"Memoirs of a Geisha" Lawsuit

The Daily News (New York) article with a photo of supposedly Geishas 1940s.

What happened?

A former geisha, who provided author Arthur Golden with background information for his best-selling 1997 novel, "Memoirs of a Geisha," has sued Golden and his publisher, the Alfred A. Knopf division of Random House.

According to the New York Times (April 25, 2001) she is demanding "the appropriate percentage" of $10 million, the amount she says the book made, for defamation, breach of contract and copyright violations. Her lawyer, Dorothy M. Weber, alleged in documents filed in federal court in Manhattan that the author, Arthur Golden, promised anonymity and confidentiality when he interviewed her in 1992.

"Memoirs of a Geisha" has sold 4 million copies in English and been translated into 21 languages, with film rights purchased by Columbia Pictures. Weber told the Los Angels Times that “in Japan, the former geisha withdrew an official complaint when the publisher there agreed to remove her name from the book's acknowledgments." (April 26, 2001). The Boston Globe (April 26, 2001) pointed out that "(a)mong the unusual aspects of the lawsuit are its involving a work of fiction rather than fact and its focusing as much on the promotion of the work as on the work itself."

The plaintiff's argument

According to New York Daily News article (April 25, 2001) in 1992 when she met Golden, the plaintiff agreed to be interviewed about her geisha life and her family's experiences under certain conditions. Those restrictions included complete anonymity for herself and her family, as well as "total confidentiality" regarding personal stories and information she related to him about her life and career. The former geisha says she granted Golden at least 100 hours of interviews, which he taped and added to his novel. The suit alleges that Golden revealed her identity in his 434-page book, and tarnished her reputation when he inaccurately depicted some of the incidents out of her life.

An article published in Chicago-Sun Times (April 26, 2001), whose source was British Daily Telegraph, reported that the plaintiff insisted in a recent interview: "I did not sell my virginity the way it was told in the book. In fact, I had my first experience at 21 of my own free will and no money was involved. It was at the Astoria Hotel in New York." At the height of her career in the 1970s, she was known as a geiko, a geisha who came along once in a century, and was sought out at tea ceremonies by leading politicians and businessmen. One of her patrons was Akio Morita, a chairman of Sony. It was his influence that opened the door to her world for Golden, a scion of the Ochs-Sulzberger family, owners of the New York Times.

Golden's response

Golden, a first-time author, earned a master's degree in Japanese history from Columbia University, In his acknowledgments, Golden wrote, "I am indebted to one individual above all others. . . . To Mineko, thank you for everything."

According to Chicago-Sun Times report, in interviews he has claimed that one of the few elements of the plaintiff's life that he transposed directly onto the story was that her virginity had allegedly been sold for a record amount of money, a figure roughly equivalent to $ 720,000, although Leslie Downer, British author for recently published nonfiction book, “Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World,” wrote in an article for the Financial Times (May 5, 2001) wrote that the price was US$850,000. In fact, such sales have now all but died out in the geisha trade.

The author always has insisted that the plaintiff and Sayuri, protagonist of his novel, are different people. He claims there was no confidentiality agreement and that she agreed to let him record their discussions, during which she spoke of losing her virginity. "Mineko feels I violated her anonymity. But I have a fax from her in which she was requesting more publicity. The Japanese phrase she uses translated roughly to, 'Put my face out there a little more, please.'

"Memoirs of a Geisha" has been an international hit. These are covers of the book from five different countries.

References (in English)
  • "Geisha Sues Golden Over 1997 Bestseller" By Mark Feeney, The Boston Globe, April 26, 2001
  • "Woman Sues Author Over Geisha Novel" By Patricia Hurtado, Newsday (New York, NY), April 25, 2001
  • "Ex-geisha sues, says 'Memoirs' not her story" BY HUGH DAVIES, Chicago Sun-Times, April 26, 2001
  • "Charges Writer's Fiction Is Her Truth; Former Courtesan, Sayint Much Of Arthur Golden's Bestseller Is Based On Her Life, Sues For Part Of The Profit" By ELIZABETH MEHREN, Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2001
  • "Model For ‘Geisha’ Is Suing Author" By ROBERT GEARTY and BILL HUTCHINSON, Daily News (New York)
  • "Boldface Names" By James Barron, The New York Times, April 25, 2001

    For reference written in Japanese, go to our Japanese site.