No, it is not based on a true story. However, a real geisha, named Mineko Iwasaki, sued the author of the book because of defamation. Surprisingly, not the plot, but some characters in the book resembled some of the real characters in Mineko Iwasaki’s life that she shared with the author in a private conversation. Also Mineko Iwasaki was uncomfortable with the way Arthur Golden (the author) portrayed geisha as if they are Japanese courtesans.
Please read below:
In the early 1990s Arthur Golden set out to write a novel about a topic that he had no previous background knowledge or study in. Upon trying to do research he stumbled upon a person who could introduce him to the most famous geisha of the 20th century: Mineko Iwasaki. Mr. Golden had spoken with her on the assurance that his book would be an accurate representation of the geisha profession, and upon its release in 1997 it became an international best seller. However, in order to sell more copies and to make it more sensational Mr. Golden bent the truth and added in parts about geisha selling sex like prostitutes. As such, the book sold poorly in Japan and was mostly ignored until Mineko Iwasaki sued Mr. Golden for defamation as she claimed that many of the events in his story were taken from her own life and then twisted into a prostitution narrative. Some of the items from the novel that are said to have happened to Ms. Iwasaki and her family are:
–An abusive older sister: While Hatsumomo in the book is simply a senior geisha in Sayuri’s okiya, she is based on Mineko’s real life sister Yaeko. Mineko’s sister had a hatred for her due to being sent away to an okiya to become a maiko at such a young age whereas Mineko willingly made the choice to leave her family and become a maiko.
–Adoption: In the novel Sayuri is adopted by the Nitta Okiya after selling her virginity for the highest sum ever. Mineko was scouted as an heir to the Iwasaki Okiya at a very young age and was legally adopted by them when she was just a teenager.
–Pumpkin: The character Pumpkin (whose name is actually Hatsumiyo), is called this because of her rounded face that looked like a pumpkin. In real life this was actually a nickname that Mineko’s sister Kumiko had due to her roundness.
–Relationship with an older man: Sayuri constantly seeks to gain the attention of The Chairman in the novel, who is said to be 20 years older than she is. In real life Mineko dated a man who was almost two decades older than her for a few years.
–A baron: In the novel Mameha has a danna (patron) who is a baron. In real life it was Mineko’s sister Yaeko who had a baron as a danna.
–Needles in hems: Once Sayuri becomes popular she notes one day that the hem of one of her favourite kimono had needles stuck into by other jealous geisha. Mineko Iwasaki has stated that this actually happened to her in real life!
–The highest mizuage: To Sayuri the mizuage is a ritual in which she is deflowered by a high paying customer. In reality this type of mizuage did exist, but it was only used by prostitutes such as yūjo and oiran. In the world of geisha mizuage refers to how much money a person makes from working at ochaya in a single year. In this case Mineko did have the highest mizuage for six years straight, which was a record at the time, and this made her the most famous geisha of the century.
Mr. Golden eventually settled out of court with Ms. Iwasaki for an undisclosed amount of money.
In 2005 when a movie adaptation of the book was released it gained wide criticism across Japan for its depiction of Japanese women by Chinese actresses and for its wholly inaccurate story line. Geisha across the country were furious at their portrayal by an American man who did not understand what their profession actually entails. The majority of the outrage came from portraying geisha as prostitutes and making the district of Gion Kobu, which is mentioned by name, seem as though it’s a place for promiscuity instead of the high arts.
Did you know? Most Japanese people don’t know about this movie as it is called the story of Sayuri in Japanese.
Did you know? Most of the movie was filmed in an artificially built village in the US as the city of Kyoto did not allow the film creqw to temporarily remove the electricity poles on the street. there are two scenes that were shot in gion one of which was shot on the Gion Tatsumi Bridge right here:
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