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Tuesday, May 1, 2001

'Memoirs of a Geisha' muse vents spleen at author

Inspiration for global best-selling novel sues Arthur Golden for betraying her identity


By GARY TEGLER
Staff writer

KYOTO -- Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" sold over 4 million copies and lingered on the New York Times best seller list for 58 weeks. The story of a country girl sold into virtual slavery who rises to become one of Japan's most celebrated geisha captivated the world.

Former geisha Mineko Iwasaki is suing the author of "Memoirs of a Geisha."

The fact that a male American writer could so intimately elucidate a traditionally closed and secretive society was considered a major literary feat. How, many asked at the time, could this be? The answer can be found in the book's dedication. "To Mineko, thank you for everything."

Mineko is Mineko Iwasaki, a highly successful former geisha, or "geiko," who ended her 23-year career in 1980 to marry and raise a family.

Breaking with long tradition, she agreed to be interviewed by Golden, who spent two weeks at her Kyoto home in 1992. Her only stipulation was that she and her family not be identified.

Mineko filed suit last Wednesday in a New York court, claiming Golden's use of her name constituted breach of contract and wrongly linked her with episodes in the book that she calls inaccurate and defamatory.

She first raised objections to the mention of her name, and that of her husband, shortly after receiving galley proofs of the book in English, a language she does not read.

"I complained and asked him what he thought he was doing," she recalled. "I demanded that he take my name out. But he said that he felt personally obliged to acknowledge me. 'I've made you famous,' he told me. I told him that it didn't matter how he felt, I was bothered."

According to Mineko, photos she supplied Golden of her kimonos and other private possessions began appearing in promotional articles for the book without her consent. She was mentioned prominently in interviews Golden gave to the media in which he said Mineko had been sold by her parents to a geisha house and her virginity had been auctioned off for the sum of 100 million yen, things she said are patently false. But in the public's mind, the link between the book's main character and her had been established.

It wasn't until the 1999 publication of the Japanese translation, titled "Sayuri," that she began to consider legal recourse. What most readers perceived to be an informed and sensitive portrayal of a world she had known from the age of 6 appeared to her a lurid depiction of geisha as scheming prostitutes. She also found many inaccuracies.

"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."

Born in 1949, Mineko was the youngest in a family of 11 kids. Her father was a respected kimono designer with close ties to the geisha world.

Two of her older sisters had trained as geisha and she was "recruited" at age 6. She lived in an okiya in Gion Kobu, the highest level of geisha society, where she trained in the arts of music and dance.

She became highly skilled, but the talent that made her one of Kyoto's top geisha was her ability to entertain customers with witty and intelligent conversation.

"The system under which geisha operate was established in 1873 and has not changed since then," Mineko said. "Although some geisha quarters did engage in prostitution, most did not, and the perception that all geisha sleep with their clients is absolutely false. We are proud, accomplished women who have absolute rights over our own bodies."

After her formal rise to geiko status in 1970, she worked to change aspects of the system that she felt were unfair.

"When I was a maiko, many pictures were taken of me, but no one told me how these images were going to be used, either in posters or publications. This was an invasion of my privacy and I protested many times to the Gion office. I also tried to explain that without a high school diploma, it is difficult for geisha to get any kind of teaching license. I wanted them to consider these things and institute a system for royalties."

After the book's publication, pressure began to mount against Mineko from within the geisha societies to make some form of atonement for assisting Golden, despite having already retired.

"Someone suggested I commit ritual suicide in front of Ichiriki (Kyoto's most famous tea house)," she said. "I felt very threatened, and it was particularly bad just after the book was published. Things have settled down now but I still must occasionally accompany my husband's clients to tea houses. It can be quite uncomfortable."

For his part, Golden has said in interviews, and in the book's dedication, that Mineko was not the model for Sayuri. Nor did he approach the book as a novice. He has a masters degree in Japanese history from Columbia University, New York, and worked in Tokyo, where he says the ideas for the book first occurred to him.

In her suit, which also cites Golden's publishers Random House and Alfred P. Knopf, Mineko is seeking a portion of the $10 million generated by sales of the book to be determined by the court. Golden has admitted that after interviewing Mineko, his perception of geisha changed and he decided to completely rewrite an 800-page manuscript. In this regard, the suit says that "Golden and Iwasaki are coauthors, in and to the taped conversations which form the basis of the book."

Random House spokesman Stewart Applebaum said the suit is "totally baseless and without merit," and should it proceed to court, "we will defend our author vigorously and successfully."

In the only interview Golden has given since the suit was filed, he said he was sad and confused to see this come to the point that it has.

Originally, Mineko thought only of asking for a formal apology from Golden and for her name to be taken out of all editions of the novel, but finally felt she had little choice.

"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. I don't want even a single copy to contain our names," she said. "We thought of asking that the books all be collected. It is not a matter of money. It is our honor."

Mineko recently completed a book about her life, something she had considered doing even before meeting Golden, but had put aside as she felt his book might reach a wider audience. Slated for publication in June, she hopes that the book, tentatively titled "My Say," will clarify many misunderstandings about geisha and geiko that persist even in Japan.



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