Surprising Controversy Behind the Sensational ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’

‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ was incredibly successful, but the book did more harm than good. It negatively impacted geishas, and especially one in particular.

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Geisha walking outside and holding a parasol to block the snow

Memoirs of a Geisha was published in 1997 with a movie adaptation that was released in 2005. It was translated into more than 30 languages, and it sold millions of copies around the world. Yet, there are controversies surrounding this historical fiction novel, including the accuracy of how geishas were portrayed.

Summary

Nine-year-old Sakamoto Chiyo and her sister are sold to the Kyoto entertainment district by their father. Chiyo goes to a geisha boarding house in Gion where she works as a maid, and her sister goes to a brothel. A few years later, a stranger she calls the Chairman gives her money and a handkerchief, and she admires him. Not long after, Mameha, a famous geisha, convinces the boarding house owner to pay for Chiyo’s training, and Mameha acts as a mentor for Chiyo, renamed Sayuri.

'Memoirs of a Geisha' by Arthur Golden book cover with a geisha on the left side
IMAGE VIA AMAZON

She gains popularity, and her mizuage (coming of age ceremony and graduation) generates a record-breaking amount of money. She meets the Chairman again, as well as his friend Nobu. During the war, when the geisha districts have to close, she escapes up north with help from Nobu. She returns to Gion after the war. She reunites with the Chairman, they admit their feelings for each other, and he becomes her Danna (a wealthy man who financially supports geishas). She retires from geisha work and opens a tea shop in New York City.

Controversy

Black and white photo of Arthur Golden smiling
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The book has two major controversies. One of which is the way Golden wrote the book. He made it sound like geishas were prostitutes. This is inaccurate; geishas never have been prostitutes. They were, and still are, entertainers. There was/is no selling their virginity to the highest bidder like in the book. This misconception came after World War II when the Allied forces were occupying Japan. Many took part in prostitution with girls who were dressed similarly to geishas. They thought these prostitutes were geisha girls, and they talked about their experiences when they went back home. The movie adaptation came out in 2005, and many geishas in Japan were outraged that Golden showed their profession in such a way.

Lawsuit

Mineko Iwasaki, the most famous geisha in the 20th century, sued Golden in 2001 for a portion of the $10 million his book made in sales. To write about geishas, Golden sought interviews to get an understanding of their profession. He managed to contact Iwasaki, and she agreed to be interviewed, so long as her name and her family’s names, as well as her and her family’s experiences, were all kept confidential. While her name was not used for the protagonist, her first name was mentioned in the book’s acknowledgments.

'Geisha, A Life' by Mineko Iwasaki book cover showing a geisha with her head turned down and to the side
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She was also enraged about how he portrayed geishas as prostitutes, as playthings for men rather than artists who work hard for their livelihood. Golden also spread lies during interviews to promote his book, saying Iwasaki was sold by her parents and other slanderous things that hurt her reputation. Iwasaki and Golden’s publisher settled this out of court, though how much money she was given was never disclosed.

Iwasaki wrote an autobiography called Geisha, A Life to share her own story.

More on Geishas

Geishas are artists, performers, entertainers, etc. But they didn’t start that way: in the beginning, Geishas were men who would advise and entertain their lords. It was around the 17th century when women started becoming geishas, and at the time, they were assistants to oiran or upper-class courtesans. Their popularity grew, and by the 1800s, they began to replace the oiran. (Perhaps this is also how the misconception of geishas becoming prostitutes came about.)

A geisha with her hands around her front and looking down
IMAGE VIA VOGUE

Training to become a geisha means learning about Japanese traditional art and culture, and the training is intense and takes five years to complete. There are few geishas still around today, and most of them are in large cities such as Tokyo or Kyoto. To learn more details about geishas, click here.


The book may be a work of fiction, but Golden still had a responsibility to portray geishas accurately and with respect. And he failed to do so.

For more historical fiction, click here.

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