Memoirs of a Geisha

views updated

Memoirs of a Geisha

Arthur Golden

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Memoirs of a Geisha is full of surprises, especially to Western readers unfamiliar with the mysterious Japanese geisha. Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is the novel's author, an American man from Tennessee. Arthur Golden's fascination with Asian culture was sparked years before he began writing Memoirs of a Geisha, as he holds degrees in Japanese history and art history with a specialization in Japanese art. It was while learning and working abroad that he met Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha who agreed to numerous interviews with Golden in preparation for his novel. Iwasaki provided critical "inside" information that gives the novel both integrity and intrigue.

The rags-to-riches story of Sayuri, the novel's heroine, is a first-person account, as if she is relating her life story to an American professor. The novel addresses themes such as freedom, beauty, metamorphosis, and gender relationships. Upon publication in 1997, Memoirs of a Geisha quickly became a bestseller, an impressive showing for a first-time author. Memoirs of a Geisha has been translated into more than twenty languages and has sold more than four million copies in English. Critics and readers alike have embraced the novel, and in the first few years after publication, it was a popular book club selection.

Author Biography

Memoirs of a Geisha, published in 1997, is Arthur Golden's debut novel. The bestselling novel was a long time in the making; Golden spent more than ten years on the novel, throwing out the first two drafts before finding his "voice" in the first-person account that was a publishing success.

Golden was born in 1957 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to a family of journalists. His parents, Ben and Ruth, published the Chattanooga Times, and in the early 2000s his cousin, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, published the New York Times. Golden's parents divorced when he was eight, and his father died five years later. Golden relates this to his challenges with the Chairman's character as Sayuri's love interest. Because his father was absent for much of his childhood, Golden struggled to make the character and the relationship believable. Golden attended Harvard College (the school of fine arts at Harvard University), where he earned a degree in art history with a specialty in Japanese art. He then completed a master's degree in Japanese history (he also learned Mandarin Chinese) in 1980 from Columbia University. After a summer at Beijing University and a work stint for an English-language magazine in Tokyo from 1980 to 1982, Golden returned to the United States. He entered Boston University, where he completed a master's degree in English in 1988. After his graduation, he worked as a writer and instructor in literature and writing.

In 1982, Golden married Trudy Legee, whom he met on a flight to Beijing. The couple has two children, a son named Hays and a daughter named Tess, and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Plot Summary

Translator's Note and Chapters 1–3

The novel opens with a prefatory chapter written by a fictitious professor of Japanese history named Jakob Haarhuis. He explains that the book is the result of his interviews with a retired geisha named Sayuri.

Chapter 1 opens in the first-person voice of Sayuri, which will be sustained throughout the entire novel. She tells about her childhood in the small fishing village of Yoroido, where she (then called "Chiyo"), her older sister (Satsu), and her parents live a simple life. When Chiyo is nine and her sister is fifteen, their mother becomes deathly ill. On an errand, Chiyo falls and hurts herself. Tanaka Ichiro, the wealthy owner of the Japan Coastal Seafood Company that sustains the town, tends to her. He knows her family's difficult situation.

Tanaka visits Chiyo's father, and she is certain that he plans to adopt her and her sister after their mother dies. But instead, they go on a train to the faraway big city of Kyoto, where they are separated.

Chiyo's new home is a geisha house (called an "okiya"), whose resident geisha is Hatsumomo. She soon learns that Hatsumomo's beauty is equaled by her wickedness. Auntie, Mother, and Granny are the owners of the house. Chiyo also meets another girl, who is her age and who is currently working as a servant while she awaits geisha training. If Chiyo works hard, she may have the same opportunity.

Chapters 4–8

Hatsumomo tells Chiyo that Satsu had visited weeks before, and Chiyo is desperate to know where she is. Hatsumomo holds this information over her head, manipulating Chiyo to do her every bidding.

A month into her stay, Chiyo begins lessons at the demanding geisha school. One of Chiyo's duties at home is to wait up for Hatsumomo to return. One evening, Hatsumomo and a friend make Chiyo vandalize an expensive kimono that belongs to Hatsumomo's rival, Mameha. Chiyo is harshly punished and learns that she can never be free until she has repaid all of her expenses, including her purchase, schooling, medical expenses, food, and the replacement of the kimono.

Hatsumomo tells Chiyo where her sister is, and she sneaks out to find her at the brothel where Satsu works. They plan their escape. Chiyo, however, is caught, and Mother decides that she can no longer study to be a geisha; she will have to work as a maid instead. Months later, Chiyo receives word that her mother and father have both died and that her sister, having returned to Yoroido, has run off with the son of Tanaka's assistant.

Chapters 9–15

One afternoon, Chiyo sits sadly along one of the streets. A man called "The Chairman" shows compassion toward her, cheering her with kind words and money to buy a shaved ice. She goes to the temple to pray that somehow she can become a geisha so she can meet men like him.

Granny is electrocuted by a space heater and dies. Hatsumomo's rival, Mameha, comes to pay her respects. She notices Chiyo and asks her to meet privately. A few weeks later, Mameha visits Mother, and they strike a deal that Chiyo may return to her studies as a geisha with Mameha as her "older sister" (a very important mentor role), as long as Chiyo is able to repay all of her debts by the time she is twenty. If she does, Mameha will receive twice her fee; otherwise, she will receive only a fraction of her fee.

Hatsumomo takes Pumpkin as her "little sister." Pumpkin makes her debut as a geisha first, and Chiyo is envious. When Chiyo makes her debut and takes the geisha name Sayuri, Hatsumomo humiliates her publicly.

Chapters 16–24

Mameha takes Sayuri to a sumo match to meet a longtime client, Iwamura Ken and his friend and business partner, Nobu Toshikazu. To Sayuri's delight, Iwamura is the Chairman she has thought of for so many years. She sits next to Nobu, however, who is terribly scarred from burns received during a bombing.

Mameha devises a plan to get Nobu and another man, Dr. Crab, to bid up the price of Sayuri's mizuage (loss of virginity) to bring the young geisha acclaim. The Baron, her danna (a patron who pays a geisha to be his mistress), invites Sayuri to a party Mameha cannot attend. Mameha warns Sayuri to be careful to protect her virginity. Although Sayuri tries to avoid being alone with the Baron, she fails. The Baron undresses her but does not take any liberties with her.

Back in Gion, Nobu gives Sayuri a ruby, which Mameha instructs her to give to Mother. A few days later, the bidding on Sayuri's mizuage begins between Nobu and Dr. Crab. Toward the end of the bidding, the competition was between Dr. Crab and the Baron, but Dr. Crab won by paying a record price. He and Sayuri perform the ceremonies and the event, and Sayuri is glad when it is done. For the price paid for her mizuage, Mother adopts Sayuri as the okiya's daughter. This means that her debts are clear and her future is secure. Hatsumomo is outraged.

Chapters 25–29

Mameha goes to collect on her deal with Mother. Sayuri is also about to have a danna of her own, almost unheard of for a geisha so young. Sayuri learns that Nobu has made the offer to be her danna, and she reveals her disappointment to Mameha. Although Mameha thinks she is being foolish, she shows Mother how General Tottori could benefit the okiya more as Sayuri's danna because of his position in the military. He is in charge of procurement and has access to resources not available to most civilians in this time of war. Tottori becomes Sayuri's danna, and Nobu all but disappears from her life.

Media Adaptations

• Audio adaptations of Memoirs of a Geisha have been released by Bantam Books-Audio, 1997 (cassette, abridged), 1998 (cassette, unabridged), and 1999 (CD, abridged).

When Sayuri gets Hatsumomo's large room, Hatsumomo's efforts to get Sayuri in trouble backfire. One night at a party, Mameha manages to make Hatsumomo so angry that she lashes out and attacks someone. She is removed from the party, and Mother kicks her out of the house. The last Sayuri hears of her, she is working as a prostitute.

With Tottori's help, Sayuri's okiya manages to survive the first years of World War II despite severe rationing. But his arrest changes everything. Things get worse in the Gion district, and finally the news arrives that the district is to close. Geisha scramble to contact men who can help them, as they have heard stories about women working in factories. Sayuri visits Tottori, but he is powerless. Then Sayuri encounters Nobu, who offers her a safe place to stay. She accepts his offer and stays with some of his friends. After the war, Nobu needs her help to get the company back on its feet. He and the Chairman need the support of a man called the Minister, although Nobu cannot stand him. Nobu needs her to help them entertain him while they pursue his help. She agrees and returns to Gion, which has recently reopened.

Chapters 30–34

Sayuri, Mameha, and Pumpkin entertain the crude and drunken Minister. The company recovers, and Nobu announces his intentions to become Sayuri's danna. While she is grateful to him, she knows that becoming his mistress means never becoming the Chairman's mistress. Sayuri devises a plan to destroy Nobu's affection for her. She knows how much he hates the Minister, so she asks Pumpkin to bring Nobu to "accidentally" discover her having sexual relations with him. Pumpkin, however, brings the Chairman because she knows Sayuri loves him. Pumpkin resents Sayuri's adoption at the okiya and has been seeking revenge. Sayuri resigns herself to being Nobu's mistress.

Back in Gion, Sayuri waits for Nobu at the tea-house where they will perform the danna ceremony. Instead, the Chairman arrives and confesses his long-standing feelings for her but explains that his friendship with Nobu prevented him from acting on them. He understands Sayuri's plan to rid herself of Nobu, so he told Nobu what happened with the Minister. Nobu could not forgive her, so the Chairman is now free to become her danna.

Chapter 35

Sayuri tells how pleasant life became after the Chairman became her danna: She visited the United States with him on several occasions and expressed her desire to live there and open a tea-house. She subtly revealed that she has a son by the Chairman, so rearing him in a distant country would be best for the Chairman's family-owned business. He agreed, and she took up residence at the Waldorf Towers in New York City. Since the Chairman's death, she has lived a self-sufficient and happy life for the first time.


The Chairman

Sayuri meets the Chairman years before she becomes a geisha, and his elegance and kindness inspire her to be a great geisha. She wants to be the kind of woman who spends time in the presence of such men. For years, she dreams about him and fantasizes about impressing him with her beauty and charm. When she meets him again years later, she finds that he is the head of Iwamura Electric, a prominent company. She is delighted that he is still the kind man she remembers.

The Chairman began working in his industry as a teenager and quickly progressed through the business ranks. When he invented a special socket that his company would not produce, he started his own business at the age of twenty-two. His business struggled for a few years until he collaborated with Nobu on a military base project, and the two became friends and business partners. The company grew tremendously because of their partnership.

The Chairman has secret feelings for Sayuri, which he does not reveal because of his loyalty to Nobu. But when Nobu rejects Sayuri, the Chairman becomes her danna (a man who pays a geisha to be his long-term mistress). He does not marry her (he already has a family), but he pays all of her expenses and allows her to move to New York to open her teahouse and rear their son. He takes care of Sayuri until his death.

Sakamoto Chiyo

See Sayuri

Dr. Crab

Dr. Crab is a physician in the Gion district. He is called "Dr. Crab" for the way he hunches his shoulders and sticks out his elbows. He is methodical in his practice and in his personal life. He has a particular interest in winning novice geishas' mizuage, or virginity. This arrangement is made with a geisha's okiya when both parties agree upon a sum of money. Mameha uses Dr. Crab's reputation as a "mizuage specialist" to drive up the price of Sayuri's mizuage to a record fee.


When Sayuri arrives at the okiya, Hatsumomo is the only working geisha in the house. Her great success brings in all the money for the house to function and support her profession. She is devastatingly beautiful but equally cruel. She can put on a charming disposition while entertaining, but in reality she is scheming, manipulative, and cold. Sayuri describes her this way: "She may have been as cruel as a spider, but she was more lovely chewing on her fingernail than most geisha looked posing for a photograph."

She sets her mind on destroying Sayuri's future as a geisha, and she begins early. Before Sayuri even enrolls in geisha school, Hatsumomo ridicules her and lies about her to Mother. When Sayuri becomes Mameha's apprentice, Hatsumomo takes on Pumpkin as hers. Hatsumomo thinks nothing of spreading lies about Sayuri in the teahouses to ruin her chances of achieving success. Her ambition is blinding, and she cannot tolerate competition or the thought of future competition. Ultimately, her selfishness and hate lead to her downfall, and she is removed from the okiya and reduced to prostitution. Sayuri imagines that she may have eventually drunk herself to death.

Tanaka Ichiro

Tanaka Ichiro is the wealthy owner of the Japan Coastal Seafood Company in Yoroido. He arranges the deal with Sayuri's father to broker her and her sister to businesses in Kyoto. Sayuri initially finds him very strong and kind, but she grows to hate him for orchestrating her fate. When Sayuri's parents die, Tanaka sends religious objects from their home to Sayuri, along with a letter meant to encourage the girl.

Nitta Kayoko

See Mother

Iwamura Ken

See The Chairman


Mameha is one of the most successful geishas in Japan. She agrees to take Sayuri as her "little sister," an apprentice position. Mameha is not as beautiful as Hatsumomo, but she is kinder and wiser. She is very clever and knowledgeable about the social politics of Gion. She also makes more money than Hatsumomo because she has a danna. Mameha and Hatsumomo are rivals, so Mameha is happy to help Sayuri become more successful than Hatsumomo and end her reign of terror.

Sakamoto Minoru

Sakamoto is Sayuri's father, a fisherman. She says that he "was more at ease on the sea than anywhere else" and describes how his time at home was generally spent untangling nets. He had a prior wife and children, all of whom died, which may account for the deep creases in his face. As his wife is dying, he feels he has little choice but to accept Tanaka's offer to sell the two girls to have different lives elsewhere.


Mother is the head of the okiya, and her primary concern is money. Although she is younger than Auntie is, she is in charge at the okiya. She is strikingly ugly, described by Sayuri as a bulldog-looking woman with discolored features. Mother tries to be fair, as she knows that Hatsumomo is manipulative and conniving, but her main goal is to keep the finances in order. When Sayuri attempts to run away from the okiya, Mother stops paying for her geisha lessons until Mameha makes her see that there is serious money to be made. Later, when she adopts Sayuri as the daughter of the okiya, she continues to capitalize on any opportunity to make money from her.

Auntie Nitta

Auntie manages the staff and performs various functions around the okiya, run by her adoptive sister, Mother. Because her hip is malformed, she was destined early to the ranks of servitude in the geisha district. She interacts with Sayuri the most of the three women who own the house, and she is the most understanding. Still, she is harsh when she deems it necessary.

Granny Nitta

Granny is the adoptive mother of Mother and Auntie. She is a sour, mean-spirited old woman who complains constantly. In her younger years, she was a geisha, but she used a common face cream containing lead, and her skin is now ghastly as a result. Granny dies when a space heater in her room electrocutes her.

Toshikazu Nobu

Nobu is the Chairman's business partner and friend. As president of Iwamura Electric, he proves himself a perceptive and loyal businessman. Nobu's face and body have terrible burn scars from a bomb explosion during a military maneuver. His heroics also cost him his arm. For this reason, many people are afraid to get close to him, and his harsh demeanor does not make him any easier to approach. Those who know him well, however, find that he is a man of great character and loyalty, who has very human feelings hidden beneath his gruff exterior. He and Sayuri become friends, and he shows unusual affection in his treatment of her. Her ultimate rejection of him is deeply hurtful.


Sayuri gives the other girl her age at the okiya the nickname "Pumpkin," and it stays with her even into her geisha years. Pumpkin begins working at the okiya as a servant until she is ready to begin geisha school. She is sweet natured, but not particularly intelligent. She has difficulty mastering the skills taught at geisha schools, and Hatsumomo has no trouble dominating her when she becomes her apprentice. Pumpkin and Sayuri are friends until their apprenticeships with rival geisha force them to compete with each other. The backlash of the rivalry generates bitterness in Pumpkin, who sabotages Sayuri's plan to alienate Nobu. Pumpkin seeks revenge because Mother makes Sayuri the okiya's adopted daughter after the position is promised to her.

Sakamoto Satsu

Satsu is Sayuri's sister. Although she is six years older than Sayuri (fifteen at the time she leaves home), she is brokered to a brothel to work as a lowly prostitute because of her plain features and chubby physique. At home, Satsu is a hard and conscientious worker who lacks the imagination of her younger sister. Later, in Kyoto, she cannot bear to live as a prostitute and plans to escape, taking Sayuri with her. Sayuri does not make it to their meeting place, but Satsu manages to escape successfully. She returns to Yoroido and runs away with Tanaka's assistant's son.


The novel's heroine, Sayuri (born "Chiyo") is born in the small fishing village of Yoroido. She lives with her older sister, Satsu, and her parents. Her unusual gray eyes distinguish her from other girls, and this feature plays a significant role in her success later as a geisha. She is clever, energetic, and imaginative. In childhood, her imagination shows her innocence as she dreams up fantasies about being adopted by Tanaka. As a woman, however, her imagination shows her maturity, as she is able to maneuver the complicated social and interpersonal workings of being a geisha.

Sayuri is adept at learning to socialize with men and manipulate them, although she does not use her skills for her own selfish pride. She learns to recognize good character, and she values friendship. This makes it harder when she must find a way to avoid having Nobu as her danna. Sayuri is driven by feelings for the Chairman that she has been harboring since she was a young girl. This is what inspires her to be a great geisha, and it is what compels her to hurt Nobu. In the end, however, her years of longing are rewarded when the Chairman becomes her danna until his death.

Sayuri's voice is one that expresses quiet emotion and wisdom. She recalls her life through the perspective of retrospect, understanding more now than she did then. She sprinkles life lessons in her narrative but does not attempt to cover up her own foolishness. For all she has been through, she emerges gracious and kind.

General Tottori

General Tottori becomes Sayuri's danna. He is in charge of procurements in the military, so his connections make him an attractive danna prospect. It is wartime in Japan, and prices are rising while other items are being rationed. Tottori is able to provide things for the okiya that other men cannot. He is not affectionate or attentive, but he does provide for Sayuri and the okiya until his arrest.


See Sakamoto Satso



From the time Tanaka brokers Sayuri and her sister away from their home, the theme of deception guides the course of events in the novel. While Tanaka's deception is indirect (after all, he never actually tells young Sayuri what her future holds), Hatsumomo's deception is overt. Hatsumomo not only lies about Sayuri, but she goes so far as to set her up to look guilty when she is innocent, as when she puts money into Sayuri's obi before telling Mother that Sayuri sold some of her jewelry. Hatsumomo also makes empty promises so she can manipulate and dominate the young apprentice geisha.

As much as Sayuri resents so much deception in her life, the irony is that she takes on the profession of a geisha, which relies on deception. As a geisha, Sayuri assumes an identity other than her true one, she laughs at jokes that are not funny, and she learns to make a certain kind of blank face that men can believe means whatever they like. Her success depends on her ability to appear not as herself but as whomever her clients want her to be.

Deception is also depicted in the novel is in the way Sayuri outgrows her propensity for self-deception. As an innocent young girl in Yoroido, she absolutely convinces herself that Tanaka will adopt her, her sister, and her father after her mother dies. It is an idea she embraces and then persuades herself is the truth, which only makes the heartbreak worse when it is not true. In Kyoto, she convinces herself that her sister has been taken to another okiya and that they will reunite at geisha school and escape together. She does not consider any other possibility, which again makes the reality all the harder to endure. As she ages, however, Sayuri learns the cynical ways of Gion as she learns more about herself. Although her fantasies about the Chairman seem like a regression to her childish ways of thinking, in the end, her dream comes true.

Topics For Further Study

  1. Much is made of Sayuri's having a lot of water in her, as her mother did. Her father had a lot of wood in him. Research the meaning of the elements of water, wood, fire, metal, and earth in Japanese thought. How did they describe people, and were they used to describe anything else? Are they still used today? Finally, what insights into the characters and their fates do you gain from this research?
  2. Hatsumomo hates Sayuri from the moment she arrives at the okiya, but the reader is never told directly why. How do you explain her deep, malicious hate? Write an Afterword containing excerpts from Hatsumomo's memoirs that shed light on this issue.
  3. The dynamics between male and female power are unusual in the geisha-client relationship. What kind of power does each person hold? Research women's roles in modern Japan and prepare a binder in which you trace the history of women in Japanese society throughout the twentieth century. You may complement your text with drawings, charts, photographs, diagrams, or any other visuals that will enhance your research.
  4. Golden refers to the practice of Shinto in the okiya, but Sayuri is also aware of Buddhist practices. Read about these two traditional religions in Japan and compose a comparison of the two. Based on what you know about the okiya, its function, and the women in it, does it make sense that Shinto would be the religion of the house?
  5. To become a geisha, Sayuri works very hard to learn to play the shamisen, dance, sing, and perform tea ceremonies. Japanese arts are traditionally precise and expressive. Choose three forms of Japanese cultural expression or art, and prepare a presentation for westerners to help them understand and appreciate this culture. (You may choose a recording of shamisen music, an explanation of a tea ceremony, a video of a traditional dance, diagrams and examples of Japanese calligraphy, examples of art, a collection of haikus, etc.) To conclude your presentation, offer comments on how your work has affected your understanding of Sayuri's experience.


There are two levels of Sayuri's metamorphosis depicted in Memoirs of a Geisha. The broader level is her journey from the fishing village of Yoroido to the heights of geisha success in Gion. Sayuri recalls, "I may have been no more than fourteen, but it seemed to me I'd lived two lives already. My new life was still beginning, though my old life had come to an end some time ago." She also remarks, "I've heard it said that the week in which a young girl prepares for her debut as an apprentice geisha is like when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly." Golden symbolizes her metamorphosis from the lowly fisherman's daughter to a glamorous geisha with the changing of her name from Chiyo to Sayuri. Among the most basic elements of a person's identity is her name, and to become a geisha, Chiyo must become Sayuri.

The narrower level is her daily transformation from an ordinary beautiful woman into a fully painted, tucked, and adorned geisha. The metamorphosis that she undergoes with makeup and kimonos is a sort of microcosm of the broader level of her complete transformation over the course of the book. Remembering the first time she saw herself in makeup, she says, "I knew that the person kneeling before the makeup stand was me, but so was the unfamiliar girl gazing back. I actually reached out to touch her." As she applies her makeup and has her obi tied, she also puts on her geisha self. In chapter 5, Sayuri explains, "Only when she sits before her mirror to apply her makeup with care does she become a geisha. And I don't mean that this is when she begins to look like one. This is when she begins to think like one too."


As Sayuri slowly enters the world of the geisha, she becomes more and more aware of the role of beauty in her society. She realizes the importance of beauty immediately upon arriving in Gion, when she sees Hatsumomo at the okiya. Her beauty leaves Sayuri speechless, having never seen anything like her. Sayuri's lavish descriptions of the patterns and colors in kimonos attest to her appreciation of beauty, especially given the fact that she is recalling them from many years before. As she herself progresses through her studies and the levels of geisha standing, she is amazed at her own beauty when she is in full makeup and dressed in Mameha's kimonos. To others, Sayuri is beautiful, but she does not come to accept this as part of her identity until much later. She recalls as a child that Tanaka was the first to compliment her beauty, and she almost believed it was true.

Most pointed, however, is how Golden depicts beauty in Hatsumomo. In her character, he demonstrates the stark differences between superficial beauty and true beauty. As stunningly beautiful as Hatsumomo is in appearance, she is ugly in character. After she forces Sayuri to deface Mameha's kimono, Sayuri recalls, "Even then, amid all my fears, I couldn't help noticing how extraordinary Hatsumomo's beauty was." The more she is subject to Hatsumomo's cruelty, however, the less she is distracted by her beauty. While describing the tricks Hatsumomo used to undermine her apprenticeship, Sayuri recounts a time a military officer showed her his pistol:

I remember being struck by its beauty. The metal had a dull gray sheen; its curves were perfect and smooth. The oiled wood handle was richly grained. But when I thought of its real purpose as I listened to his stories, it ceased to be beautiful at all and became something monstrous instead.

This is exactly what happened to Hatsumomo in my eyes after she brought my debut to a standstill.

When Sayuri sees Hatsumomo among the men in teahouses and at parties, she wonders "if men were so blinded by beauty that they would feel privileged to live their lives with an actual demon, so long as it was a beautiful demon." As Sayuri's understanding of false and true beauty evolves, and as she sees how beauty can be as much a weapon as a comfort, the reader comes to understand the same truths.



Consistent with much Japanese art and literature, Memoirs of a Geisha includes a great deal of nature imagery. Traditionally, Japanese art features trees, insects, and bodies of water, just as poetry (most notably the haiku) often presents images from nature as metaphors for life's lessons. Golden's use of natural and Japanese imagery in Memoirs of a Geisha brings his fiction in line with this tradition and gives the novel a decidedly Japanese feel. Sayuri recalls a client who once mentioned her hometown of Yoroido, and she describes her feelings: "Well, I felt as a bird must feel when it has flown across the ocean and comes upon a creature that knows its nest." She also describes her mother's succumbing to her illness with a simile that seems fitting for a Japanese fisherman's daughter: "Just as seaweed is naturally soggy, you see, but turns brittle as it dries, my mother was giving up more and more of her essence." There are countless examples of Sayuri's use of natural or Japanese images in her descriptions of her experiences and feelings. That these are present in her memories of her early life as well as her more recent years indicates that this is a characteristic of her real self.

Fairy Tale

Memoirs of a Geisha fits the mold of a sort of fairy tale. Sayuri begins life in a poor fisherman's family. She is content until her mother's illness slowly and painfully takes its toll. Sayuri's father, unable to care for his two daughters, sells them to a broker. Although the older daughter, Satsu, goes to a brothel, Sayuri goes to train as a geisha. As an adult, she is refined, educated, and beautiful. She becomes, in the context of her world, a sort of princess after overcoming her humble beginnings. Sayuri's fairy tale is complete with a wicked stepmother (Granny), a conniving nemesis (Hatsumomo), a Prince Charming to rescue her at the end (the Chairman), and a castle (the Waldorf Towers in New York City).

Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is serious fiction that recreates an era other than that in which it is written. For Memoirs of a Geisha, Golden relied heavily on his own research and background in Japanese art and culture and on his extensive interviews with an actual retired geisha. He brings these historical details and truths to bear in a fictional account of a fictional person. Many historical novels depict cultures in conflict or cultures undergoing change, and this is certainly true of Memoirs of a Geisha. Interestingly, Golden also brings in another genre, the memoir. Although this memoir is fictional, it adheres to the traditional form of an actual memoir by using first person, concerning itself more with experiences and events than with deep introspection, and reflecting back over a long period of time.

Compare & Contrast

  1. 1930s: After great difficulty, Japan is the first country to recover from the depression that affects so many nations worldwide. Economic growth is especially evident in manufacturing, which brings prosperity and modernity to Japan after many years of struggle.

    Today: Japan's economy is one of the strongest in the world. Rivaled only by the United States in gross national product (GNP), Japan is a major exporter in the international market. Particularly strong export industries are automobiles, electronics, and computers. Japan's imports are primarily raw materials, such as lumber, oil, and food items. Because Japan is such a technological giant, it is not surprising that agriculture only makes up about 2 percent of the GNP.

  2. 1930s: Even into the early twentieth century, there are numerous geisha in various districts in Japan.

    Today: According to Jane Condon in her book A Half Step Behind: Japanese Women Today, in 1991, there were fewer than seventeen thousand geisha in all of Japan, down from eighty thousand before World War II. Today, the young women of Japan are more interested in modern careers than in carrying on old traditions that sharply delineate gender differences as dramatically as the geisha tradition does. Because of this, the number of geisha in Japan continues to decline, and the future of geisha is uncertain.

  3. 1930s: The Japanese government is characterized by a heavy military presence. With it comes censorship, propaganda, and persecution of communists. Military personnel come to occupy most of the highest offices in government, including that of prime minister.

    Today: Japan's government is bicameral (having two legislative houses) and is parliamentary. Since its new constitution in 1947, Japan has transferred power from the emperor to the people, who now elect political leaders.

Historical Context

Japanese Geisha

Prior to the mid to late 1700s, geisha (professional entertainers) were primarily men who sang, played music, told jokes, and performed dances and theatrical presentations. They first appeared around 1600 and became a staple of social functions. As women entered the profession, however, men who enjoyed the performances preferred the charms of women to the antics of men. Even in the eighteenth century, female geisha wore their hair in elaborate styles, applied distinctive makeup, wore beautiful silk kimonos and intricately tied obis, and followed certain rules of propriety.

Geisha live in houses owned by whoever purchased them and paid for their education. The geisha's education includes dancing, singing, playing music, performing tea ceremonies, conversation, etiquette, local dialect, and serving food and beverages. The house staff is responsible for managing a geisha's schedule, booking her appearances at parties, performances at teahouses and events, and private gatherings.

Today, the geisha is a dying vestige of a past society. The numbers of geisha have rapidly dwindled, and the inability to interest today's girls in such a profession means the future is dim. Young Japanese women today tend to be more interested in emerging opportunities than in carrying on the traditions of the past.

Critical Overview

A first-person account of a geisha's life written by a man from Tennessee seemed an unlikely success, but Memoirs of a Geisha proved a hit with readers and critics alike. Brad Hooper of Booklist describes the book as "sparkling" and commends Golden's "thorough research." People Weekly reviewer Lan N. Nguyen finds the novel "lyrical" and "evocative." Nguyen adds that despite Golden's tendency to overnarrate and skim Sayuri's emotions, "his elegant language" and ability to transport the reader to such an unusual setting makes up for the book's flaws. Jeff Giles of Newsweek finds the book a "captivating, minutely imagined Cinderella story," adding, "A few reservations aside, Golden has written a novel that's full of cliffhangers great and small, a novel that is never out of one's possession, a novel that refuses to stay shut."

The novel's inside look at the mysterious life of a geisha inspired much critical commentary. Nancy Day and Alec Foege of People Weekly comment that "Golden's remarkable ability to imagine life in a highly secretive foreign subculture" results in a "powerful story." Booklist reviewer Joanne Wilkinson also appreciated the lavish setting, noting that Golden reveals "both the aesthetic delights and the unending cruelty that underlie the exotic world of the geisha." And a Publishers Weekly critic declares, "Golden splendidly renders the superficiality of geisha culture." In Time International, reviewer Hannah Beech deems the book "moving" and "evocative," noting that she was swept up until the very end. She writes, "Like a geisha who has mastered the art of illusion, Golden creates a cloistered floating world out of the engines of a modernizing Japan." At the end, however, as Japan becomes more Westernized, "Golden's spell weakens, and the clarity of his narrative fades. And finally, as the edges of the floating world strain too much, we lose the grip of the illusion that kept us entranced for so long."

While numerous critics praised the novel, others found the book's characterization and tone flat. In Library Journal, R. Kent Rasmussen states, "Although often compelling, it is not always convincing," explaining that the characters "are mostly two-dimensional." While John David Morley of New York Times Book Review grants that Golden's first-person voice is "quite a daunting ventriloquist act to undertake in a first novel," he finds Sayuri "admirable but not terribly interesting." He explains that "she is not so much an individual as a faultless arrangement of feminine virtues." Morley suggests that focusing on the novel's "documentation rather than imagination" yields a better reading of the story, "filled as it is with colorful nuggets of information." Similarly, Gabriel Brownstein of the New Leader writes that Golden

is more of a curator. He doesn't want to peek behind screens, he would rather examine their delicate woodwork. He is masterful at describing the teahouses, hairdressers' shops and alleyways of Gion.… His characters, however, fail to convey any emotional, psychological or historical complexities.

Brownstein evaluates Sayuri's characterization, noting that "throughout the book she remains elusive, her personality marked by a doelike innocence." The critic adds that Golden relies too heavily on distinctly Japanese references: "Disconcerting is the author's habit of limiting Sayuri to exclusively Japanese imagery.… The constant, heavy emphasis on Sayuri's Japaneseness ultimately serves to render it artificial."

In contrast to criticism of Golden's characterization of his heroine, reviewer Michiko Kakutani of New York Times Book Review finds Sayuri more interesting than the historical details of the novel. She writes, "What is striking about the novel is Mr. Golden's creation of an utterly convincing narrator, a woman who is, at once, a traditional product of Japan's archaic gender relations and a spirited picaresque heroine." Kakutani adds that her narrative voice engages readers: "Rather than contrive a stylized, period voice for Sayuri, Mr. Golden allows her to relate her story in chatty, colloquial terms that enable the reader to identify with her feelings of surprise, puzzlement and disgust at the rituals she must endure."

Despite the success of Memoirs of a Geisha, its most outspoken challenger of the book has been Mineko Iwasaki, the retired geisha who provided much-needed detail, background, and context. According to Galloway in U.S. News & World Report, Iwasaki went so far as to say that she regretted helping Golden, that he "did not get anything right," and that he "made a mockery of Japanese culture." In response, Golden stated that her reaction was not all that surprising because the closer a book is to the truth about something to which a person is loyal, the less that person is going to approve of it.


Kate Covintree

Covintree is a graduate student and expository writing instructor at Emerson College. In this essay, Covintree explores Golden's novel in relation to classic fairy tale motif of Cinderella.

Fairy tales and folklore have contributed a great deal to the development of people and their understanding of their place in the world. As Maria Tatar points out in the preface to her book The Hard Facts of the Grimm's Fairy Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm "transformed the fables, yarns, and anecdotes of an oral storytelling tradition into literary texts destined to have a powerful influence on cultures the world over." The literary and critical community continue to return to their stories because the tales are filled with violence, sex, transformation, retribution, and redemption. The stories give readers a blueprint on how to read the world and the roles one can play in the world. Should one be the stepdaughter heroine, the enchanted beast, the witch, or the prince?

Fairy tale motifs can often be found throughout television shows, commercials, and films. Even contemporary novels return to the formulas of familiar fairy tales. According to the New York Times, Memoirs of a Geisha is "part fairy tale." Some elements of Golden's story seem to convolute some of Cinderella's basic ideas. It is not until the fairy tale concepts in Golden's novel are read in conjunction with a tale-type index, with its variations made visible, that Golden's version of a Cinderella story becomes most clear.

Golden begins his novel with a "Translator's Note" introducing the reader to a false author of his tale. By giving over the story to Jakob Haarhuis, Golden plays the role of the Grimm Brothers, removing himself from the direct responsibility of the story. Since Haarhuis is not the actual author, but the translator, Golden stresses the importance of storytelling even within the story he is telling. Memoirs of a Geisha is supposed to be Sayuri's story. But, like Haarhuis, she does not exist. she is merely a character who will travel through Golden's tale in search of what Golden believes will be her happily ever after.

In the mid twentieth century, Antti Aerne and Stith Thompson created an index that listed motifs, or common symbols and ideas, that classified all of the elements included in folk and fairy tales. The index is very detailed and specific by breaking down the aspects of each folk-tale. The Cinderella story and its variants are classified as Type 510. As Katherine Briggs (writing in A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language: Part A Folk Narratives) explains in her breakdown of the tale Ashpitel, "this type of fairy tale includes the following: a cruel stepmother, … stepdaughter heroine, helpful animal reincarnation of parent, … Prince sees maiden at grave, and is enamored, … glass shoes, … and slipper test." Ashpitel's mother dies at the beginning of the tale. Similarly, Golden's main character, Sayuri, begins her tale in the fishing village of her childhood. Here, in Yoriodo, she is not called Sayuri, but Chiyo, and lives contentedly with her father, sister, and dying mother.

As in the beginning of Cinderella, this simple life soon dissolves. She and her sister are shipped to Kyoto and then separated. When Sayuri enters the Gion district, Kyoto's home for geisha training and entertaining, she is unhappy. She is brought to the Nitta okiya and must now call the matriarchs of this household "Mother," "Granny," and "Auntie." She also has two new sisters, Hatsumomo and Pumpkin. Everything about her new surrounding is unfamiliar, and she is out of place. She has a different dialect than the other girls. She smells like fish. Her new "Mother" only cares about money, and her "Granny" constantly puts Sayuri to work with chores and errands. Even new privileges, like going to school, are made more unpleasant by the amount of work required when still at home. She is given little to eat and must stay up late into the night to wait on Hatsumomo. As Sayuri explains it in her tale, she believed she had been pulled from her family just to be a maid.

Sayuri's resistance to this new life only creates more problems for her. Hatsumomo views her as an enemy and falsely accuses her of stealing. Sayuri attempts to run away. These actions seem to remove whatever chances Sayuri has of moving out of her subservient state. Of course, as soon as she has lost her geisha training privilege, she discovers that she wants it. A letter from her home village confirms the death of both her parents and her sister's successful elopement. This new home in Gion is now all she has, and her place in it is fragile. By the time Sayuri desires to return to geisha training, Mother has given up on her. Her first encounter with the Chairman confirms her loss of status. The geisha that accompany him regard her with disdain. The Chairman favors Sayuri with a handkerchief. This is the motivation Sayuri needs for becoming a geisha, but still it would take a miracle for her to improve her life.

Granny's death brings such a miracle. It is then that the well-respected and seasoned geisha, Mameha, enters Chiyo's life. In many senses, Mameha acts as her fairy godmother. She helps Chiyo return to geisha training, dresses her in fine kimono, and takes her to social events. She even gives her the tools she needs to defeat her stepsister Hatsumomo by becoming the girl to be adopted into the Nitta okiya, and finally by becoming a successful geisha. Without Mameha's persistence and cleverness, it is most likely that Sayuri would have remained a maid.

With Mameha's help, Golden's main character raises her status and moves from the rags of her childhood to the riches and comforts that her new adoption can provide. Her debts are settled and her place in Gion is secure. Since she is now transformed from the Chiyo of her childhood into the geisha called Sayuri, suitors vie for her company. Dressed in kimono and adorned with jewels from admiring men, Sayuri should be able to live happily ever after.

"In an environment that looks down on love and romance by training geisha to remain detached from their emotions, Sayuri's motivations are based entirely on her desire for the Chairman."

Sayuri's motivations, however, are not just to become a successful geisha so that she can be financially successful. In an environment that looks down on love and romance by training geisha to remain detached from their emotions, Sayuri's motivations are based entirely on her desire for the Chairman. She carries his handkerchief around with her like a slipper, waiting for the right moment to expose herself to him. Now as a geisha, Sayuri is still not a fully realized princess, because her true prince, the Chairman, has not become her danna, or male sponsor. Without the Chairman, she is only another lady in waiting.

If the handkerchief is confirmation of the meeting between Sayuri and the Chairman, or encounter with her Prince, what is the glass slipper that he sends his footman in search of? It is her gray eyes. Her eyes, like the size of Cinderella's foot, are so unique and individual that only one woman can fulfill the requirement. Near the end of the book, Mameha's role of fairy godmother is brought even more to light as the Chairman explains that he wanted Mameha to search for the girl with the gray eyes. As he tells Sayuri at the end of the novel, he was "the one who asked Mameha to take you under her care. I told her about the beautiful young girl I'd met with startling gray eyes, and asked that she help you if she ever came upon you in Gion." Though Sayuri believed Mameha's decision to be her older sister was based on her rivalry with Hatsumomo, Mameha's actions toward Sayuri were also intended to aid the Chairman in his search for the girl with gray eyes.

But, like all good Cinderella stories, the union cannot be that easy. There are complications, the primary one being the Chairman's good friend Nobu. Nobu believes Sayuri is his destiny, but Sayuri evades intimacy with him as it could jeopardize a future with the Chairman. Nevertheless, Nobu's relationship to Sayuri is extremely important. Over and over, Sayuri and Nobu are put into situations where one can assist the other.

When the war comes to Japan and the Gion district, it is not Sayuri's danna who saves her, but Nobu. By sending her to work with a kimono maker, he places her in a life of poverty. Her hands become stained with fabric dye and she loses much of her physical beauty. Once again, Sayuri is a peasant. When Sayuri does return to the Gion district, it is through Nobu's insistence. He is the one who metaphorically welcomes her back into the castle. Of course, he has intentions to become Sayuri's new danna and to save his company, but Sayuri has other plans.

What Do I Read Next?

  1. The Good Earth, Pearl Buck's classic written in 1931 (and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932), is an example of historical fiction set in Asia. Buck explores the lives of a family of hardworking peasants in China during the 1920s.
  2. Daniel Defoe's 1719 book Robinson Crusoe is an adventure story told in a manner similar to Memoirs of a Geisha. The story is of a sailor marooned on an island for several years, but it is related as if it were being told through another person.
  3. Translated by Kenneth Rexroth, One Hundred Poems from the Japanese (1956) spans time, form, and content in its presentation of Japanese poetry. The poems are generally very short, making it an accessible introduction to the seemingly simple tradition of poetry in Japan.
  4. George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (written around 1914) is the story of a common flower girl transformed into a lady under the tutelage of two linguistics professionals. The story examines themes of metamorphosis, true self, and worth. It was the basis of the hit musical My Fair Lady.

If the fairy tale motif Golden was following was that of an Animal Groom tale, then Nobu would be the perfect candidate for Sayuri's Prince Charming. Missing one arm and badly burned on his face and shoulders, he is nicknamed by some geisha as "Mr. Lizard." He is seen as unattractive and grotesque. His personality matches his rough exterior, and his affection for Sayuri is unique as he does not usually like geisha. He is a "Beast" waiting for a "Beauty" to reveal his true form. Sayuri is lucky to see Nobu's softer side. Because of his affection for her, he treats her with a kind of reverence atypical for his character. Even so, she continuously works to keep him from her.

It is not that Sayuri finds him repulsive as much as it is that Nobu is close friends with the Chairman. Sayuri's prince is not Nobu, and building a relationship with Nobu jeopardizes her future with the Chairman. If it is not a beast tale then what role does Nobu play in this contemporary Cinderella retelling?

Nobu's character has relevance in the Cinderella storyline when a motif often found in variant form of the story (listed in the tale type index as 510B) is brought in. The story, Thousandfurs, is one example of this tale type. In it, the young girl leaves her home because of her own father's lust for her. After trying to remove herself from her father's affection, she is forced to escape her home in order to avoid an incestuous marriage. In Golden's novel, Nobu takes on the same role as this father. Though Nobu's affections are sexual in nature, they are also paternal. He saves her in wartime and chides her when she misbehaves. For Nobu, no other geisha compares to Sayuri. In the same way, the father in Thousandfurs is taken with his daughter because she is as beautiful as his first wife, his daughter's mother.

When Nobu is seen as a father figure, Sayuri's avoidance is understandable. To have a healthy relationship, Nobu must not be her danna. Their closeness may be one that destiny brings, but Nobu is a surrogate father, not lover. It is more acceptable to be lovers with her father's friend (in this case the Chairman) than the father himself (Nobu). As in Thousdanfurs, Sayuri takes her destiny into her own hands to keep herself out of Nobu's reach. In doing so, she knows she will destroy Nobu's affection for her, but she also knows this could open up the possibility to create a relationship with the Chairman.

Once Nobu is removed, Sayuri and the Chairman are free to share a life together. Finally, Sayuri, like the heroines of Thousandfurs and Cinderella before her, can move to her castle (for Sayuri it is in New York) and live happily ever after.


Kate Covintree, Critical Essay on Memoirs of a Geisha, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2004.


Baughman, Ernest W., Type and Motif Index of the Folktales of England and North America, Indiana University Folklore Series No. 20, Mouton and Co., 1966.

Beech, Hannah, "A Tree Grows in Kyoto," in Time International, Vol. 150, No. 31, March 30, 1998, p. 49.

Briggs, Katharine M., "Ashpitel" in A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language: Part A Folk Narratives Vol. 1, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.

Brownstein, Gabriel, "Memoirs of a Geisha," in New Leader, Vol. 80, No. 17, November 3, 1997, pp. 18–19.

Day, Nancy, and Alec Foege, "Geisha Guy: Arthur Golden Isn't Japanese, and He Isn't A Woman. But He Does a Brilliant Impersonation in His Smash First Novel," in People Weekly, November 23, 1998, p. 89.

Galloway, Joseph L., "Protests of a Geisha," in U.S. News & World Report, Vol. 128, No. 10, March 13, 2000, p. 12.

Giles, Jeff, "Memoirs of a Geisha," in Newsweek, Vol. 130, No. 15, October 13, 1997, p. 76.

Golden, Arthur, Memoirs of a Geisha, Vintage, 1997.

Hooper, Brad, "Memoirs of a Geisha," in Booklist, Vol. 96, No. 15, April 1, 2000, p. 1442.

Kakutani, Michiko, "A Woman's Tale, Imagined by a Man," in New York Times Book Review, October 14, 1997, late edition, Section E, Column 1, p. 8.

Morley, John David, "Working Woman," in New York Times Book Review, October 5, 1997, late edition, Section 7, Column 2, p. 16.

Nguyen, Lan N., "Memoirs of a Geisha," in People Weekly, Vol. 48, No. 22, December 1, 1997, p. 49.

Rasmussen, R. Kent, "Memoirs of a Geisha," in Library Journal, Vol. 124, No. 3, February 15, 1999, p. 200.

Review, "Memoirs of a Geisha," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 244, No. 30, July 28, 1997, p. 49.

Tatar, Maria, "Preface" in The Hard Facts of the Grimm's Fairy Tales, Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. xiii–xxxvi.

Wilkinson, Joanne, "Memoirs of a Geisha," in Booklist, Vol. 94, No. 1, September 1, 1997, p. 7.

Further Reading

Downer, Lesley, Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha, Broadway, 2001.

Written by a British journalist, this book is the result of extensive research about the highly secretive world of the geisha and its history. Downer wrote this book specifically with Western readers in mind.

Henshall, Kenneth G., A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

A professor of Japanese studies, Henshall offers a lively and accessible introduction to Japan's long history. The book is complemented by literary excerpts, diagrams, and chronologies.

Iwasaki, Mineko, and Rande Brown (translator), Geisha of Gion: The Memoir of Mineko Iwasaki, Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Written by the geisha interviewed by Golden for his novel, this memoir is an autobiographical account of an actual retired geisha.

Varley, Paul, Japanese Culture, University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Often used as an undergraduate text, Varley's book covers religion, customs, art, and many other important aspects of Japanese culture.