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Memoirs of a geisha

Arthur Golden

Arthur Sulzberger Golden is a 64 years old American writer. Golden was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee.Golden's most well-known novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, was written over a 6-year period.It has sold more than four million copies in English and has been translated into thirty-two languages around the world.

This romantic historical drama takes place in pre-WW2 times (around 1930s) and is set in Japan, in a town called Kyoto.

Our main character, Chiyo Sakamoto, is a young girl whose life takes a wild turn when she's taken from her poor fishing village and forced to live out the rest of her days as a geisha.But first, what even is a geisha?

A geisha is a female entertainer of higher class in Japan who trained in traditional styles of performing art. All geishas must be affiliated with an okiya – a geisha lodging house. They are quite stunning, never to be seen without their luxurious kimono, styled hair and pale makeup.






Firstly, we meet the “Mother”, proprietress of an okiya in Miyaki, Kyoto. Determined and strict, with sharp eyes and a stern look, she is the one responsible for the training of every geisha in her okiya.

In okiya, Chiyo faces Hatsumomo, who is a beautiful, but cruel geisha. She is frustrated and impulsive with Chiyo and sees her as a threat.

Chiyo meets a girl around her age nicknamed Pumpkin because of her chubby looks, with whom she becomes friends. Her bubbly and clumsy personality often gets in her way of becoming an elegant geisha.

In okiya down the street lives another geisha, Mameha. She’s around the same age as Hatsumomo and the two are in constant rivalry. Unlike Hatsumomo, Mameha is reserved and calm. She plays a great role in Chiyo’s life, it can even be said that she saved it.



One of the most important characters is Ken Iwamura, often called Chairman, whose act of kindness changes Chiyo’s life. He is demure, but has soft eyes which Chiyo falls in love with.

Then there’s Toshikazu Nobu. Tough and not appealing to one’s eyes, he immediately took interest in Chiyo at the sumo-match where they met. He is also the Chairman's business partner, which makes it hard for Chiyo to even out her actions.


Chiyo and her older sister Satsu were sold by their parents in order to make enough money for their family. Unfortunately, they were separated in Kyoto and Chiyo had to manage on her own.

Hatsumomo, being jealous of her looks, bullied her and made her life even harder. Chiyo found comfort in her only friend, Pumpkin.

Chiyo tried to run away from okiya to find her sister, but fell of the roof, thus losing the only escape chance she had. That exact same night, Mother informed Chiyo that her parents have died. Her life changed drastically.

One day, as she was crying on a riverbank, the Chairman stopped by and crouched next to her. He gave her a handkerchief and some comforting words. Chiyo then resolves to become a geisha so that she might become a part of his life.

Even though things seemed pretty bleak, Chiyo was taken under Mahema’s wing and was now named Sayuri. Her training to become a geisha has only just begun.

Hatsumomo tried spreading rumours about Sayuri, but Sayuri, being an excellent apprentice, gained huge popularity and many men took interest in her, including wealthy Nobu. Instead of Pumpkin, she was adopted in her okiya by Mother.

Sayuri's successful career is cut short by the World War II. Nobu sent Sayuri to the countryside, to work for a kimono maker.

After the war ended, Nobu asked Sayuri to help him entertain the new American Deputy Minister, Sato, who could fund their business. Sayuri devised a plan to have Nobu catch her being intimate with the Minister, hoping that he will lose his feelings for her, and asked Pumpkin to help her do so. However, Pumpkin, driven with revenge, brought the Chairman instead.

A few days after, Sayuri is summoned to meet a client at a teahouse. Believing Nobu has called her to discuss the arrangements for becoming her patron, Sayuri is surprised to see the Chairman instead. She confessed that she has worked for years to become close to the Chairman. The Chairman confessed his feelings for her as well.

Sayuri peacefully retired from geisha work when the Chairman became her patron. She relocated to New York City and opened her own small tea house for entertaining Japanese men on business in the United States.


,,It's the water in both our personalities. My father had wood in his personality; mother and I were full of water.“-PAGE 1, CHAPTER 1

,,A woman can say more with her eyes than with any other part of her body."-PAGE 13, CHAPTER 4

,,We must always keep something to remember those who have left us.”-PAGE 38, CHAPTER 13

„The mizuage fee was, of course, the reason Mrs. Nitta adopted me. If she hadn't adopted me, some of that money would have fallen into my hands-and I can just imagine how my new Mother would have felt about that!“-PAGE 23, CHAPTER 8

,,I think the things I remember are more real than the things I see.”-PAGE 41, CHAPTER 14

This intrigued me to think about it deeper. Sometimes, our memories are the only thing keeping us alive. With memories, we tell our story and through stories, people and even whole cultures, live on. The body will decay, but the memories are timeless. That’s why the book is called “Memoirs of a geisha”. Chiyo narrates her life story to show us that no matter what happens, some memories cannot be replaced, thus turning into a priceless feeling. And that’s why the Chairman says some things he remembers are more real than the things he’s surrounded by now. His past experiences are so tense and emotional, he can’t seem to let go.

I like how Chiyo describes the colour of their eyes here. In Japan, people take meaning in almost every feature they possess: their name, their smile, their eyes… Water is considered to be adroit and patient, just like Chiyo is. She even said herself once: ,,I'm like a river that's stopped flowing because Hatsumomo is in the way. But rivers can wash away anything in their path in time."

This helps me understand the life of a geisha better. The plot of the book was not inspired by real life situations, but the book is historically and culturally accurate. Geishas were and still are real. It was common for men in Japan to offer fees to be the first one to make love with a geisha. In theory, geisha’s virginity is “sold” for the highest price. This act was called mizuage. But the thing is, no matter how much money geishas made, it all went to okiya they were trained in and to their Mother. Their only hope was to be adopted by the Mother as a fully realized geisha and own the okiya one day. That way, they would also make money off of young apprentices.

I feel deeply touched by this quote alone. Geishas are often wrongly portrayed as pleasure-workers, but their profession is not about pleasuring others. They are a walking piece of art by themselves, almost perfect from head to toes, making no mistakes and bringing doom to the hearts of men. They do not need to be naked, because one look is enough to make someone subdue to their magic. In one part, Sayuri, testing her skills as a geisha, glances over to a boy carrying boxes and stares deeply into his eyes. The boxes were soon all over the place. As people say, eyes are a window to the soul.

In this scene, Sayuri held Chairmans handkerchief up in the air and thought about letting the wind take it. But then, she remembered the letter she was given that informed her of the loss of her parents. She kept it, as it was the only thing that remained from her childhood. In that way, she also didn’t let go of the handkerchief, as it was something that remained of the rest of her life. This reminds me of my grandma who, after my grandpa passed away, kept all his lovely, cotton handkerchiefs.

Author shows us how we directly influence our destiny by the choices we make, but our course also may be drastically altered by outside forces. A small act of kindness can send out many ripples, and transform another's life, just like the Chairman transformed Chiyo's.

Personally, the book is quite good. It definitely has its rather tiring parts, but the most of it is positively interesting and intense. The plot is not hard to understand or follow. It's also a beautiful window into Japanese culture. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves drama and/or romance.


In 2005, a movie came out and faced huge success, but also criticism. To be honest, this was the first movie that I genuinely liked more than the book. The screenplay, cinematography and acting are amazing. It also contained 90% of all the details from the book, and even added some more spice to it. It kept me on the edge of my seat to the very end.


with Sayuri Sakamoto

Hi, Sayuri! Hope you're doing well! How are things?

Quite good, thank you! The tea shop's working surprisingly well.

How's your husband, Mr. Iwamura? How is it that you haven't taken his surname?

He's not my husband. He's my danna and danna means patron!

How interesting! And have you, if I may ask, heard from your sister?

No... ever since that night I completely lost track of her...

That's sad... Well, at least you're not on bad terms with your friend, Pumpkin, am I right?

After the incident with the Chairman,we lost touch.

Oh dear! Do you have anyone left except for your danna?

Of course I do... I have myself. I've lived quite a tempestuous life as a geisha. Things haven't been easy at all, but I managed thanks to myself.

Truly inspiring. Would you mind telling us more about it? For example, we would like to know more about Hatsumomo.

Oh, poor Hatsumomo... She was just really frustrated with herself. You see, she fell in love. And geishas aren't meant to fall in love.

Why is that? Didn't you fall in love?

Geishas must be perfect. If a geisha falls in love, it's considered the end of her career. In my case, I was lucky to find a man who I love and who is my danna at the same time.

Did you ever think about being a geisha again?

No, not really. I learned amazing things, but my time as a geisha is over.

Understandable. Well, thank you for your time. I hope you're as happy as you say!


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