When Mineko Iwasaki wrote her autobiography Geisha, A Life, she was responding and attempting to reclaim her history after Golden published Memoirs of a Geisha in 1997. In her book, Iwasaki attempts to give a detailed picture of her life in a culture that was somewhat foreign to the rest of the world. By writing, she was doing something brave and bold, and her work stands as a testament to her ability to frame the narrative of her story in a meaningful way, even after another author had already attempted to frame it.
The author’s primary point is that the life of a geisha, or geikos, as they are also called, has been so shrouded in mystery over the years that many people continue to misunderstand and misinterpret not only the work, but also the culture that drives the work. Her patient and gentle tone seeks to set the record straight without seeking redress for past wrongs, which is a writing skill that is difficult to come by.
The author sets out, first and foremost, to defend the honor of the geisha system. According to her, the system was originally designed to give women in Japan an avenue by which they could gain social and financial independence. Before the system was developed and nurtured, women did not have much in the way of opportunity. As she writes, the system in Japan at that time, and to some extent today, was a patriarchy. Men were in control, and women had limited access to a host of useful services, including education. She believes that the geisha system did an excellent job, at least in the beginning, of providing women with opportunities to move themselves forward a few stations in life. Her book is not just about telling the story from that perspective, but it is also about cleaning up some of the misconceptions, both from the West and within Japan, about what the life of a geisha is all about. In short, her book reads like a testament to the merits of the system, while many have written in the past about how they believe the system exploits women who have few other options in life. Hers is a paradigm shift, and a means of shaping the perspective of the people around her, which is both a difficult and daunting task to undertake in this kind of writing.
Beyond that, she seeks to make clear that the system is not exactly working any longer. This is one of the unique aspects of this work. At once, it is speaking to many different audiences. She writes for the West, and particularly for the people who she believes may have gotten the wrong idea about the geisha system when they read the book by Golden, which she believes unfairly paints the people in her line of work. This is a major part of why she writes, but it is not the only reason why she writes. Her other audience is decidedly Japanese, and it is a group of people who may be intimately familiar with the geisha arrangement. She writes to them to convince them that, at current, the system needs to move forward in order to fulfill its stated purposes. One of the strengths of this work is its ability to dance between these two different messages and audiences. One can benefit from this work whether one is very familiar with the system or one is just trying to gain a perspective by reading about her life.
Her primary contention in the work is that the geishas are not weak, and they are not submissive. According to her, there is a misconception that geishas are exploited, mentally weak prostitutes. Her view is that this is not accurate. She uses her own story to essentially describe and hammer home the idea that geisha women can be strong. She notes that she is mentally strong, and that many of the women who she knew in the field had a very good understanding of why they were involved in the work. Rather than being prostitutes, they were women looking to pull themselves up on the social ladder. In this way, the author’s book fills a pivotal role. While some works, including that of Golden, might have looked the geisha profession with an outsider’s view, those books always leave one asking a critical question – how do these people view themselves? The author here answers that question, and in doing so, she reveals some of the limitations that inevitably come when someone from the outside seeks to write about a tradition that is so inherently Japanese. Few people know the geisha world better than the author, and for that reason, she can be established as an authority on the matter. While some might still disagree with the distinctions that she makes – for instance, some could read this book and think that what the author is describing is not tangibly different from prostitution – her perspective is one that is likely to make people re-think the way they view the women involved in geisha work.
Ultimately, this book is about changing perceptions, and the author does a good job of that. She is forceful, of course, but she does not come across as being angry at her work being misrepresented. Rather, she uses her own story to draw attention to the fact that there are multiple ways to assess this particular careers and its impact on the women of Japan.