I feel bad for the people in Gion."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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