Geisha Book Recommendations: Learn about a Japanese Tradition

Books About Japanese Geisha

Maiko photograph by iamagoo on morgueFile

The Geisha is a symbol of Japan, with her traditional make up, beautifully styled hair and elaborate kimono. Although we think of the Geisha in connection with a lost world before modern life and international travel transformed Japan, there are still women who train and work today as Geisha.

In fact, particularly in Kyoto, it's possible to see Geisha and Maiko (apprentice Geisha) walking to tea houses to entertain guests there. In recent years bad-mannered tourists (of all nationalities) have created a problem by mobbing these young ladies and putting cameras in their faces. If you do have the good fortune to see a Geisha, treat her with the same respect you'd give to any passing stranger. Above all, don't touch her or her outfit. The kimono that Geisha and Maiko wear can be incredibly expensive.

One common misconception is that Geisha are 'ladies of the night'. The genuine Geisha are instead highly skilled entertainers and keepers of tradition, who bring style and elegance to an event. Being flirtatious and charming is all part of the performance, but a client would know better than to offend a Geisha by pushing his luck. 

If you would like to reach beyond the stereotypes and false information to learn more about the real lives of Geisha, past or present, here are some wonderful reads that will open a window on their secret world.

Image credit: iamagoo on

Text copyright IndigoJanson.

Memoirs of a Geisha

The Classic Tale of a Japanese Geisha

The beloved story of Sayuri, a young Japanese girl sent away at a young age to become a Geisha in Kyoto.

This novel was written by Arthur Golden, something that seems hard to believe as you read a novel told by Sayuri of a life that was hidden and virtually unknown to foreigners.

This novel became even more well-known following the release of the movie starring popular Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang.

The movie is beautiful and is worth seeing, but can't capture the great depth of detail that you will discover in the pages of the novel itself, as you witness Sayuri transforming from an abandoned and mistreated girl into a beautiful and highly skilled Geisha. You learn through her eyes and experiences about each stage a girl must pass through, from obedient servant (whether willing or not) of the established Geisha, to Maiko with an 'older sister' and then a fully-fledged Geisha herself.

Memoirs of a Geisha: A Novel
Arthur Golden $9.25

A Geisha's Journey

An Insider's View of the Apprenticeship of a Modern Geisha

This book is a collaboration between a young Geisha, who starts her journey as a 15 year old schoolgirl, and a photographer who documents her journey.

The young Japanese girl who has grown up in China takes on the name Komomo as she is takes her place in one of the country's most cherished and rare traditions. This is no overnight transformation, but takes 7 years, during which she is captured at key moments by a Mexican photographer who shares her fascination and affinity for the world of the Geisha.

Primarily a photo book, it has gorgeous visuals. However, Komomo adds commentary of her own -- in a voice that is not only contemporary but also more modest and charming than that of some Geisha (real and fictional alike) of other books.

The First Western Geisha: Liza Dalby

A Rare Glimpse from the Outside

Anthropologist Liza Dalby is famous for being the first -- and for a long time, the only -- non-Japanese Geisha. The American entered the world of the Geisha while studying them, and at their invitation, in the 1970s. Dalby spoke Japanese fluently, and had already gained detailed knowledge of their lifestyle.

Her insider's view is a rare one for someone of non-Japanese birth. This 25th anniversary edition of her book, Geisha, shares that world with us. It goes beyond the mystery and lets us see something of the women behind the doll-like exterior of the Geisha.

Geisha: A Life

The Autobiography of Geisha Mineko Iwasaki

Behind Arthur Golden's fictional Sayuri was the real Geisha Mineko Iwasaki. It was largely her own recollections that provided Golden with detail and true life experiences for his novel.

This book is Mineko Iwasaki's own story, in her own words. A proud and strong-willed character, she became a leading Geisha, highly-paid and much sought-after.

Although some readers have found her difficult to relate to, the autobiography is worth a read for the details it gives of the actual training and life of a Geisha during the 1960s and 1970s.

Geisha, A Life
Mineko Iwasaki $12.05

More Geisha Books to Discover

Learn About the Geiko, the Maiko, and their Traditions

The above are by no means the only books about Geisha, although they include the best known.

Look out for the following books to learn more about this 'flower and willow world'.

Geisha & Maiko of Kyoto: Beauty, Art, & Dance
John Foster $29.26

Stunning photography of Geisha and Maiko by renowned Geisha photographer John Foster.

Autobiography of a Geisha
Sayo Masuda $20.88

The true-life story of a girl who was forced into the life of a 'hot springs geisha' -- a very different world to the life of elegance and privilege of Kyoto Geisha.

Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West
Lesley Downer

Sadayakko was a Geisha and actress who became an international star. Geisha expert Lesley Downer tells her story.

Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile
George Braziller $32.89

A coffee table book that explores the history and different traditions of the Geisha.

Geisha: The Life, the Voices, the Art
Jodi Cobb $27.11

A photographic look at the world of Geisha and Maiko, with a number of behind-the-scenes intimate portraits of the young women dressing and relaxing.

Discover the Beauty of a Japanese Fan

If there is one thing that sums up the elegance and refined beauty of Japanese culture, it's the delicate hand fan. A Japanese paper fan combines... Read more

Japanese Lacquer Ware: Beautiful and Affordable

Japanese Lacquer Bowl -- jeltovski on morgueFile

If you have ever admired traditional Japanese lacquerware, you could be forgiven for believing that a lacquer box or other genuine lacquer item from J... Read more

Maneki Neko: Japanese Lucky Cat

Beckoning Lucky Cat in Japan: Wikimedia

A popular good luck gift in Japan, the maneki-neko is a cat figure. Traditionally, the cat has a raised paw, in a beckoning or waving gesture. It is b... Read more

Learn About Ikebana: Japanese Flower Arranging

Ikebana by Adriano, shared on Wikimedia Commons

Ikebana is a style of flower arranging that is as Japanese as the kimono or the tea ceremony. This floral art has been influenced by both the culture ... Read more

Read More about Geisha and Other Beautiful Things from Japan

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oztoo on said:
This is an fascinating subject. I believe you have tempted me to learn more.
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Daniela12 on said:
Wow! Today i learned something new from your leaf! (: This is a great leaf! Congrats for being in the homepage!
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Rochelle on said:
Years ago, I saw the video "Memoirs of a Geisha", and I found it sad and moving.
Anonymous on said:
Hi Indigo,

I just found your article and wanted to say thank you for including my book. I also wanted to recommend one other book people might be interested in, "Geisha" by Kyoko Aihara. This book helped me a lot when I was first learning about geisha and maiko, and I think it explains the history and traditions of the hanamachi better than any other book I've found.

I see you are really interested in Japanese culture (as I am), so please don't hesitate to contact me if there's something I might be able to help you with.
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Hi John (sorry, the site seems to have dropped your name in posting the comment). You're welcome, and thanks both for stopping by and for the great book recommendation. I'll definitely look into this one. Thanks so much too for your kind offer. I see as well as your beautiful photography you've made a film in Kyoto, so will look out for more of your work too.

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