Memoirs of a Geisha

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Memoirs of a Geisha
First edition
AuthorArthur Golden
CountryUnited States
GenreHistorical fiction novel
PublisherAlfred A. Knopf
Publication date
September 27, 1997
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages448 pp
813/.54 21
LC ClassPS3557.O35926 M45 1997

Memoirs of a Geisha is a historical fiction novel by American author Arthur Golden, published in 1997. The novel, told in first person perspective, tells the story of a fictional geisha working in Kyoto, Japan, before, during and after World War II and ends with her relocated to New York City.

In 2005, a film version was released.

Plot summary[edit]

At the age of nine, Chiyo Sakamoto (坂本千代) is taken from her poverty-stricken fishing village of Yoroido (鎧戸) on the coast of the Sea of Japan with her older sister Satsu (坂本薩) and sold to an okiya (geisha boarding house) in Gion, the most prominent geisha district in Kyoto. Perceived as less attractive in looks and demeanor, Satsu is not sold into the okiya and is instead traded into the Tatsuyo House and is forced into becoming a prostitute in Kyoto's pleasure district.

Chiyo lives in the Nitta Okiya (新田置屋) alongside another young girl nicknamed Pumpkin, the elderly and grumbling Granny, money-obsessed Mother, and Auntie, a failed geisha with a walking disability. Also living in the okiya is the famous and ill-mannered geisha, Hatsumomo (初桃), renowned for her wickedness and dazzling beauty. She promptly takes a disliking to Chiyo, whom she sees as a potential future rival who may threaten her place in the okiya and Gion, as well as Mother's financial dependence upon her earnings. Hatsumomo begins to go out of her way to get rid of Chiyo, even withholding the knowledge of Satsu's whereabouts in the pleasure district to make her do her dirty work and get blamed for it. This includes having Chiyo ruin an expensive kimono belonging to her more successful rival, Mameha (豆波), if she wants Hatsumomo to tell her where Satsu is. Auntie warns Chiyo against both angering and trusting Hatsumomo, knowing the ill-mannered geisha's true nature very well.

When Chiyo finds Satsu in the pleasure district, she conspires with her to escape from their new lives. Returning to the okiya, she happens upon Hatsumomo engaged in intimate relations with her plebeian boyfriend, Koichi (幸一). This proves to be against the rules of the geisha lifestyle as it's a livelihood-threatening situation for a geisha whose air of unattainability is crucial to their allure. A furious Hatsumomo attempts to twist the situation and falsely blames Chiyo for stealing. Although Chiyo is punished, Hatsumomo is also banned from seeing Koichi again, and that increases her hatred for Chiyo. Mother then orders the gates to be locked and bans everyone from leaving, except for nightly attendance with clients.

Despite Pumpkin and Auntie's warning not to run away, Chiyo plans to leave the okiya and escape the city with Satsu. She is caught when she falls off the roof and breaks her arm. Enraged at her for dishonoring the okiya and incurring further medical costs, Mother stops investing in Chiyo and forces her pay off her increasing debts as a personal maid for Mother, rather than a geisha in training. Chiyo learns of her parents' death and also that Satsu had returned to Yoroido, only to run away with the son of a fisherman. Overjoyed by Chiyo's demotion to being a slave under Mother and wanting revenge for being banned from Koichi, Hatsumomo takes advantage of the situation by continuing to be cruel to her.

A few years later, a downtrodden Chiyo is given money and a handkerchief in the street by a strange but kind man known to Chiyo as the Chairman. She donates the money to the Yasaka Shrine in Gion, praying to become a geisha in the hopes of entering an exclusive social sphere where she may have a chance of seeing him again, keeping the handkerchief as a memento. As they age, Chiyo becomes envious of Pumpkin, who is on her way to becoming a geisha under Hatsumomo's tutelage, while Chiyo still remains a maid under Mother. Pumpkin advances and is given her geisha name as Hatsumiyo (初美代), though Hatsumomo is dismayed that everyone still refers to her as Pumpkin. Soon afterward, at Granny's funeral, Chiyo is startled when Mameha takes an interest in her. Mameha persuades a reluctant Mother to reinvest in Chiyo's training, with Mameha acting as Chiyo's mentor and "older sister".

Mameha reveals that the source of Hatsumomo's hatred towards Chiyo comes from fear of Chiyo's beauty and cleverness, which contrasts with the simple-minded Pumpkin, who can be used by Hatsumomo to secure her position at the okiya. Because she cannot stand to have rivals, Hatsumomo has successfully ruined other geisha, including Hatsuoki (初沖) (an old friend of Mameha's), a geisha who shared the same older sister as Hatsumomo and was driven out of Gion. However, despite her popularity, Hatsumomo is regarded as a failed geisha because she cannot obtain a danna (旦那) to sponsor her independence after she angered the mistress of her principal teahouse, and has stayed in the okiya under Mother. Mameha also reveals that despite her financial contributions, Mother had refused to name Hatsumomo as the heiress of the okiya because she was afraid of the trouble the latter would bring if named. Everyone believes she would likely throw Mother out, sell off the okiya's kimono collection, retire and live on the money. Through Mameha's tutelage, Chiyo becomes an apprentice geisha with a new name: Sayuri (小百合).

As Sayuri gains popularity, a desperate Hatsumomo goes out of her way to ruin Sayuri by tarnishing her reputation in Gion to increase Pumpkin's popularity. This forces Mameha and Sayuri to devise a plan to push Hatsumomo out of the Nitta okiya lest Sayuri's career ultimately die. They arrange for Sayuri's mizuage (水揚げ) (portrayed as a deflowering "ceremony" for maiko as a step to becoming full-fledged geisha) to be bid upon by several influential men, namely Nobu Toshikazu (敏和信), the president of Iwamura Electric as well as a close friend Ken Iwamura (岩村健), who is revealed to be the Chairman; and reputed mizuage specialist "Dr. Crab", dubbed so by Sayuri due to his appearance. The plan is nearly ruined when Hatsumomo catches on to the plan and tells Dr. Crab that Sayuri has been deflowered, causing him to stop patronizing her. Mameha successfully convinces him to re-patronize Sayuri by telling him that Hatsumomo has a reputation as a known liar and her words are too risky to trust. Dr. Crab ultimately wins the bid for Sayuri's mizuage and she uses his record-breaking payment to cover all of her debts. This leads Mother, who had originally planned to adopt Pumpkin as her heiress, to choose Sayuri instead, ultimately destroying the two girls' friendship forever. This turn of events enrages both Pumpkin and Hatsumomo for different reasons: Pumpkin was looking forward to the adoption so that she could have some form of security in her old age, while Hatsumomo was eagerly anticipating Pumpkin's adoption so she could secure her own position as head geisha and drive the up-and-coming Sayuri out of Gion. Hatsumomo begins a downward spiral fueled by alcoholism and her behavior worsens past all excuse. After starting a brutal fight at a teahouse with a prominent Kabuki actor in a drunken rage, Hatsumomo's future as a geisha and reputation in Gion is tarnished for good. She is immediately thrown out of the okiya permanently, never to be seen nor heard from again. However, Sayuri does hear rumors that Hatsumomo became a prostitute and eventually drank herself to death. Soon after, Mother decides to throw Pumpkin out for unknown reasons.

Shortly after Hatsumomo's demise it is revealed Dr. Crab was actually bidding against the Baron, Mameha's danna, for Sayuri's mizuage. The Baron had previously tried to sexually assault Sayuri, undressing her against consent at a blossom viewing party, which Mameha had warned her against attending. Nobu instead bids to become Sayuri's danna, but loses out to General Tottori. With Japan on the brink of entering World War II, many geisha are evacuated to other cities to work in factories, which requires hard labor, and the factory areas were primary bomb targets. The General is demoted and is unable to use any influence to send Sayuri somewhere safer. Despite losing respect for Sayuri, Nobu is able to send Sayuri far north to live with his old friend, Arashino (嵐野), a kimono maker. At the end of the war, Nobu visits Sayuri and asks that she return to Gion to help entertain the new Deputy Minister Sato (佐藤次官), whose aid can be instrumental in rebuilding Iwamura Electric, the company which the Chairman and Nobu run. Once she returns to Gion, Sayuri helps Mother and Auntie clean up the okiya and shows kindness to the new girl Etsuko (悦子) they have taken in to train under her. When she learns that Pumpkin had not been invited back, Sayuri asks Auntie about it. She revealed that before she went to retrieve Sayuri from Arashino, Pumpkin came begging both her and Mother to let her return to the okiya because she had become homeless and needed their help. Auntie was willing to let Pumpkin back in to work as a maid, but Mother refused having decided that she was a failure. Sayuri approaches an unhappy and homeless Pumpkin to help her entertain the Minister. She only agrees to help out because she knew Minister Sato and had entertained him in the past.

Sayuri, Mameha and Pumpkin entertain the Minister together regularly and within time, Nobu formally begins proposals to become Sayuri's danna. Sayuri still maintains strong feelings for the Chairman and doesn't want Nobu to become her danna, so on a weekend trip to the Amami Islands with Iwamura Electric, she plans to seduce the Minister and be caught in humiliation by Nobu. Upon catching on to Sayuri's plan and fearing that she would behave similar to Hatsumomo, Mameha warns against it because it would disrespect him and tells her to accept him as her danna. Sayuri refuses and asks Pumpkin for one last favor, to bring Nobu to a theater while she makes love to the Minister, which Pumpkin agrees to. Harboring animosity for Sayuri, Pumpkin deliberately brings the Chairman instead of Nobu to catch her with the Minister. Enraged, Sayuri confronts her for humiliating her in front of the Chairman. In return, Pumpkin coldly reveals how she had grown to resent Sayuri over the years: for destroying her chances of being adopted by Mother, being forced to become a prostitute to survive during the war, and for never realizing how she made herself look bad to embarrass Hatsumomo to help Sayuri. Having noticed her feelings for the Chairman, Pumpkin hoped that when he caught Sayuri with the Minister, he would be disgusted by her behavior. In despising her, Pumpkin mentions that Sayuri will never see the Chairman again and she will be forced to accept Nobu as her danna. In the moment after she leaves, Sayuri realizes that a part of Hatsumomo resided in Pumpkin and finally got her revenge.

A few days later, Sayuri is to meet a client at a teahouse. Believing it's Nobu coming over to meet her to discuss the arrangement of being her danna, Sayuri prepares to see him thinking the Chairman now hates her for humiliating him at Amami by catching her with the Minister. When she arrives at the teahouse, Sayuri is taken by surprise to see the Chairman and confesses that her acts in Amami were for personal reasons. The Chairman admits that he had feelings for her as well, but felt he owed Nobu, his best friend who had also saved his company, the chance to be with the woman that he had expressed a sincere interest in. He admitted that he asked Mameha to train her in order to help her live her dreams as a geisha. The Chairman found out the truth after confronting an angry Pumpkin for Sayuri's humiliation and told Nobu afterwards, Nobu refused to continue his pursuit of becoming her danna. Sayuri and the Chairman kiss, which she feels is her first kiss expressing true love.

Sayuri peacefully retires from being a geisha when the Chairman becomes her danna. It is heavily implied that they have an illegitimate son together. Foreseeing the consequences this could have regarding the inheritance of Iwamura Electric, she relocates to New York City and opens her own small tea house for entertaining Japanese men on business in the United States. Sayuri severs her links to the Nitta okiya and in effect, Japan. The Chairman remains her danna until his death and the story concludes with a reflection on Sayuri and her life.

References to actual locations[edit]

Much of the novel is set in the popular Hanamachi geisha district of Gion in Kyoto and contains references to actual places frequented by geisha and their patrons, such as the Ichiriki Ochaya. Part of the story is also set in the Amami Islands, and Sayuri narrates the story from her suite in the Waldorf towers in New York City.

In popular culture[edit]

In the second season of David Chase's HBO series, The Sopranos, mafia boss Tony Soprano's wife Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) is pictured with the book. Specifically, the book is seen in Episode 9, "From Where to Eternity," and Episode 10, "Bust Out."


After the Japanese edition of the novel was published, Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he had interviewed for background information while writing the novel. The plaintiff asserted that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity if she told him about her life as a geisha, due to the traditional code of silence about their clients. However, Golden listed Iwasaki as a source in his acknowledgments for the novel, causing her to face a serious backlash, to the point of death threats.[1] In his defense, Arthur Golden countered that he had tapes of his conversations with Iwasaki.[2][clarification needed] Eventually, in 2003, Golden's publisher settled with Iwasaki out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.

Iwasaki later went on to write an autobiography, which shows a very different picture of twentieth-century geisha life than the one shown in Golden's novel. The book was published as Geisha, a Life[3] in the U.S. and Geisha of Gion in the U.K.

Film version[edit]

In 2005, film director Rob Marshall made a film version of the novel. It stars the Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi as Sayuri, Gong Li as Hatsumomo, and Michelle Yeoh as Mameha; and Japanese actors Ken Watanabe as the Chairman, Suzuka Ohgo as Sayuri's childhood incarnation Chiyo, and Youki Kudoh as the adult Pumpkin.

Filming was primarily done in California, and in some locations in Kyoto, including Kiyomizu-dera and Fushimi Inari-taisha. It was nominated for and won numerous awards, including nominations for six Academy Awards, three of which—Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design—were won.


Kimiko Akita, in "Orientalism and the Binary of Fact and Fiction in Memoirs of a Geisha", argues that Memoirs of a Geisha contains orientalist tropes and deep "cultural misrepresentations". She states that "Golden treated geisha as an object to be sexualized, exoticized, and romanticized by the West". For the film, Marshall was criticized in Japan and the West for casting Chinese actors to play Japanese characters in roles firmly entwined with Japanese culture. Additionally, Kimiko argues that the movie instead helped perpetuate views of "Japanese culture and geisha as exotic, backward, irrational, dirty, profane, promiscuous, bizarre, and enigmatic". In the special features of the DVD, it is noted that few Japanese actresses showed interest in being a part of the production.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Richard Lloyd Barry (March 30, 2006). "The Queen and the Geisha". The Times. UK. Archived from the original on November 16, 2006. Retrieved October 23, 2008.
  2. ^ A Geisha Scorned The Rough Guide to Japan: The Rough Guide, by Jan Dodd, Simon Richmond. Published by Rough Guides, 2001. ISBN 1-85828-699-9. Page 889.
  3. ^ Tamara Weider (October 10, 2002). Remaking a memoir Archived January 6, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. Boston Phoenix. Accessed 2012-12-12.


  • Quotations related to Memoirs of a Geisha at Wikiquote
  • McAlpin, Heller. "Night Butterflies; Memoirs of a Geisha". Los Angeles Times, November 30, 1997. Pg. 8.
  • Dalby, Liza. "Geisha". 1983. pp. 54–64 (prostitution); pp. 109–112 ("deflowering" and mizu-age).