GOLDEN vs. IWASAKI: Perspectives about Geishas

21 minutes to read
Nathaly Yumi da Silva

Geishas are embodiments of a Japanese beauty aesthetic. However, their image is still very distorted due to the closed and traditional system, within its own rules and conditions. Some authors have published books exploring the mysteries of the geishas' world. Among them, the American Arthur Golden stood out with his debut novel and bestseller "Memoirs of a Geisha" (1997), a fictional biography that was very popular with foreign audiences and a failure with the Japanese one. Another renowned work is Mineko Iwasaki's "Geisha, a Life" (2002), an autobiography of the most famous geisha of the 1960s and 1970s. The conflict between them is clear: their narratives have totally different concepts about geishas. While Golden casts them as prostitutes, Iwasaki reveals them as artists.

Through a narrative analysis of "Memoirs of a Geisha" (1997) and "Geisha, a Life" (2002), I describe the main features of the two versions of geisha. Then, relying on the concept of posture presented by Jérôme Meizoz (2010), and the concepts of autobiography and novel presented by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (2001), I define and delimit the authorial postures of Arthur Golden and Mineko Iwasaki based only on the textual elements presented in their books. Finally, I intertwine the authors' version and their posture, understanding the impacts that both narratives have on the idea of geishas.

Therefore, in this article, I argue that the reinforcement of fetishist imaginaries around geishas is dangerous as it perpetuates one-sided narratives, reconstructing an oriental figure in order to suit Western expectations and ideals. 



Arthur Golden is an American writer born in 1956, graduated from Art History (with specialization in Japanese art) at Harvard University in 1978. He obtained his Master's degree in Japanese history in 1980 from Columbia University and in English from Boston University in 1988. Golden also has lived and worked in Japan, which permits him to construct an influential network that contributed to his debut novel: "Memoirs of a Geisha" (1997). 

The book is a historical fiction novel about the life of the young Chiyo Sakamoto before, during, and after she becomes Sayuri Niita, the most successful geisha of Gion (Kyoto) during the 1930s and 1940s. It starts with a "translator note", in which “Jakob Haarhuis" is introduced as a historian and professor of Japanese History at New York University. The scholar explains in the first pages what the reader will read in the following ones: a biography of Sayuri. Based on 18 months of meetings, recording tapes, and transcriptions, Haarhuis - a friend and the only person to whom she entrusted her history - gathers her memories and combines them in a first-person narrative biography. 

In fact, "Memoirs of a Geisha" (1997) was a six-year result of research and interviews with real geishas, so even though Haarhuis, Sayuri, and the other characters are fictional, Golden claims that "the historical facts of a geisha’s day-to-day life in the 1930s and 1940s are not" (p. 19). Another statement made on the acknowledgments is the contribution of Mineko Iwasaki - the (real) most successful geisha of Gion in the 1960s and 1970s - in providing, with sincerity, intimate details about geishas' life. To her, a so-called friend, Arthur Golden declares his gratitude for correcting "every misconception" about the matter.  

However, Golden and Iwasaki's "friendship" did not last long. In 1999, when the book was translated into Japanese, Mineko felt betrayed. She claimed that the American author has broken his promise about her anonymity, based the main character's life on her own life, and distorted the image of geishas, portraying them as prostitutes among many other inaccuracies.  

Selling over 4 million copies, Golden's book indeed indicates that the geishas' world is oriented towards pleasuring and flirting with men. Although the first-person narrator took time to explain in detail what concerns a geisha's appearance, for instance, it was way too short compared to the sexual nuances involving their profession.



In 2001, Mineko Iwasaki took action against Golden and Random House, his book's publisher, filing a suit claiming the breach of contract (about anonymity) and inadequacies that linked her as the main source. In an interview with The Japan Times, for Gary Tegler, the former geisha stated: If I don’t sue, Arthur will have gotten away with insulting traditional Japanese culture. It is not only rude to me, but to all women. (...) It is not a matter of money. It is our honor (Tegler, 2001). The case was dismissed in 2003 when the publisher "settled out of court for an undisclosed amount" (Dugdale, 2016). 

Whilst the lawsuit was in process, Iwasaki was preparing her own book. "Geisha, a Life" ("Geisha of Gion" in U.K. version) published in 2002, holds her attempt to undo Golden's defamations and to redeem herself within the geisha community. Rande Brown was the translator responsible for converting Japanese terms, rituals, and intricacies of geishas' world that composed Mineko's memories, and consequently, her autobiography. It also became a bestseller, but it has not sold as many copies as Golden's fictional biography. 

Masako Tanaka, born in 1949, was the birth name of Mineko Iwasaki before she was appointed as "atotori" (heir or successor) of the Iwasaki "Okiya" (geishas' house). She was a daughter of a kimono painter and willingly accepted the Iwasaki's heir position in order to study dance and to one day become a geisha. She was 10 years old when her name was legally changed and she became Mineko Iwasaki. 

The book emphasizes the figure of geisha as an artist, highlighting a female-hierarchical world that balances beauty, rivalry, art, and discipline. The well-detailed narrative about the tough process of becoming a geisha in the 60s and 70s gives the opportunity to clarify a lot of misconceptions such as the idea of prostitution. As Iwasaki (2002) points out, they are artists and entertainers, professionally trained by the Performers Association (Kabukai) under the motto: "We sell art, not bodies" (p. 244).   



In order to analyze the image of "geisha" in Iwasaki and in Golden's works, it is necessary to point out the similarities and differences between them. A good start is to say that both authors agree on the translation of the word "geisha" as "artist". Likewise, both cite the hierarchical, rigid, and closed system of "Gion Kobu" (Gion District - Kyoto), affirming the importance of harmonious relations between all members of the community for the district operating in good conditions. They also agree on the rivalry between the geishas, and the heavy routine of classes, housework inside the "okiyas" (geishas' houses), and performances at the "ochayas" (tea houses).

Some other conceptions are similar. However, there is a little difference from one another. For example, in Golden's book, geishas are a very superstitious lot (Golden, 1997, p. 238), while in this same nuance, Iwasaki declares that geishas - like all inhabitants of Gion - are devout because their livelihood is fully vested in the religious and spiritual values on which traditional Japanese culture rests (Iwasaki, 2002, p. 116). 

The difference between the versions gets bigger and bigger as the story unfolds in both books. The authors, for instance, agree that in the process of becoming a geisha, there are many sanctions within the perfectionist system. However, Iwasaki (2002) claims that they are all verbal, as physical punishment could harm their beauty and artistic ability, while Golden's version (1997) tells the story of a woman who was so beaten up by the Mother (owner) of the okiya that she broke her hip and could not follow her dreams of being a geisha. Henceforth, the concepts of geishas are completely different from each other.

In Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" (1997), there is a division between upper-level, lower-level, and fake geishas. An upper-level geisha is someone who "can’t be bought for a single night" (p. 278), but only accepted a long-term relationship with a "danna" (sponsor) who agrees to pay for all her expenses. On the other hand, a lower-level geisha is available on a nightly basis to any customer who offers money in exchange for sex, and "probably she’s happy to take whatever income is offered her" (p. 278). The last category, the fake geishas, are those women that can be found in a very specific place: the hot springs resorts (Golden, 1997). Although they also entertained customers by performing dances, they are "women masquerading as geisha who are really prostitutes (p. 616). 

So, even in the case of the high-ranking geishas, there is a sexual character that permeates their images and roles, giving an impression that all their acts are driven by sex and money. The protagonist, Sayuri, learns from her days as an apprentice geisha that her duty in serving men will always be about seducing and satisfying them. Before her first official event, her older sister (a veteran geisha who plays the role of mentoring and helping her) gives the following advice: A man is interested in only one thing. (...) In the meantime, you can keep him happy by letting him think he’s permitted to see parts of your body no one else can see (Golden, 1997, p. 317). Then, the younger one learns how to serve drinks in the right way, showing a little of her wrist for the customers' delight.

Still, the biggest difference between the stories is in relation to the "mizuage". Following Sayuri, "mizuage" is the most important moment in a geisha's life, it is "the first time a woman's cave is explored by a man's eel" (Golden, 1997, p. 434). The narrative states that a geisha's virginity is sold at auction, mediated by tea houses. Moreover, geisha's submission is also extended to times when there is no money involved. If a client forces or harasses her sexually, she has "no choice but to obey" (Golden, 1997, p. 486).

In a totally opposite way, Mineko Iwasaki emphasizes the artistic aspect above anything else. In "Geisha, a Life" (2002), there is a clear use of Japanese terms to design different phases and attribution of a geisha's formation. The most interesting within the nomenclatures is that in Gion, they do not refer to themselves as "geishas" (artists), they use the more specific term "geiko" (woman of art) (Iwasaki, 2002). For example, the ones who trained to be main performers, knowing how to dance and how to play flute or hand drum, are called "tachikata" (standing person), and the ones who are accompanists, playing instruments or singing are called "jikata" (earth person, due to their seated position to play/to sing). The apprentices also have their own terms, but the most famous are the young dancers known as "maiko" (woman of dance). 

The roles that a geiko must play are numerous: to master an art form to entertain guests, to play different types of ice-breaking games, to initiate a conversation during a banquet, and "to be knowledgeable about current events and contemporary literature as well as thoroughly grounded in traditional art forms such as the tea ceremony, flower arranging, poetry, calligraphy, and painting" (Iwasaki, 2002, p. 205). She must also serve drinks to customers and know when her silence is necessary. 

In this way, maikos and geikos could not be superficial and should be committed to studying their customers in order to know their personal tastes. Furthermore, Mineko claims that although the "ochayas" (tea houses) hosted important political gatherings, they were also places for family. She states: It is true that the majority of our customers are men, but we often get to know their families. My clients often brought their wives and children to visit me in the ochaya and to watch me perform on stage" (Iwasaki, 2002, p. 255). 

According to Iwasaki (2002), the "mizuage" is a rite of passage from a maiko to a geiko, signaling her transition from girlhood to young womanhood (...) it is similar to becoming “sweet sixteen” in the West (p. 308). She also explains that the concept of "mizuage" was misunderstood due to the fact that high-class prostitutes, known as "oiran", who worked in pleasure districts (different from the entertainment districts as in the case of Gion Kobu), used the same expression to indicate the ritual of "being ceremoniously deflowered by a patron who had paid handsomely for the privilege" (p. 378).

Thus, this practice would have nothing to do with geikos, who could be involved in a love relationship with a man who was or was not their client. Furthermore, being sponsored did not mean having sex with a "fixed customer". Actually, being a patron of a famous geiko was "a major status symbol in Japanese society" (Iwasaki, 2002, p. 83), and very often aristocrats "competed with each other to help support the most popular geiko" (Iwasaki, 2002, p. 83), bragging about it to others.

One last important point to make in Mineko's autobiography is that geishas were not submissive. They had a lot of respect for the district hierarchy, and they tried their best to make customers happy. However, if one of them crossed the line by making them uncomfortable through words or actions, he would be expelled from the teahouses. During her narration, she recounts more than five harassments she suffered and, in all of them, she reacted bravely, injuring men with pointy hair accessories, bites, and foot stomps.

In short, both authors - although in different decades - start from the same description of the structure and hierarchies of Gion Kobu but, as the retired geisha points out, the geishas' world  is a society apart, complete with its own rules and regulations, its own rites and rituals" (Iwasaki, 2002, p. 365). And it is in these rules and rituals that the disagreements between the Golden and Mineko occur.

On the one hand, the American writer portrays a submissive geisha who, with the pure objective of seducing her clients so that they become patrons, learns how to entertain them using art and stimulating their sexual desires. A shallow reason to go through the whole difficult process of becoming a geisha. Thus, within this version, it is hard not to label geishas as prostitutes.

On the other hand, the Japanese writer portrays a geisha totally focused on the arts and on the importance of maintaining Japanese artistic traditions. Their forms of entertainment require prior study and are not supported by superficial opinions and actions. Sex and money are not elements that define a geisha's relationships with her customers. Geikos are free to relate to whomever they want as long as they follow the rules and conditions stipulated within the geisha society (Iwasaki, 2002).



Instead of speculating and opposing the authenticity of the historical facts that involve both stories, the main goal of this paper is to understand what is at stake in having these different versions of geishas. In order to do that, relying on Jérôme Meizoz (2010) and his concept of posture, I am proposing an analysis of the authorial postures of Golden and Iwasaki in relation to the aforementioned works. Interestingly, "Memoirs of a Geisha" (1997) and "Geisha, a Life" (2002) are the only works published by the authors.

Meizoz (2010) argues that "posture’ encompasses one or several discursive ethos(es) which participate in its construction" (p. 84). He states that the "authorial posture" is an interactive construction process, and relies on different elements such as mediators, the position in the literary field, discourse, non-verbal behavior, and social roles (Meizoz, 2010). Another important aspect to be analyzed is how these postures are related to their different imagery of geishas. For that, Smith's and Walter's (2001) definitions of "autobiography" as a life narration with a contract of identity, and "novel" as a narration with a certain detachment of the author, play important roles in order to delimit their possibilities as authors. 

Golden's Authorial Posture

Starting with Arthur Golden, by analyzing the book's cover, dedication, author information, and the translator's note and acknowledgments sections, it is possible to understand much of his posture.

There are different covers for the book since it was released in several languages, but the following is one of the American versions. In the photo you see an Asian woman, dressed in a kimono and with makeup like a geisha. She has a light eye color (referring to the blue eyes of the main character, Sayuri). In the header, written in bold letters "National Bestseller" indicates the popularity of the work. The title is highlighted with a different size, color, and font. There is also the literary genre indication, "a novel", and the author's name. Underneath it, at the end of the cover, "Astonishing… breathtaking… You are seduced completely", says the quote from the Washington Post Book World, hinting at critical approval. After the cover and the back cover of the book, there is a small dedication: "For my wife, Trudy, and my children, Hays and Tess" (Golden, 1997, p. 9).

Figure 1. "Memoirs of a Geisha" (1997). American cover.

In the translator notes, Golden presents the complex structure created by him to support his idea of a fictional biography. When he introduces the Dutch character Jakob Haarhuis as a historian and professor of Japanese history at New York University, he also introduces him as a translator and biographer of Sayuri. Haarhuis assumes the narrator's position in order to justify why he is the person in charge of portraying Sayuri's life: they are friends and she only trusts him - as a result of his academic background. He later claims that biography is more important and relevant than autobiography as a matter of perspective, due to the fact that "autobiography, if there really is such a thing, is like asking a rabbit to tell us what he looks like hopping through the grasses of the field (p. 11). The translator's notes section is only 7 pages long and is the only time in which Haarhuis is mentioned.

In the acknowledgments, the author's explicit voice is used to separate what is invented (the characters and the story) and what is real (the historical facts about geishas' lives). Mentioning Mineko Iwasaki along with her husband and sisters, Golden expresses his gratitude for her heartfelt collaboration, for her intimately detailed stories of such a closed world—and consequently for her trust and friendship (Golden, 1997). In the following sentences he thanks his wife for her support, and then, he brings up a number of people who are academically involved with Japanese culture, or are living sources of information - other geishas that he also interviewed for the book. His academic background in Japanese History and his experience living and working in Japan, as listed in the author's information, are also important elements that construct his position. 

Understanding that an author’s posture is co-constructed by the author and various mediators serving the reading public(Meizoz, 2010, p. 84), it is possible to say that the positive feedback from critics and the bestseller label stamped on the cover, help to frame Golden as a successful author, elevating his name and his work within the literary field. 

Moreover, he positions himself as an author whose work falls in-between fiction and reality, and the issue lies exactly in this blurred border. The book’s structure contributes to this idea: the first content presented is the translator's note (fiction/presentation of fictional characters), followed by acknowledgments (author's notes/reality /real sources/distinction between fictional characters and real historical facts), and then a narrative with thirty-five chapters in first person, in which Sayuri (fictional character) recollects her memories about the world of Geishas (actual events). 

It is necessary to emphasize that Golden claims that his novel is a fictitious biography, in spite of the presence of elements that can easily trick the reader to interpret the work as an autobiography (the lack of an identifiable presence of the biographer during the narrative, the first-person narration, and the use of "memories" as primary sources). As a novelist, he is not bound "by rules of evidence that link the world of the narrative with a historical world outside the narrative" (Smith & Watson, 2001, p. 9). Even though he declares that the historical facts of geishas' lives are real, he establishes himself as a holder of the truth. Furthermore, his portrayal of geishas is a blurred creation between fiction and reality, nourishing Western ideas of exoticism and speculations about prostitution. 

Thus, while the fiction part is attributed to Golden’s skills as an amazing author who managed to create a convincing character like Sayuri, the reality part relies on his reliable sources and expertise in the field of Japanese culture, as well as his relations with other scholars in the same field.

Iwasaki's Authorial Posture

Making the same process in order to analyze Iwasaki's authorial posture, the cover of "Geisha, a Life" has the book's name in red in the header, followed by the author's name and the translator's name in black. The focus is the photo of Mineko herself in her geiko costume and makeup. Unlike Golden, there are no sales or review indications (although on later prints, before the title, the phrase "New York Times Bestseller" have been added).

Figure 2. "Geisha, a Life" (2002). American cover.

In the preface, Mineko presents her motivation for writing the autobiography: "I want you to know what it is really like to live the life of a geisha, a life filled with extraordinary professional demands and richly glorious rewards (2002, p. 10). Then, she briefly summarizes the most important events of her life as a geisha, and in the end, reinforces her goal: I hope my story will help explain what [a geisha's life] is really like and also serve as a record of this unique component of Japan’s cultural history” (2002, p. 14).

Her descriptions of her memories are very detailed, even those belonging to her childhood. She recounts, for example, the first time she went to the Iwasaki okiya and met a dog named John. She thought that a more appropriate name for the animal would be "Big John", and upon hearing this, the owner of the okiya - Madame Oima - declared to everyone in the house that from that moment on, she was changing the dog's name following the child's suggestion. Mineko, who at the time was still called Masako, says that she remembers it due to the power of Madame Oima (Iwasaki, 2002).

This passage is considerably relevant taking into consideration the process of building an autobiographical memory that manages to chronologically organize the facts. Before starting her studies to become a geisha, that is, before the age of 5, it was necessary for Masako Tanaka to change her name to Mineko Tanaka, and later on to Mineko Iwasaki (after her legal adoption as heir to the Iwasaki okiya). The change of name was a milestone that represents her choice of profession and her status within the hierarchical system. Iwasaki then deliberates on the memory of the day she found out she would be called Mineko: "One day Auntie Oima announced that she was changing my name to Mineko. I was horrified. I knew she had the power to do this to a dog but I never imagined she would do it to me (Iwasaki, 2002, p. 72). 

​​Through this example, and many others that follow this same structure, it is possible to see that the author relies heavily on episodic memory "which allows us explicitly to recall the personal incidents that uniquely define our lives (Daniel L. Schacter, In Eakin, 1999, p. 108). Therefore, even though Mineko arranges her memories from a very early age, she manages to locate herself in time, building an autobiographical narrative that unfolds her identity with reliability.

In the acknowledgments, she thanks her husband for his patience and support, and her daughter for teaching her and making her rethink some issues. Mineko also expresses her gratitude to translator Rande Brown and editor Emily Bestler, both for being sensible and serious so that Japanese culture could be apprehended and translated into English (Iwasaki, 1997). At the end of the book, there are 28 images that range from her childhood, her phase as a maiko and as a geiko, presentations, places, and people that were mentioned in the book.

It is possible to characterize Mineko's authorial posture along general lines as an author committed to her country’s tradition, motivated by the need to report the truth, and relying on her memories, experiences, and photos to affirm the authenticity of her discourse. Her narrative and, consequently, her version of the geishas' world is permeated with her own timeline, as well as it refers to a world which she experienced from within. 

Yet, another aspect needs to be taken into consideration: her persona started to be constructed within the literary field at the moment Golden cited her name as his main and reliable source, five years before the publication of her own book. In other words, her image was co-constructed (Meizoz, 2010) by Arthur Golden, and through his narrative, Iwasaki started from a position where she herself as a former geisha was a prostitute. It is important to highlight that Mineko's authorial posture was permeated with pre-judgments as soon as she presented herself as a former geisha, due to the well-established misconceptions that this "figure" holds, especially from a Western point of view. But with Golden's mention of her name, Mineko Iwasaki was trapped in a position of consonance with his portrayal of the geishas' world. 

Thus, her motivation to write "Geisha, a life" and her authorial posture in her own book can be understood as a way to bring up the "inconsistency" of her persona, confronting Arthur's statements. Following Smith and Walter (2001), in autobiographical narratives, life narrators address readers whom they want to persuade of their version of experience (p. 6). The urgency to persuade the reader is completely transparent in Iwasaki’s work. She assumes a position of a demystifier, hence also a holder of the truth.


Both Golden's and Iwasaki's authorial postures claim to be carriers of the truth about the world of geishas. The former is based on his sources and academic background, and the latter relies on her own memories and experiences. Therefore, it is essential to identify which practices are reinforced and encouraged by the narratives when we intersect an author's posture and his/her idea.

First of all, it is important to point out that due to the geisha world being extremely closed and having its rituals rooted in oriental traditional culture, it is not unusual that the curiosity about the "exotic" permeates and distorts the idea of Western societies about the subject. Therefore, when the American author portrays geishas with high sexual content in the narrative, involving them in the practice of prostitution, he - with his intellectual and reliable authorial posture - reinforces a Western point of view towards a Japanese traditional figure. It contributes to fetishization as a process of idealization that aims to deconstruct and reconstruct something unfamiliar, adapting it to imaginaries that satisfy desire and curiosity.   

Following Edward Said (1978), it is possible to frame "Memoirs of a Geisha'' (1997) under the approach of Orientalism. He explains that the concept is related to a Western style of dealing with oriental subjects and matters. In this case, Arthur Golden deals with the idea of a geisha "by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it" (Said, 1978, p. 11). 

On the other hand, there is Mineko's authorial posture and version. Unlike Golden, Iwasaki is supported by her own experiences and memories, and it may be considered inferior when compared to Golden's academic support. Therefore, her righteous posture and her idea of geisha, coined by experience, when intertwined, emphasize a relentless effort in order to change the Western imagination about the image of the geisha. It highlights an attempt to be heard from within the Gion Kobu

It is pointless to wonder what kind of authority a 40-year-old white American man has to speak "the truth" about the world of geishas, a hierarchical, all-female, traditional Japanese system. He, as a novelist, is bound "only by the reader's expectation of internal consistency in the world of verisimilitude created within the novel" (Smith & Watson, 2001, p. 9). However, since his scenario is a "real world", Golden only reinforces the readers' misconceptions about it, fulfilling their expectations and keeping up with the "consistency" of the narrative. Thus, what is at stake between Golden's and Iwasaki's versions of the geishas' world is the consolidation of a traditional Oriental figure reconstructed from a Western perspective.


REFERENCES - Author betrayed me, says geisha. (2001, April 26). CNN. 

Dugdale, J. (2016, May 28). Brought to book: when publishers go to court. The Guardian. 

Eakin, P. J. (1999). How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves (1st ed.). Cornell University Press.

Golden, A. (1997). Memoirs of a Geisha. Random House.

Iwasaki, M. (2002). Geisha, A Life. (R. Brown, Trans.). New York: Atria Books.

Meizoz, J. (2010). Modern Posterities of Posture : Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. NY: Vintage Books.

Smith, S., & Watson, J. (2001). Reading Autobiography. Amsterdam University Press.

Tegler, G. (2001, May 1). Memoirs of a Geisha” muse vents spleen at author. The Japan Times.