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March 30, 2006

The Queen and the Geisha

Queen_elizabeth_ii Mineko Iwasaki describes herself as the finest geisha of her generation, but she owes her fame beyond the narrow world of Kyoto's Gion quarter to a young American who visited her in the 1990s. His name was Arthur Golden, he was the well connected friend of friends of hers, and he was struggling to novel a book about geisha. Mineko told him all she could, without much expectation that a book would ever appear. Years did indeed pass, and she heard nothing more.

Then Memoirs of a Geisha was published, and became a bestseller all over the world. The Japanese translation contained fulsome thanks from Arthue to Mineko for all her help and inspiration. She was enraged.

The reason was the account in Golden's novel of a practice he calls mizuage, the selling of a young geiko's virginity to the highest bidder. Mineko claimed that, since the novel was clearly based on her life, readers would assume that she herself had prostituted herself as a young woman. Arthur Golden's denials notwithstanding she sued him. Eventually, tthey reached an out of court settlement which both refuse to talk about.

Mineko_iwasaki I interviewed Mineko around this time. She transmitted an icy, spiky, controlled fury. A spate of geisha books followed in English, cashing in on the success of Memoirs, and eventually the Spielberg-produced film. And Mineko herself published a ghost-written book: Geisha of Gion: The Memoir of Mineko Iwasaki, which I have been looking at this morning. It's not a particularly compelling read, but it does contain a curious anecdote about Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

Mineko, who comes across as what used to be called "a spirited girl" (or less politely as "a stroppy cow"), had already had one run in with the British Royal Family. Prince Charles was being entertained by her at a famous Kyoto restaurant and, without being asked signed her fan.

Mineko blew her stack.

Five years later, she is attending the Queen at another Kyoto feast. The Queen doesn't touch her food, which also enrages Mineko ("How could she refuse to even sample a meal that had been orchestrated specifically for her enjoyment?") She takes her revenge by flirting with the Duke of Edinburgh. Or rather, as she puts it:

I feigned an air of intimacy that I imagined would be imperceptible to most but clear to one. I glanced over at her [Queenie] again. She looked out of sorts. It was nice to know that queens are human too.

The following day I received a call from Tadashi Ishikawa, the head of the Imperial Palace [sic] Agency.

"Mine-chan, what in the world did you do yesterday?" ...

"What are you talking about?"

"All I know is that the royal couple suddenly decided to sleep in separate chambers last night ..."

A few things about this story strike me as decidely bogus. If the "air of intimacy" cultivated by Mineko was so imperceptible, why would the head of the imperial household think of calling her? Would such a man really call a geiko anyway? Assuming that Mineko didn't actually have her tongue in Phil the Greek's ear, would Queenie really give a damn either way? And don't they always have separate rooms anyway?

"As far as I'm concerned, there is never an excuse for bad manners," Mineko concludes. What a nasty piece of work.


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Richard hi,
Danny Bloom, former Daily Yomiuri staff, over in Taiwan now. Good post. By the way, I met a woman in Hiroshima named Mineko Iwasaki, not the one who are posting about, but a much younger woman, but that's her name. I met her like this, online. I was googling a few years ago trying to track down the real Mineko Iwasaki, after reading about her in the Geisha book controversy and lawsuit, and while I could not find her email address, neither in Kyoto nor Tokyo, i did find an email with the name of Mineko Iwasaki in Japan so i emailed to this Mineko and she immediately told me of course that she was NOT that Mineko Iwasaki, and we had a good laugh, and anyways, we kept up on email correspondence over the years, never met, spoke by phone once, and remain good email pals. All by sheer chance and serendipty and a mistake on the email search part. I found a completely differnt Mineko Iwasaki, and a very nice woman, indeed. Married, with one son. Salt of the Japanese earth! Good story and true. I can give you her email address if you ever want to chat with her. Fluent in English as well.

The (Learning) Hiragana Song

When a foreigner sits down to start learning Japanese, he or she must
prepare to learn three writing (and reading) systems: kanji (the old
Chinese characters) and hiragana and katakana, two modern sound
syllabies that make it easier for young people to first pick up their
mother tongue. Foreigners also can use hiragana and katakana to pick
up some Japanese, and if you really study hard and become a fluent
speaker of nihongo, more power to you!

Meanwhile, as a gesture of international goodwill, I created a simple,
silly song for beginning learners of hiragana and katakana, just to
put you in the mood.
This version is actually a pre-pre-release version of a
song-still-in-progress titled "The [Learning] Hiragana Song." I jotted
down the "lyrics" a year ago after thinking for years about how
hard it was for me to learn the hiragana and katakana syllabies, and how a simple
silly song might have helped. In its own minor way, of course. I'm still hetakuso!

The intent of this novelty song which of course still has a long way
to go before it becomes a really ''listenable'' song is to give
beginning learners of Japanese in the West, in the UK and USA and
Australia, a fun activity to get them started or to raise their
interest in between real classroom learning.

Give it a listen at http://newgrounds.com/audio/view.php?id=1286655
You can follow along with the words in the song here at
http://hiraganasong.blogspot.com if you find it hard to hear all the
words in the song. NOTE: at the music website, click on the earphone icon or the yellow cube with a big black dot in the middle. That is where you can hear the song. NOT the download button....

A friend in New York commented: "Nice. My office-mate says it sounds
like Sesame Street Meets J-Pop."

I just finished reading the book and nothing about it strikes me as "bogus". The problem with the Royal Family was nothing more than a culture clash. Maybe in her young age Menoki reacted in a immature manner but as she said in her book she was young for her age. Although The Royal Family does seem a bit stuck-up at times.

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Richard Lloyd

  • Richard Lloyd Parry is the Times Asia Editor
    Richard Lloyd Parry is the Asia Editor for The Times and
    the Foreign Correspondent of the Year. He has lived in Japan
    since 1995


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