The Theme of Geishas in Memoirs of a Geisha by Nitta Sayuri

Geishas of the New World


Many different cultures and countries have created niches in American society that sustain and envelop traditions from their native lands. Within these miniature sub-countries, some traditional practices defy the typical American beliefs. Of these, the Japanese cultural practice of the Geisha, has been brought to the societal forefront by the recently published novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. The artisan practice of being a Geisha is a long-lived tradition in Japan and some of its roots have been established in the Japanese-American subculture.


Many of Japan's unique cultural practices emerged during the Edo period (1600-1868), a period well known for Japan's self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. The first geisha appeared during this period as male entertainers much like court jesters where comedy played a central role in their performances. Women slowly infiltrated the profession and by 1800 most geisha were female.

The government controlled the profession by requiring licenses for each geisha. In 1872, the new Meiji government required that geisha who also practiced prostitution maintain a license for each service.

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This allowed some geisha to distinguish themselves as solely artistic professionals. The lengthy training and concomitant expense associated with such training limited the number of woman in the profession. It was during this time, the geisha overshadowed high-class courtesans and prostitutes by being harbingers of popular Japanese music and fashion.

In contrast, during the 1920s popular style was anything western. At this point, geisha made a critical change in the direction of their profession.

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While they had emerged triumphantly as the vanguard of popular style in the late 1800s, the 1920s saw the geisha instilling themselves as protectors of traditional Japanese culture. Their new role ensured the geisha's place in modern Japan as living museums.


In order to be a Geisha, you must be born the daughter of a geisha or you are accepted by an okiya (geisha house) in a hanamachi (geisha community). The "acceptance" into the life of a geisha is very ill defined. Historically, girls you were beautiful and promising who were either orphaned or from impoverished families were sold to an okiya by relatives and sometimes their own parents. The okiya would invest large sums of money training the child and purchasing elegant kimonos that can cost several thousands of dollars. The return on the investment would be realized when the girl became a maiko (apprentice geisha) and later, a geisha. If the girl became a successful geisha she might be able to buy her independence from the okiya. Today most women choose to become geisha of their own free will, many from middle-income families.

The word Geisha in Japanese literally means artisan. Geisha begin studying various Japanese arts from as early as three years old and continue to practice throughout their careers. They usually choose a particular art form in which to specialize. One of the most difficult and highly regarded art forms is traditional Japanese dance. Geisha also study shamisen (Japanese guitar), singing, Japanese flute and drums, and tea ceremony. The tea ceremony is a ritual that requires a lifetime of study, where the simple task of making a cup of tea is performed with exceptional grace and apparent effortlessness following very stringent rules of etiquette. It must be practiced so often that the conscious mind is no longer needed to perform the ceremony, freeing it to participate in the experience on a more meditative and sensuous level.

Tea Ceremony and the Geisha as Art

The tea ceremony utensils are simple, but each is a work of art in its own right. Hence, the art of tea ceremony and a geisha are very similar. A geisha is an exquisite work of art in her adornment as well as her poise. Every detail of her ensemble is meticulously chosen to accentuate her beauty and coordinate with the time of year. A successful geisha must demonstrate beauty, grace, artistic talent, charm, impeccable etiquette, and refinement. Within Tea Houses, the geisha organize themselves hierarchically with relationships based on the family model (i.e. mother/daughter younger/older sisters). Within each teahouse is a mother who is in charge of the conduct and class of all her geishas contained therein. Also, each geisha has a senior elder sister who helps in her continuous training. In this way the traditional knowledge of the highly respected tea ceremony can be carried on.

Memoirs of a Geisha Story Line

Presented as the memoirs of a celebrated Japanese geisha, Arthur Golden's first novel follows a poor youngster from her humble origins in a rural fishing village to her later years spent in luxurious surroundings in New York City's Waldorf Astoria. In 1929, her desperate father sells nine-year-old Sayuri to an okiya in Kyoto, where she is to begin her training as a geisha. The intensive courses require her to learn how to dance, play a musical instrument, gracefully wear the heavy, layered costumes, apply elaborate makeup, and, most especially, beguile powerful men.

Initially obstructed by the jealous, vindictive Hatsumomo, the okiya's top earner, Sayuri is eventually taken under the wing of one of Hatsumomo's chief rivals, Mameha. She proves to be such an astute businesswoman that her campaign to make Sayuri a success results in Sayuri's setting a new record when two wealthy men get into a bidding war over who will be the one to claim her virginity. Expertly operating within the tight constraints of her profession, Sayuri eventually wins a small measure of freedom when she deliberately thwarts the attentions of an older man and makes an open play for the man she has always loved. Revealing both the aesthetic delights and the unending cruelty that underlie the exotic world of the geisha, Golden melds sparkling historical fiction with a compelling coming-of-age story.

With details as finely etched as those in a Hiroshige woodcut, Golden brings to life the beauty of prewar Japan, specifically the Gion district of that most graceful of ancient cities, Kyoto, as experienced by Sayuri, the gray-eyed geisha of the book's title. It is Sayuri's metamorphosis, from her impoverished beginnings in a poor fishing village, when she is still known as Chiyo, to her standing as one of Japan's most celebrated entertainers, that makes up the dramatic arc of this tale. Chiyo is only nine when she and her sister, Satsu, are virtually sold to a stranger by her father. Chiyo's unusual beauty lands her an apprenticeship in one of Kyoto's best-known okiya, or geisha houses, while the plainer Satsu is led to a run-down part of town where she will be forced into prostitution. Except for a momentary reunion many months later, the sisters never see one another again.

In the okiya, Chiyo's beauty earns her the lifelong enmity of the head geisha, the lovely but venomous Hatsumomo. Chiyo suffers months of mistreatment by Hatsumomo, whose lies and manipulations not only threaten her future as an apprentice but threaten to sink her beneath a mountain of debt that a lifetime of servitude in the okiya may never pay off. Luckily, Chiyo, now renamed the more auspicious 'Sayuri,' is saved by Hatsumomo's rival, the celebrated geisha Mameha, who strikes an unusual deal with the head of the okiya, under whose terms she will take Sayuri as her pupil.

The quick-witted Sayuri turns out to be a fast learner. Although still mourning the loss of her family and her childhood, Sayuri, already entranced by Hatsumomo's exquisite kimonos and make-up, knows her only hope lies in becoming a celebrated geisha herself. Melancholy yet self-assured, she has an epiphany one morning after finding a dead moth she buried months earlier beneath the foundation of the okiya.

It seemed to be wearing a robe in subdued grays and browns.... Everything about it seemed beautiful and perfect and so utterly unchanged. It struck me that we that moth and I were two opposite extremes. My existence was as unstable as a stream...but the moth was like a piece of stone, changing not at all. While thinking this...) brushed it with my finger tip, and it turned all at once into a pile of ash without even a sound. I let the tiny shroud flutter to the ground; and now | understood the thing that had puzzled me all morning...the past was gone. My mother and father were dead...and my sister...was gone; but I wasn't.... I felt as though I'd turned around to look in a different direction, so that I no longer faced backward towards the past, but forward towards the future. Sayuri, Mameha notes, has an abundance of water in her personality. '

Water never waits,' Mameha informs her at one of their first meetings. 'It can wash away earth, it can put out fire; it can wear metal down and sweep it away.... Those of us with water in our personality don't pick where we'll flow to. All we can do is flow where the landscape of our lives carries us.'

So Sayuri flows forward, absorbing a geisha's traditional education: the shamisen lessons and tea ceremonies; the dance lessons and ikebana; witnessing nights of entertaining in Kyoto's most elegant tea houses. All the while she is aware that her fortunes will always hinge on others: on the whims of Mother, the head of the okiya; on the intrigues of Gion itself; on her ability to negotiate the rivalries between herself and her fellow apprentices and between Mameha and Hatsumomo, and most important, on Mameha's handling of the delicate negotiations that surround the bidding for Sayuri's mizuage, or virginity, a step that will largely determine whether or not she will be able to secure for herself a favorable danna, or patron, without which any geisha is, as Mameha instructs, like 'a stray cat on the street.'

This idea of flow, of going where the current of destiny takes one, permeates the narrative and is a cause of despair for Sayuri, who has fallen deeply in love with a man she believes to be unattainable. 'We don't become geisha so our lives will be satisfying,' a resigned Mameha counsels Sayuri. 'We become geisha because we have no other choice.... Hopes are like hair ornaments. Girls want to wear too many of them, but when they become old, they look silly wearing even one.'

Sayuri eventually does become a full-fledged geisha, even a renowned one. Yet the water in her personality also signals a passionate nature that very little can dam. Ultimately, Sayuri does not fit into this world in which ritual is prized above individual happiness. In a devastating act of courage and deception, Sayuri risks everything she has achieved for a chance at happiness.

Like a gorgeously layered kimono, Memoirs gradually unfolds to reveal the courage, love, daring, and hope of an intensely human and, it turns out, surprisingly modern woman. Sayuri's voice, alternately poetic and mischievous, lends the narrative an immediacy that provides a beguiling counterpoint to the exquisitely detailed rituals such as the lacquered mask Sayuri learns to apply so expertly that make up so much of geisha life in prewar Gion. Like Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World, Memoirs of a Geisha revives a long-vanished world and makes us experience, however briefly, its fragile, mothlike, and indelible beauty. Sarah Midori Zimmerman

From the Publisher

Nitta Sayuri tells the story of her life as a geisha. In Memoirs of a Geisha, we enter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl's virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men, and where love is scorned as illusion. Sayuri's story begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, when, as a nine-year-old with unusual blue-gray eyes, she is taken from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house. Through her eyes, we see the decadent heart of Gion - the geisha district of Kyoto - with its marvelous teahouses and theaters, narrow back alleys, ornate temples, and artists' streets. And we witness her transformation as she learns the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup and hair; competing with a jealous rival for men's solicitude and the money that goes with it. But as World War Il erupts and the geisha houses are forced to close, Sayuri, with little money and even less food, must reinvent herself all over again to find a rare kind of freedom on her own terms. Memoirs of a Geisha is a book of nuance and vivid metaphor, of memorable characters rendered with humor and pathos. And though the story is rich with detail and a vast knowledge of history, it is the transparent, seductive voice of Sayuri that the reader remembers.

Updated: Apr 14, 2022
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The Theme of Geishas in Memoirs of a Geisha by Nitta Sayuri. (2022, Apr 14). Retrieved from

The Theme of Geishas in Memoirs of a Geisha by Nitta Sayuri essay
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