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About The Book

"No woman in the three-hundred-year history of the karyukai has ever come forward in public to tell her story. We have been constrained by unwritten rules not to do so, by the robes of tradition and by the sanctity of our exclusive calling...But I feel it is time to speak out."
Celebrated as the most successful geisha of her generation, Mineko Iwasaki was only five years old when she left her parents' home for the world of the geisha. For the next twenty-five years, she would live a life filled with extraordinary professional demands and rich rewards. She would learn the formal customs and language of the geisha, and study the ancient arts of Japanese dance and music. She would enchant kings and princes, captains of industry, and titans of the entertainment world, some of whom would become her dearest friends. Through great pride and determination, she would be hailed as one of the most prized geishas in Japan's history, and one of the last great practitioners of this now fading art form.
In Geisha, a Life, Mineko Iwasaki tells her story, from her warm early childhood, to her intense yet privileged upbringing in the Iwasaki okiya (household), to her years as a renowned geisha, and finally, to her decision at the age of twenty-nine to retire and marry, a move that would mirror the demise of geisha culture. Mineko brings to life the beauty and wonder of Gion Kobu, a place that "existed in a world apart, a special realm whose mission and identity depended on preserving the time-honored traditions of the past." She illustrates how it coexisted within post-World War II Japan at a time when the country was undergoing its radical transformation from a post-feudal society to a modern one.
"There is much mystery and misunderstanding about what it means to be a geisha. I hope this story will help explain what it is really like and also serve as a record of this unique component of Japan's cultural history," writes Mineko Iwasaki. Geisha, a Life is the first of its kind, as it delicately unfolds the fabric of a geisha's development. Told with great wisdom and sensitivity, it is a true story of beauty and heroism, and of a time and culture rarely revealed to the Western world.

Reading Group Guide

The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion for Mineko Iwasaki's Geisha, a Life. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Questions and Topics for Discussion
1) What were your perceptions of the life of a geisha before reading this book? How does the picture that Mineko paints of the world of Gion Kobu compare to your previous impressions of "geisha girls"?
2) Similarly, what were your views of Japanese culture before this memoir? In what ways were these views changed, if at all, after experiencing Mineko's story?
3) Among those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, geisha are often presumed to be well-born prostitutes. Why do you think Western audiences have relished this view of geisha and perpetuated it even though it's not true? Why is this view of geisha still prevalent even though more accurate information about geishas is available? What does this say about our culture? Why might the Japanese themselves have perpetuated this stereotype?
4) Although Mineko makes it very clear that entering the Gion was completely her choice, did you feel it was right for such a young child to work so hard for so many hours a day? In a sense, Mineko had no childhood. Do you consider the rewards that she has reaped as a famous geiko to be worth the sacrifices she made? What do you think she would say?
5) On page 194, Mineko states, "It's hard to imagine living in a world where everyone -- your friends, your sisters, even your mother -- is your rival. I found it very disorienting." Because of the overwhelming competitiveness among the geikos, it seems sometimes that the only real connections that a geiko or maiko can feel is with her customers. Do you think this is a product of the business itself, or of the innate competitiveness of human nature? What place does sisterhood have in the walls of Gion Kobu?
6) Do you consider the geiko tradition to be a sexist one? Although the geiko and maiko are obviously restricted and shaped completely by the expectations of their lives in the Gion, they also make their own money and are not confined to the kitchen or the home. Does this affect your opinion at all? Do you think the geiko tradition has any place in the modern world?
7) After reading this memoir, what do you think are the most profitable skills for a geiko or maiko to have? Were you surprised at how shrewd, smart and cunning Mineko, and the other women, had to be in order to succeed in their business? Why do you think Mineko, above all the other women in Gion Kobu, met with such success, holding the number one spot for six years and becoming the favorite of countless customers? What do you think Madame Oima saw in her at such a young age that convinced her that she was the future of Gion Kobu?
8) At heart, what do you think the geiko and maiko represent for their customers? Why are the men and women who frequent the Gion Kobu willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for time and attention from these women? Do we have any similar institutions or traditions in our culture? What aspects of Japanese culture make the presence of geikos possible?
9) At one point, ruminating on why she was so hard on herself from early childhood on, Mineko explains, "I believed that self-discipline was the key to beauty" (203). Do you agree with this idea? Do you think, by the end of her time as a geiko, that Mineko herself would agree with this?
10) Discuss the role that material possessions have in this book and in Japanese culture in general. What are the beautiful and delicate kimonos representative of for both the people who wear them and the people who admire them?
11) Mineko's father often reminded her as a child that "the samurai betrays no weakness, even when starving. Pride above all." What is it about Japanese culture that demands pride must come first, no matter what the situation? How do concepts like these translate into everyday interactions for the people in this book? Which people in Mineko's life subscribe to this idea and which ones don't? Does this affect whether or not they are successful in the long run?
12) What role does family play -- specifically blood relations -- in the world of Gion Kobu? Like Yaeko, do you blame Mineko's parents for allowing Mineko and her sisters to enter into the Gion at such a young age or are they fully free from blame? To what degree does familial responsibility trump monetary or business responsibility?
13) What do you consider to be the basic differences between the Western world and the culture of Japan? How does Japanese culture view the individual and his or her needs, wants and desires? What value do they place on the idea of the group? Why do people in Japanese culture struggle so hard to do what is proper over what might be fair or just?
14) Mineko is a truly fascinating, amazingly talented woman whose unique experiences would rival any celebrity or politician's. Look at Mineko's growth from a scared young girl to an international symbol of Japanese culture. What kinds of life lessons do you think Mineko learned from her years as a geiko? What did you think of her decision to close the Gion Kobu in her pursuit of family and other interests?

About The Author

MINEKO reached the peak of her career as a geisha in the 70s and 80s, performing for the likes of the Queen and Prince Charles. Now, decades later (and still stunningly beautiful), she is the mother of one daughter and lives with her husband in a suburb of Kyoto, Japan.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (October 15, 2002)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743453042

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Kirkus Reviews [A] valuable look at a little-known world, and an intimate glimpse into Japanese culture.

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