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Torn From A Geisha's Life

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 2, 2000; Page C01

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 would be coveted in any age; it falls in mesmerizing folds of gold-woven brocade, a finely embroidered silk belt wrapped around her tiny waist.

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. She is a proud woman.

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 that stayed on the New York Times bestseller 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 millions of readers found to be an intimately knowledgeable story of geisha life in the 1930s and 1940s. "Memoirs" has become the favored airplane reading for travelers to Japan, and for millions more a bedside escape into the secret life of the exotic "painted dolls."

The book has sold 4 million copies in English and been translated into 32 languages. Columbia Pictures has bought the movie rights, Steven Spielberg is slated to direct the movie, and scouts for the producer have combed Kyoto looking for the right scenery and dancers.

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. "It's a very, very absorbing fairy tale told in a visual lost time and lost world," says Douglas Wicks, who will produce the film. "It is also about slavery and the underdog."

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 fabled Gion as prostitutes in silken finery.

"For me, personally, this is a libel, an infringement . . . also a libel against Gion as a whole," she says in an angry written outpouring of her complaints, which she brought to the interview.

Golden, in a telephone interview from Brookline, Mass., where he lives, professes he is unsurprised at Mineko's wrath.

"I knew [these complaints] were inevitable," he says. "If someone writes a book about your 'family,' the closer it is to truth, the more you aren't going to like it."

A Geisha's LamentIn Japanese folklore, there is the tale of tsuru-nyobo, the beautiful crane-woman who takes flight when her human husband violates her warning and peeks into her closed room to see her as a bird. Mineko, seeing the closed door of her beloved geisha world thrown open, has taken flight from Arthur Golden.

But the betrayal she 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. Real geishas don't take off from their training. Golden got the organization of the geisha house wrong, and misunderstood the painted smile of the traditional noh dancer, she says.

That's small stuff, Golden responds. "The kinds of things I got wrong don't trouble me," he says.

There were slights, Mineko says: Her husband's name used on a gravestone in the book, her own horoscope misused in the narrative, her delicate and flowery calling card used in publicity for the novel. After she complained about her name being made public in the acknowledgments, it was deleted from the Japanese version.

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

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

Artisans or Courtesans?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."

The impossibility in this contradiction is part of the gauze of mystery over the geisha world. 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.

The geisha vocation, and the veil over the full extent of their services, has changed little since. 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 hairstyles painstakingly laborious. They consider themselves artisans.

"Geikos train and mentally prepare themselves just like businessmen train for their business," Mineko says, using the term for geishas peculiar to Kyoto. "The men come to them for beauty, for art, for conversations.

"Our 'play' involves everything from the tea ceremony to flower arrangements, to arts, to talking about the book you are reading--the conversation never seems to end," she notes. "Forty to 50 minutes into the 'party,' we perform our dance and then talk about various things or explain the dance. And soon the party is over."

"Memoirs" dwells on those activities in long dialogues and detailed descriptions. But the book 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.

Golden claims his novel captured the middle ground in the sex-for-money question.

"It's not a racy novel. There is remarkably little sex in it," he says.

But 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.

"In the field I was in, there was some sexual involvement, but it was not the basis of our work," she says. "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 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."

The qualifications in her denial are important to her. Whether a geisha unwrapped the many layers of her clothing for a client depended on who and where the geisha was, Mineko acknowledged. Gion is often seen as the premier address for geishas. The women there consider themselves the true guardians of the artisan tradition and are less inclined to sully their reputation with a roll in the hay.

"I never did that," Mineko says. "I never sold my body. Men never touched me."

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."

Old GionAt age 50, Mineko Iwasaki still is a part of the Gion geisha world. She lives in a Kyoto suburb with her husband, Jinichiro, an artist and art restorer. Their sweeping, modern glass-walled home is filled with Jin's finely drawn artwork.

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 and hams it up with the manager, another retired geisha from her glory days.

Over dinner that includes octopus eggs, sea cucumber intestine and pickled squid, she pours a stream of sake with long-learned grace. Mineko no longer wears the makeup and hairstyle 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 seems fascinated by every word, even if she does not understand English. When she talks, her hands fly theatrically and then roost demurely on her lap, only to take flight again. She is accustomed to attention, at ease in the spotlight.

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

His novel is set mostly before World War II, when Gion was a different place than in the '60s and '70s, when Mineko earned her fame, Golden says.

The plot and the circumstances of Sayuri did not resemble Mineko's life, he says. And "I didn't ask any information about her 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.

The first point Mineko acknowledges is true; the second, she says, is not.

The Little WomanMineko 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.

"It wasn't rare at all," she says. "A [geisha] house that did not have a daughter needed a successor, and would bring in an adopted daughter.

"My parents didn't want to let me go. But there was nothing else we could do to relieve the debt. There was nothing else we could do," she repeats.

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. At 15, she became a maiko, an apprentice geisha, and on her 21st birthday in 1970 she changed the crimson sash around her neck to a white collar to indicate her status as 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 maiko'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.

"There were a lot of fans when I was a geiko," she adds. "There were a lot of men who do give you money for the services you provide at the restaurant. And I believe a lot of the fans said, 'I wonder how much it would cost to make Mineko tumble for me.' I had sponsors, and patrons, but I never had a physical relationship with them."

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.

"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. In the increasingly small world of geishas, where talk has repercussions, she is reluctant to use her name.

"There are lots of districts where people sell their bodies. No matter how much we try to explain that Kyoto is different, there are people who don't understand," the geisha says. "There are no one-night stands here. There probably are geishas who have patrons, because it costs a lot to maintain our lifestyle. But the majority of people in those relationships become involved because they like each other."

Mineko says that feeling was missing in her offers from patrons three decades ago. "I knew I would be satisfied if I waited for love," she says. It finally came, in what she calls "a very passionate relationship for many years," but it was not with a client, she insists.

At age 29, her popularity was such that she had paid off her debts and saved some money, as well as accumulated a quantity of the currency of her profession--elegant silk kimonos costing more than $10,000 each. Abruptly, she decided to quit. "I had no intention of being a geiko for the rest of my life. There were other things I wanted to do," she says.

Shortly thereafter, she met Jinichiro Iwasaki. They were married 23 days later--the force of destiny and fate, they say now--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 2000 The Washington Post Company

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