Memoirs of a geisha scorned

Mineko Iwasaki, the greatest of the legendary Kyoto geisha girls, knew that Arthur Golden would retell her story in his four-million-selling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. What she didn't know was that he would tell the world that she sold her virginity for $850,000. Here she tells Richard Lloyd Parry why she wants her life back

Wednesday 29 March 2000 00:00 BST

Even if you didn't know exactly who she was and what she had been, you would realise immediately that Mineko Iwasaki is an unusual Japanese woman. Fashions among ladies of her age tend towards the frumpy, but Mrs Iwasaki's clothes - a black trouser suit and red sweater - are expensively simple. She moves with the upright confidence of a trained dancer; when she talks, she looks you in the eye and holds your gaze. At first meeting, you might take her for a successful fashion executive, magazine editor or designer. She lives on the edge of Kyoto, with her artist husband, in a high, elegant house of broad windows and tastefully distressed concrete.

The walls bear pieces of Japanese art, old and new, and a number of remarkable photographs in simple wooden frames. They show a young woman (left), her body trussed in a magnificent kimono, her hair hung with flower-like ornaments, and her skin concealed beneath the thickest of white make-up. The photographs might have been taken any time in the last 100 years. For all her beauty, the woman within them resembles a creature from an earlier, lost age. So it is a shock and a thrill to look from the photograph to the woman holding them, and to realise that they are the same person - Mineko Iwasaki, the greatest of the Kyoto geisha.

It is 20 years since she retired, but even today, in Gion - Kyoto's most famous and exclusive geisha district - Mrs Iwasaki is still remembered. At the height of her career in the Sixties and Seventies, people told her that she was the kind of geiko (the Gion word for a qualified geisha) who came along once in a hundred years. According to Kaoru Yoshimura, owner of a Gion tea house, she was "a legend, a true beauty". Her popularity, reckoned in terms of the number of clients who requested her presence at tea-house parties, has never been matched.

When foreign VIPs came to Kyoto, it was Mineko who would be called upon to dance for them, pour their drinks and amuse them with the reverently witty conversation in which geisha specialise. Among British royalty alone, she has entertained the Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles, as well as "Lord... I forget his name - the one who takes photographs". What Carreras is to opera, and Nureyev to ballet, Mineko Iwasaki was to the karyukai, the "flower and willow world" which is the domain of the geisha.

Until, that is, three years ago, and the publication of "that book". Even if you haven't read it, you will certainly have seen it, stacked high in bookshop dump bins or airport departure lounges. It is Memoirs of a Geisha by the American writer Arthur Golden, and few first novels in recent years have had such sudden and global success. Since its publication in 1997, Memoirs has been translated into 21 languages and sold four million copies in English alone. It has spent months on bestseller lists, and been praised by critics from Margaret Forster to Madonna. It has inspired magazine covers and vodka advertisements; Steven Spielberg is due to turn it into a film. Already, foreign tourists have been spotted in Gion, on the look out for geisha and clutching copies of the paperback.

The book tells the story of one woman, Sayuri, who is born into poverty in the 1920s, sold into bondage in Gion, suffers a miserable apprenticeship, and finally triumphs as the greatest geisha of her generation. Reviewers have compared its author to Dickens, and praised him for his skill in climbing inside the head of a woman from a culture so alien to his own. But, according to Mineko Iwasaki, the book is "wrong, wrong, all, ALL wrong". More than that, she says, it is a betrayal, and a libel both against her personally, and against the entire flower-and-willow world.

Mrs Iwasaki should know, and not only because of her long and distinguished association with Gion. Readers of Memoirs of a Geisha have come across her before, in the acknowledgements at the back of the novel. Above the nods to publisher, agent and family is a long paragraph of thanks to Mineko, her husband, and her two sisters, both of them geisha. "I am indebted to one individual above all others," it goes. "Mineko Iwasaki... corrected my every misconception about the life of a geisha... thank you for everything."

He writes of happy times spent talking together in Kyoto, and watching tennis on television in the Goldens' home in Massachusetts. "She became, and remains, a good friend," he writes. But the friendship ended last year when Mrs Iwasaki read Memoirs after it was translated into Japanese. "If I met him now there would be no words," she says. "I just want every single copy of that book to be taken back, and my name removed. I don't want his thanks any more. He says it is fiction, but people do not read it in that way. They think it is my story, they think that I did all those things. When I go to Gion, I sense that people are annoyed with me. Even the young maiko [apprentice geisha] are thinking: 'How could she let him write such a thing?' I feel totally betrayed by him and by that book."

Mrs Iwasaki's fury is obvious, but it takes a lot of talking to pin down its precise causes. Despite its veneer of highly researched details, she claims that the book is riddled with errors. A particular kind of kimono which Golden has Sayuri wearing to a funeral would never have been worn on such an occasion, she insists. The river down which a group of characters sail in a paddle boat is too shallow to bear such a vessel. At one point reference is made to the smell of the toilet in the geisha house where Sayuri lives. "That is ridiculous," fumes Mrs Iwasaki. "The first thing you would notice in any geisha house is that the lavatory is the cleanest place of all. They never have any unpleasant smell." Given that the book is presented as fiction, none of this is convincing. But her criticisms go beyond mere detail to the tone of the book and the behaviour of its characters.

What seems to strike all readers of Golden's novel, is how alive and earthy Sayuri and her geisha cronies are. Beneath its façade of wooden tea houses and brocade, Memoirs of a Geisha is an old-fashioned romantic saga, with as much in common with Barbara Taylor Bradford as Charles Dickens. Sayuri's unrequited love for "the Chairman", her kindest and most gentle patron, and her elaborate schemes for winning him over, her bitter rivalry with the beautiful and evil geisha, Hatsumomo - all are entertainingly at odds with the Western picture of geisha as simpering butterflies twanking on bizarre musical instruments. But the book's colour, humour and cheekiness appals Mrs Iwasaki.

No true geisha, she insists, would allow herself to be cut on the thigh, as Sayuri does, in an ploy to gain the attention of a rich but repulsive doctor. Geisha would never refer to the act of love, as Sayuri and her friends do, in terms of "the eel" swimming into "the eel's nest". "The eel's nest!" exclaims Mrs Iwasaki. "I was an apprentice and a geiko for 20 years, and the first time I came across that expression was when I read that book."

Back in Massachusetts, where he is working on a second novel, Golden appears bewildered by his former friend's anger. "The book is not supposed to portray every geisha's experience," he says. "It's the experience of one particular geisha. I made a lot up, and it's not how Mineko experienced it. But it's not about her; it's neither right nor wrong."

Others in Gion agree that geisha are indeed far from the demure creatures of the popular imagination. "These days there are so few of them that they can be extremely pampered and rude," says Kanna Okuda, a Gion dancer, who helped with the Japanese translation of the book. "But Gion is a very closed, secretive place and they would rather not have people write books about things like mizuage."

Here we reach the heart of Mrs Iwasaki's complaint - the custom known as mizuage, which is crucial to the plot of Memoirs. Mizuage is the practice by which an apprentice's virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder. In the novel, Sayuri's mizuage fetches a record price and, despite emphasising the fictional character of Sayuri, Golden has stated publicly that this detail was borrowed directly from Mineko's experience. "Thirty thousand dollars would sound pretty outrageous, but [she] sold [it] for 100m yen which is $850,000," Golden told an American radio interviewer last year. "Which is a staggering amount of money."

Sharing the sexual history of a friend with a few million radio listeners might be regarded as ungallant in any circumstances. To a lady as proud and respected as Mrs Iwasaki, the mortification is intense, especially, as she claims, she never told him anything of the sort. "I told him I would never sell myself for any amount of money," she says. "When a geiko is successful, such rumours always spread. Sometimes, if an apprentice had a patron whom she was in love with, then there might be a purchase of her virginity, but it never happened to me."

"I'd never have said such a thing if I'd thought that she'd have been so upset," says Golden. But he stands by his version of what she told him and says he has tapes of all their conversations.

This then, is what it all comes down to, both Mineko Iwasaki's anger and the book's amazing success: the fundamental question about geisha, the one thing everyone wants to know - do they or don't they? To which the answer is: they do, and they don't. A geisha is as far from a conventional prostitute as an accomplished orchestral musician is from a busker on a street corner - which isn't to say that even the first violinist won't indulge into a bit of busking every now and then, if he falls on hard times, or for a bit of fun. Geisha are not prostitutes, but they inhabit a world of power, money, flirtation and stylised sexuality in which the line between entertainment and sexual dalliance is bound to become blurred. Mrs Iwasaki denies that she ever crossed that line; Golden claims she told him otherwise. It is a case of one person's word against another's. Either way, the white-faced woman in the photographs will never look quite the same again.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in