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The Life of the Prototype for “Memoirs of a Geisha” and Why She Sued the Author of the Book

Japanese culture has always been difficult for Europeans to understand. But one of the topics that never stops being interesting is geishas. Their history, traditions, rules, and how they exist in modern society — all of these things are discussed, shown in films, and described in literature. The life of the most famous and highest-paid geisha, Mineko Iwasaki, was described in Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha, where Mineko was the prototype. The book was a huge hit, it sold millions of copies, and a movie was made based on it. But Mineko herself was horrified by the novel.

We at Bright Side are really interested in the story of this unusual woman and we decided to learn more about her life. Also, we found out why she had to file a lawsuit against Arthur Golden and write her own book, Geisha: A Life.

Mineko grew up in a low-income family and her fate was predetermined.

The family the future geisha was born into in 1949 had not always been poor. Her father came from a family of aristocrats that went bankrupt. During the Meiji Restoration, Masako’s father’s ancestors didn’t want to move to Tokyo and lost all their titles and privileges. When their eleventh child was born (Masako), her father and mother had a small business. But it wasn’t enough to provide for the whole family and also help their relatives. Masako’s older sisters were given to a geisha house to earn some money and Masako had the same fate.

Believe it or not, giving away daughters like this wasn’t considered terrible to do in Japan. It was honorable and parents would no longer have to worry about their children’s future.

She started learning the secrets of geishas at a very young age

While still young, Masako went to Kyoto, which had a special place for becoming a geisha called an okiya. The owner of the place noticed the girl right away. She thought she was very talented and gracious. Masako had many sisters that attended this school, but the teacher decided to adopt Masako, making her an heir. The parents agreed and the girl’s name and status changed: she became Mineko Iwasaki.

Mineko’s talent made her famous, but in the beginning, she had a hard time because of the jealousy from other girls.

Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005

Mineko started studying hard. She loved dancing more than anything and she was clearly very talented. But aside from that, she also needed to learn calligraphy, play traditional Japanese musical instruments, and master the art of conversation. Additionally, all of the girls were supposed to learn to behave a certain way, take very specific care of their bodies, and develop new habits.

This is what Mineko revealed in her book, Geisha: A Life, about the everyday things she had to do:

After becoming a maiko, I went to the hairdresser once every 5 days. To preserve the shape of their hairstyle, I slept on a rectangular lacquered wooden pillow topped with a wooden cushion. At first, the pillow kept me awake, but soon I got used to it. The okiya had a trick to keep us from removing the pillow during the night. The maids would sprinkle rice bran around the pillow. If a girl removed the pillow, bits of bran stuck like glue to the pomade in her hair, and the next morning she had to make an unhappy trip back to the hairdresser. After finishing at the hairdresser’s, I went to the barbershop to have my face shaved, a common practice among Japanese women. My face was shaved for the first time by my father after he gave me my first haircut, on the day I turned 1 year old.”

Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005

In order to become true geishas, girls were supposed to go through several stages of learning. But Mineko was invited to be with guests when she wasn’t even an official student yet. She became the face of the school at the age of 15 and famous guests liked her the most. She was a great dancer and she was very good at holding conversations and entertaining guests. The word about this new star started spreading around the country.

Of course, this affected Mineko’s relationship with other geishas. They were jealous and even dangerous: she was attacked on the street. She was also the subject of conflict from the men she said no to.

In order to make things better with the girls, Mineko took them to receptions with her so they could earn good money too. But it didn’t help much — they were still very jealous.

At the age of 29, she had to finish her career because her health was in danger. Her working day started at 7:30 a.m. and ended way past midnight. The rest of the time, she took care of herself, prepared for events, and learned. She only had 3 hours a day for sleep. She had serious kidney problems. She realized it was time to save herself. However, at the time, she was the highest-paid geisha in Japan, earning around $500,000 a year.

She met a lot of famous people, but the experiences were not always pleasant.

Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005

In her book, Mineko talked about her encounters with famous people. She had to deal with different kinds of treatment, from prejudice to admiration. But one of the key skills of a geisha is the ability to deal with awkward and uncomfortable situations.

Once, Mineko met Aldo Gucci, the Italian fashion designer. He accidentally spilled soy sauce on her very expensive kimono and he was very embarrassed. In order to distract him, she asked Gucci to leave an autograph on her kimono, telling him it would be an honor for her. In reality, she didn’t care about the autograph and was only thinking that she would never be able to wear it again. She was even planning to give the kimono to Gucci sometime later, but she never saw him again.

Another time, Mineko wanted to teach Queen Elizabeth a lesson after the royal didn’t touch the food that was prepared for her, even though it had been approved beforehand. Mineko went up to her husband and got him interested in a conversation with her. It looked like a very personal conversation and the spouses later got into an argument about it.

She also met Prince Charles. He asked Mineko to give him her fan. When she gave it to him, he signed it and gave it back to her. She loved that fan and he signed it without even asking her. She didn’t care who he was and she thought that what he did was really inappropriate. She tried to give the fan back to him, but Charles looked very embarrassed about it and didn’t take it. Mineko then threw it away.

Mineko became famous around the world thanks to the novel Memoirs of a Geisha, but she also sued the author because of this.

Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005.

Mineko agreed to an interview with the American writer, Arthur Golden, who wanted to write a book about geishas. She did it anonymously but later realized that he lied to her several times. Mineko became a prototype of the main character of the book and it had words of gratitude addressed to her. When she read the book, she was horrified. In the story, geishas were presented like they were courtesans. Instead of explaining that they spread the traditions and culture of Japan and had nothing to do with courtesans, Golden made up his own story to make the book more interesting. And he was good at it. The book was very popular and a film was even made that was based on it. The actress looked very similar to the prototype, but she was bound by the wrong image that Golden created for her.

Mineko requested that Golden rewrite the book and fix all the mistakes. He refused, so she sued him. The case was settled out of court and she got a large amount of money in damages.

In her book, Mineko describes the lives of geishas the way they really were.

Mineko couldn’t let the book be the only source of information about geishas.

That’s why Mineko decided to write her own book. She spoke honestly about her life and the traditions of geishas. This book became a bestseller too.

Mineko’s private life and what she does now

This is Mineko Iwasaki with her husband, Jinichiro Sato, and her daughter, Kosuke.

Mineko Iwasaki found her happiness, even though she didn’t have much time for a personal life when she was working actively. She first fell in love when she was 21 with Japanese actor Shintaro Katsu, who was almost 2 times older than her. For a long time, Mineko refused his attention, but then she gave up. She met with him rarely and in secret. The actor promised to get divorced, but didn’t keep his word.

After she “retired” at the age of 29, she met artist and restorer Jin’ichirō Satō. In 1982, they got married and one year later, they had a daughter, Kosuke. After their marriage, Satō decided to take his wife’s last name. Today, they live in the suburbs of Kyoto. Mineko, just like her husband, is into art now: she does paintings and helps with restorations.

The family doesn’t give many interviews, but if Jin’ichirō is asked about his marriage with Mineko, he always says, “I’m very lucky.”

Are you interested in Mineko Iwasaki’s story? Have you seen the movies about her life or read the books?