Memoirs of A Geisha is a fictional story that focuses on the life of a young geisha named Sayuri. Initially torn from her impoverished and dilapidated home by the sea in Japan, she is thrown into an okiya (a home for training and practicing geisha) hundreds of miles away and forced to conform to a life and being dedicated to becoming a geisha. The story is set in the 1930s and 40s. It is written by Arthur Golden, who interviewed a geisha named Mineko Iwasaki and used her life story as inspiration. A geisha is essentially a teahouse (social gathering place, but for the wealthy) hostess trained in many arts. For example, a geisha must learn to play numerous instruments, as well as learn how to sing and dance. In Japan, the most prominent geishas were looked upon as though they were celebrities. If someone saw them walking by (in their beautiful makeup and garb) they would bow as low as possible, exhibiting utmost respect and admiration.
Prior to reading the story, I knew little to nothing about the geisha community in Japan, or the role that it played socially. I thought that geishas were mainly prostitutes, but soon found out that their true role was to host (mostly wealthy) individuals during their visits to teahouses. I was also unaware of how complicated and stressful the role of a geisha is. Differentiation between geisha is primarily a matter of artistic and social skills. Therefore, in order to stand out, a geisha must work extremely hard in her studies. And, when it comes to attracting a danna (a wealthy and typically prominent business figure who supports a geisha in return for entertainment and sometimes prostitution), a geisha must find a balance between taking too many social risks and acting sweet and submissive. While Sayuri’s startling blue eyes helped attract many men (as well as geisha competition), accomplishing her place among well-known geisha was no easy task. Achieving a respectable title was hindered by okiya competition, training school, and the second World War (which I will discuss later), all while attempting to find a long lost sister and emotionally supporting herself after her parents’ deaths. Her story of struggle is inspirational, and the theme of traditional Japanese customs is fascinating.
Golden’s story, written as though it was a voice recording of Mineko Iwasaki reflecting upon her career, conveys a balanced amount of historical references and personal experiences. The book immersed me into Sayuri’s world–a young girl, torn from her family, and placed in an alien city. I loved the fact that as Sayuri comes to appreciate the world of geisha, so do I. The story is no tear-jerking-hysterical-thrilling-rollercoaster of a novel, but it is a fresh perspective that I had never thought to come across. My life and Sayuri’s are starkly different, but in that feeling I have found a fascination with the traditional societies of Japan that I have been living alongside and yet I have been so unaware of. I have enjoyed reading Sayuri’s story in Memoirs of A Geisha, and look forward to sharing more.