The Battle of the Books Memoirs of a Geisha vs Geisha, A Life

I am a bit behind the times with this article. Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha came out in 1997, with a movie of the same name back in 2005. I recently read the autobiography of the woman Memoirs was based upon, Mineko Iwasaki. In her book, Geisha, a Life, Iwasaki  paints a very different picture from what Golden write in his fiction. Yes, Memoirs of a Geisha is fiction, so the author can have license to change things. However, some of the author’s changes created misconceptions that Iwasaki specifically addresses in her autobiography.

I enjoyed both books and the Memoirs movie. Memoirs of a Geisha has some flat characters, particularly the villains, but it is an enjoyable novel nonetheless.

In the Right Corner, we have Sayuri! In the left Corner we have Mineko!

geishaGolden and Iwasaki’s conflict dealt with his violation of her privacy. Iwasaki spoke with Golden with the stipulation that he didn’t reveal her identity (Tegler, 2001). However,  Golden dedicates the book to her, and Golden mentions her in interviews. He stated Iwasaki was sold to a geisha house and had her virginity auctioned off. Iwasaki said this was blatantly false (Tegler, 2002). Her book, Geisha, a Life, also denies this. My own research also found that geisha did not experience this after they became separate from their origins as high class courtesans.

Golden’s book struck a nerve with Iwasaki when its Japanese translation released (Tegler, 2001):

“Everything is wrong,” she said. “In the book, a geisha was beaten with a hanger and crippled. There is a very strict rule that ‘maiko’ (apprentice geisha) and geisha should never be beaten. We are precious goods and the livelihood of the ‘okiya’ (geisha houses) depends on us.”

Iwasaki’s book is an interesting (but dry) read about her day to day life as a young girl who is given the choice to become a geisha. It was the best way for Iwasaki and her sisters to receive more education. Her family was fairly high class, if lacking in affluence. Iwasaki makes it clear that she wasn’t sold.

Geisha, a Life takes you into a closed world few people see. Iwasaki writes extensively about how the strict rules and regulations frustrated her, and how those rules strangle the profession.

The sections of her childhood have so many details that I wonder if she took some artistic license.  My childhood memories are vague at best, but a profession that focuses on detail in a culture that tends to focus on detail, would create a better memory.

The photos from Iwasaki’s past are poignant. These were real people from her past, and almost all of them are gone now. Under the dry text  there is a wistfulness, a sadness. Iwasaki, for all the long hours of practice, study, and work, is fond of the flower and willow world of the geisha.

There is some criticism that Iwasaki sides steps the sexual elements of geisha too much, but that can also be a Western bias. The very idea of a geisha – a women hired to spend time entertaining a man – automatically makes us think of sex. Golden’s book only underlines that biased thinking. Iwasaki’s book isn’t sexless, but sex is limited to only two of the closest men in her life. One happened to be a patron. Iwasaki writes about the backbiting and competition between maiko and geisha. She also expresses her disappointment and frustration with this. While Iwasaki has a fairly emotionless writing style, I found the book fascinating.

There isn’t a clear winner in a battle between the books. Golden writes fiction. Iwasaki writes an autobiography. Golden’s book has pulp elements. Iwasaki’s book is often dry. As long as Memoirs is read with the idea that it may be inaccurate here and there, it is a good read. As long as Geisha is read with the idea that some aspects of geisha life may be hedged around, it is a good read.

For anyone who read Memoirs of a Geisha, I suggest you read Geisha, A Life.  Reading both books immediately after the other makes for the best experience. They compliment each other well.


Golden, A. (1999). Memoirs of a Geisha. Random House.

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

Tegler, G. (2001).  ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ muse vents sleep at author. The Japan Times.