Geisha, Mizuage and Danna

I’m currently reading Liza Darby’s Geisha. Darby, an anthropologist, is the only Western woman ever to have worked as a geisha. I’ve also read *Geisha, A Life * by Mineko Iwasaki, and Arthur Golden’s lovely fictional work * Memoirs of a Geisha. *

Now I’m confused. All refer to “mizuage.” Golden and Darby state that it is a ceremony in which an apprentice geisha’s virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder. (Darby says it is no longer practiced among modern geisha, but interviews a few who describe their experiences back when it was still done.) Darby also seems to confirm Golden’s stories about “danna,” who support a favored geisha as their mistress.

However, Mineko Iwasaki (who claims to have been the most sucessful geisha in the 1960s and 70s) is adamant that “mizuage” is simply a coming-of-age ceremony, and that “danna” basically don’t exist (the word doesn’t even appear in her book). She says that geisha *never * have sex with their customers, unless both parties are willing for a romp in the hay. (Meaning, Iwasaki insists that there’s no ritualized mistress positions in geisha life.)

So, what am I to make of this? Who is giving a more accurate picture of geisha life?

Liza Darby was not a geisha. She was allowed unprecedented access to interview geisha, but she in no way put in the lifelong study to become the artists/performers that geisha are.

Iwasaki Mineko turned her back on the entire lifestyle and entertainment industry of the geisha world. Why would she bother to whitewash any descriptions of it?

As you said, Arthur Golden’s book was fiction.

Movies, and Occupation and Korean War soldiers’ stories of their trysts with “geisha” have made them synonymous with “prostitute” in many Westerners minds. Wearing a loose kimono with the obi tied in front doesn’t make one a geisha. Some prostitutes dress up as geisha because that’s what their customers want. Geisha are not prostitutes. Neither are geisha necessarily celibate.

If after reading all three of those books, your main concern is whether geisha auction-off their virginity, I’d say go ahead and believe the more prurient tales. Geisha would approve, because their goal is to entertain.


She had studied a form of Japanese music since she was sixteen, and made that her gei. She had lived in Japan for years, studying music, tea ceremony, and flower aranging with the daughters of her host home. So, she was not completely without training in the traditional arts of the geisha. (She also notes that many girls who become geisha today are not trained from childhood to do so, but begin training as teenagers. Apparently, meiko are in short supply, and thus the profession has begun to train girls later. Some of them join so late that they skip the *meiko * phase entirely.)

She attended parties, and performed just as a geisha would, the major differences being that she did not go through with the ceremony which would bind her to her onesan and she was not paid for her participation.

By the way, I misspelled her name: it’s Liza Dalby, not Darby.


I’m not saying that she necessarily is, but it is possible she could have deliberately left out less savory practices of the past in her obvious efforts to portray the geisha as serious artists.

Things were certainly different by the time Iwasaki became a geisha. I’m sure her depictions of modern geisha life are accurate. I’m just wondering about the past.

She may have feared that her audience wouldn’t understand what a “danna” truly was. The other two books described it as something very close to a marriage, in that the union was arranged by the mistresses of the teahouses (much like a dowry negotiation) and was solemnized by a tea ceremony.

Why would the geisha Dalby became close to lie about their experiences? After all, she was not just a tourist to be entertained with tales, but a serious researcher who was trying to portray them as the artists they truly are. Why would they want to sully their own reputations, and that of geisha as a profession, if the stories were untrue?

Reading these books gave me a serious appreciation for the geisha as artists. Their dedication to their craft is truly admirable. Their entire *lives * are art. I was fascinated by a section that Iwasaki wrote on the proper way for a geisha to open a door. Every tiny motion of their public lives is a carefully orchestrated dance.

If the “purient” tales of danna and mizuage *were * true, it would in no way lessen my respect for them. I’m just curious about the differences in the books.

I think Mineko Iwasaki is a snob and hence some of the confusion - the class system is very, very strong in Kyoto. She worked for the best geisha house in Japan, and therefore may have reason to be a snob, but it means that she probably had a very different experience to other geisha. I think Mizuage may not have been common practise but it probably existed amongst the geisha community, as did having a danna.
When you move away from the staunchly traditional (which the best geisha house in Kyoto would have been), the rules of geisha change somewhat. I lived in the far North where geisha existed, but in very small numbers. In my experience of other ‘things traditional’, these geisha would have been laughed at by Kyoto geisha and not taken seriously. I’m also sure that they would have had dannas if they wanted to. Kyoto geisha would probably dismiss them as not being geisha, but they believed themselves to be.
So from Mineko’s position, if you did take a danna or do mizuage, then she may not have seen you as a ‘true’ geisha.
In my experience and reading of Japan, things are never black and white - this is especially true of the entertainment world.

You know, I really didn’t like her. As I was reading the book, I would sometimes mutter, “What a brat!” Some of the things she did were downright nasty, yet she chides others for being rude.

I think your explanation is probably the right one. Liza Dalby discusses the different ranks and perceptions of various geisha areas, including the somewhat sad lives of “hot springs geisha.” I didn’t extrapolate that to the concepts of mizuage and dannas, but it makes sense.