Greta Garbo, the Divine Hollywood diva, retired from the stage when she was 36. The end of her career in the middle of her success and physical beauty have probably helped in the creation of her myth.

Mineko Iwasaki was even younger when she stopped with her career as she was only 29. She was the most famous Geisha in the whole Japan to the point that she was used to engaging with important guests such as Queen Elizabeth II

Mineko Iwasaki

Mineko Iwasaki  was born in 1949 with the name Tanaka Masako At the age of 5 she entered the okiya, the geisha’s house, in the district of Gion, Kyoto.

Gion’s district in Kyoto

Above: picture by David Monniaux shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

She immediately demonstrated her talent for traditional dancing, enough to see the Okiya’s owner, Madame Oima, giving her surname, Iwasaki. As for the name, Mineko, it was a fortune teller who decided for it. It is believed that the young Mineko was really good at what she was doing, as she was chosen as atatori, house heir, while she was still an apprentice, a so called “maiko” in Japan.

Young Mineko Iwasaki

The apprenticeship had started in her 15’s and by the time she was 16 Mineko was already the most famous maiko in Japan. But getting to become a geiko, Kyoto term for geisha, was neither easy not quick task: the girl achieved such a goal at her 21st birthday.

The young woman became the most demanded geisha for her skills in dance, her elegance and her style, as well as the control of the rules of a rigid etiquette.

Miyako Odori, Japanese Traditional Dance

Above: picture by Conveyor belt sushi shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.0

When she reached her height of success she decided to abandon all she had so hardly worked for. She came back to be “just” a woman, but free from that conditioning that had characterised her existence up until that point.

The highly counted Mineko retired, hoping to shake that frozen world, for too long the same. She wanted to give a sign, she wanted the education to be up to date. What she obtained instead was only a thing though: after her, other 70 geisha of a high level followed her footsteps and retired as well. Despite this, the rigid traditions of the okiya did not change at all while the number of new vocations dropped drastically.

it is increasingly lower the number of girls who in the latest decades decided to get involved in such a hectic journey

When Arthur Golden was working in his book “Memoirs of a Geisha”, he interviewed, amongst others, Mineko Iwasaki, his main inspiration. Her confessions were supposed to remain anonymous but the writer instead quoted her both in the acknowledgement of the book and in numerous interviews.

Mineko has always declared that Golden had twisted the reality, especially when it comes to the ritual prostitution. Let alone many characters and situations, in reality positive in the life of the geisha, were represented in the book in a negative way. But revealing the source, with name and surname was what caused the major damage.

Iwasaki was accused to have violated the ancient duty of secrecy of that traditional, enclosed world

After loosing friends and having interrupted important relationships due to the fame that the book brought, Iwasaki decided to write her own memoirs which were talking about the hard years of her apprenticeship, of her success as a geisha and her life as a free woman.

The book Memoirs of a Geisha talks about the tough path to get to be the most popular geisha in Japan as well as the inner journey which led Mineko to leave it all to gain the privilege to become a woman like many others.

All pictures of Mineko Iwasaki come from the following video

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