Copyright Infringement, Sex Trafficking, and the Fictional Life of a Geisha

78 Pages Posted: 24 Oct 2003


This article explores the legal issues hidden within Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. The geisha tradition has been alternately glorified by Japanese society, and outlawed by Japanese law as a form of prostitution. The leitmotif of Golden's famous novel is this evolving duality of the geisha as both artisan and courtesan. At its worst, the geisha tradition involves force, fraud, and deception, and the horrifying practice of selling one's own children into slavery for purposes of sexual exploitation. In striving for historical accuracy, Golden obtained an intimate interview with a real geisha named Mineko Iwasaki, who consented to reveal to him valuable secrets about the closed geisha society. Using her narrative as source material, Golden wrote a fictional biography of a little girl named Chiyo-chan who is sold by her own father at the age of nine into debt bondage. Like many Japanese girls sold by their parents into forced prostitution and slavery, Chiyo-chan endures a harsh indoctrination and eventually becomes a famous geisha known as Nitta Sayuri. The essence of the novel is the transformation of Chiyo-chan into Nitta Sayuri. The poetic, fairy-tale quality of Golden's prose, and his unusual narrative style, made the novel a literary and financial success upon its publication in 1997. In 2001, however, Mineko Iwasaki shocked the literary world by filing a lawsuit against Golden and his publishers, in New York court under Japanese and New York law, claiming breach of contract, quantum meruit, copyright infringement, unjust enrichment, defamation of character, and violation of her rights to privacy and publicity. It seems that Iwasaki became outraged by the discrepancies between her own life and that of Golden's purportedly fictional geisha. This article asks, and seeks to answer, two questions: First, is the geisha tradition as described by Golden a variant of sex trafficking and sexual slavery which, despite possible cultural justifications, should be abolished by law? Second, does Iwasaki's lawsuit have any merit?

Keywords: slavery, trafficking, sex slavery, slave labor, cultural relativism, universal crime, law and literature, law and humanities, forced prostitution, sex trafficking, debt bondage, Japanese laws

Suggested Citation

Tiefenbrun, Susan, Copyright Infringement, Sex Trafficking, and the Fictional Life of a Geisha. TJSL Public Law Research Paper No. 03-10, Available at SSRN: or

Susan Tiefenbrun (Contact Author)

Thomas Jefferson School of Law ( email )

701 B Street
Suite 110
San Diego, CA 92101
United States
619-961-4318 (Phone)

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