Book Review: Geisha, A Life

Book cover, Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki and Rande Brown.  Image from

Book cover of Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki and Rande Brown. Image from

In addition to my obsession with France, I’m also increasingly interested in Japanese culture. I recently starting using skincare products from a company called TATCHA, and they’re awesome. The company bases its formulas and brand concept on Japanese culture—specifically ancient geisha beauty rituals! I devoured the TATCHA website and blog and then read a book called Geisha, A Life written by retired geisha Mineko Iwasaki and contributor Rande Brown.

Iwasaki published the memoir in 2003 as a record of the geisha (or geiko) art form and way of life, which is changing and fading quickly. The book recounts Iwasaki’s geisha training and career in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and she likens the elaborate geisha system to an elite ballet corporation or an opera house, which helped me to wrap my mind around the concept.

I was struck in particular by three things in the book:

  1. It takes a village to produce one geiko. Entire communities exist to prepare and outfit geiko for their careers as elite public entertainers and private party hostesses. Geiko are artists who are highly and equally trained in a host of skills: traditional dance, the playing of musical instruments, singing, event hosting, calligraphy, flower arranging, conversation, and tea ceremony. Each geisha has separate teachers for each of these skills, and she continually trains with these teachers throughout her career. Young apprentice geisha also attend “regular” school for instruction in standard academic subjects and foreign languages (which she uses when entertaining visitors from other countries). In addition to the host of teachers developing the geisha’s artistic talents, there is an army of artisans in the geisha community dedicated to creating the geisha’s elaborate costumes and accessories–jewelers, kimono makers, hairdressers, makeup artists, fan makers, prop makers, etc. Each geisha is also dressed each evening by a specialist (akin to a celebrity stylist) who helps to coordinate the geisha’s overall look both aesthetically and technically. Kimono and accessories must appropriately reflect the myriad special occasions and seasons of Japanese culture, and there are numerous combinations and “rules” that the stylist must remember. The technical part of the dresser’s job is related to the sheer weight of the geisha’s clothing and accessories. The heavy costumes usually weigh more than 40 pounds, so they must be securely fastened and balanced on the geisha’s body for easy, confident movement.Geisha also live in all-female households that manage that the business side of the geisha’s careers (scheduling, finances) and the domestic side of life (cooking, cleaning). These family members also serve as adoptive families and chaperones.
  2. The geisha work ethic is unparalleled. Geisha wake early and go to bed long after midnight, and they are working the entire time. Their days are filled to the brim with training and practices to prepare for coming events, and their evenings are filled with appearances and performances at numerous private parties. There don’t seem to be any days off for geisha, especially considering that they perform in public recitals on major holidays. The demands seem constant and exhausting.
  3. Geisha movements are orchestrated in incredibly minute ways. Iwasaki’s detailed description of opening doors, and of greeting her dance teacher, are indicative of the infinitesimal physical requirements governing all aspects of geisha movement and performance. There are rules on where each hand should be placed when opening a door, for example, and when and how hands are alternated when performing tasks like pouring sake, serving tea, or using a fan. This level of detail extends to the traditional Japanese dances that the geisha perfect as well. The level of detail is mind-boggling.

The book is wonderful and I learned a great deal about traditional and modern geisha culture–and Japanese culture as a whole. My major criticisms are that Iwasaki tends to paint characters with broad brush, and that her recollection of early childhood seems heavily contrived. People fall into one of two categories for Iwasaki—good or bad—which doesn’t provide for the nuance of human character. She also lost credibility with me early in the book with her account of her early childhood. She ascribes a level of logic, reasoning, deliberate decision-making to her three-year-old self that I do not believe is possible for anyone to have at that age. I therefore question how much of this early history is “revionist” or gleaned from the stories of adoring (and exaggerating) family members. As the book progresses, however, you learn of Iwasaki’s incredible work ethic, keen artistic sense, sharp business mind, and impish sense of humor, which helped to “humanize” her and led me to admire her.

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