Study Guide

Memoirs of a Geisha

By Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a Geisha Introduction

How long does it take you to get ready for work or school? An hour? Thirty minutes? Thirty seconds? (Don't forget the deodorant as you run out the door.) Even someone who has to wear a suit every day to work doesn't take forever to get prepared. Make sure our skirt isn't wrinkled—check. Find a tie to match our shoes—check. Top secret documents in our briefcase—we're not telling.

But there's a job somewhere in the world that takes hours to get dressed for. It's a job for women only. They have to put a thick layer of makeup on their faces and their necks. They wrap themselves in designer garments that cost a year's worth of pay. And their hairstyles are so intricate they have to sleep on special pillows so as not to mess them up. No, this isn't Jersey Shore circa 2010, this is the life of a geisha.

Memoirs of a Geisha unveils the secret rituals of the geisha for all to see, and none of it involves gym, tan, or laundry. A geisha is a female Japanese entertainer who works in teahouses across Japan. She pours tea. She dances. She plays guitar. And she does, um, other things to entertain her male clientele. She's a part hostess, part musician, part dancer, and sometimes part prostitute. She has an entourage of dressers, hairstylists, and maids to help her out, making some geisha into major divas.

Memoirs is the story of a young girl named Chiyo, who grows up to become one of the most famous geisha of all time: Nitta Sayuri. Along the way, she tangles with rival geisha and must entertain a variety of men on varying levels of the creep-o-meter.

However, the book wasn't written by an actual geisha. It was written by a white man named Arthur Golden. He interviewed former real-life geisha Mineko Iwasaki, and she took him behind the shoji screen to reveal all the intimate details of a geisha's life—how they do their makeup, how they style their hair, and why they tie their kimono from behind. Geisha culture has roots in the 18th century and still exists today. Although Iwasaki was a geisha in the 1960s, Golden sets his story in the 1930s and 40s, when World War II breaks out and tears the world—and geisha culture—apart.

Iwasaki alleges she conducted the interview with Golden in private, and she was furious when the book was published in 1997 and her name was right there in the book's acknowledgements. But the scandal only added to the book's success, and Iwasaki herself published her own memoirs: Geisha, A Life.

As of 2015, Arthur Golden remains a one-hit wonder, with no other books published. Geisha was adapted into a visually lush film in 2005, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago). It reunited Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stars ZhangZiyi and Michelle Yeoh as Sayuri and her mentor, Mameha, along with Gong Li as Sayuri's fierce rival, Hatsumomo (none of whom, it's worth noting, is Japanese—something that caused the movie its own controversy).

Transforming into a geisha takes a lot of time and a lot of money. Those kimono don't come cheap. But reading this book is a lot cheaper and, frankly, probably a lot more enjoyable than actually being a geisha. So wrap yourself in your coziest bathrobe, pretend it's a kimono, and enjoy Memoirs of a Geisha.

What is Memoirs of a Geisha About and Why Should I Care?

Name a famous geisha. Go ahead. We'll wait.

Okay, no we won't, because we don't have all day. You can name famous football players, authors, and YouTube stars, but you probably can't name a single geisha. And if you could, it's probably Nitta Sayuri, who is the protagonist of Memoirs of a Geisha, but she's a fictional character. She isn't even real.

Why is this important? Well, everyone knows what a geisha is, at least on the surface. A geisha is a Japanese woman in a ton of makeup, a fancy kimono, uncomfortable-looking shoes, and a very intricate hairdo. Oh yeah: and she might be a sex worker. Maybe. No one is quite sure because of the mystique surrounding the art of the geisha. What exactly do they do in those tearooms in Kyoto?

Geisha culture is a combination of indentured servitude and arts training. They don't have the free will to do what they want. They still exist today, and people now follow them with cell phone cameras and photograph them as if they're creatures in a zoo. (Respect the geisha privacy, y'all.)

However, as Memoirs of a Geisha asserts, this fate might be better for these girls than the alternative. They could be orphaned, homeless, or dead. But does that make being a geisha okay?

Even though Memoirs of a Geisha was written by a white guy, it gives a voice to a person whose voice is taken away. It brought awareness to the world of the geisha, and it gave the real geisha who inspired this novel, Mineko Iwasaki, a platform to tell her own story. You can read that one too, and come to your own decisions about the lifestyle of a geisha.

Well, you can make most of your own decisions. A couple of things are just flat-out fact when it comes to geisha: their training is intense, and they look totally stunning.

Memoirs of a Geisha Resources

Websites

Painting His Facebook
Arthur Golden doesn't have a website, but he has a Facebook, where he occasionally posts something geisha-related.

#realgeishatalk
Mineko Iwasaki, the inspiration for the novel, inspired this website, which alleges to have true facts about geisha.

Movie or TV Productions

Memoirs of a Nay-sha
Ebert praised the film's beauty, but criticized its lack of substance. To him, the film is all makeup with no real geisha beneath.

Articles and Interviews

Golden Geisha
Sometimes you have to go back to go forward. Arthur Golden says he threw two drafts away before meeting the inspiration for Memoirs of a Geisha, and having to start all over.

From Kimono to Suit…Lawsuit
Mineko Iwasaki says the story of mizuage is "patently untrue."

Video

Dateline on Geisha
In 2002, NBC capitalized on the popularity of…er…aired a TV interview with Mineko Iwasaki called "The Secret Life of Geisha."

Let it Snow Dance
It's difficult, if not impossible, to describe dance in text, which might be why Golden doesn't really attempt to. To better picture Sayuri's dancing, try this scene from the film.

Geisha Watch
Kyoto may have changed, but people's fascination with geisha remains the same. Now people film geisha walking around and post the videos to YouTube.

Audio

Not a Sham
This could be what a teahouse sounds like, with the strings of the Japanese guitar, the shamisen, being plucked in the background.

Where Ya Been, Arthur?
It must have taken a while for Arthur Golden to find someone else to tell him their story. We kid, we kid. But he still hasn't released another book. In this interview, he talks about Geisha and a new novel, which, as of 2016, still hasn't been published.

Images

A Pain in the Neck
The takamakura is a really uncomfortable-looking pillow that a geisha must sleep on to protect her hairstyle. We'd rather shave our head.

Noh Noh Noh
Chiyo describes her smile as being like a Noh mask. Is that a good thing? Yes or Noh?

It Hurts Our Soles
The geisha shoes, called okobo, look only slightly more comfortable than that pillow.

Peaches and Hair Crème
Here is the intricate geisha "split peach" hairstyle, called momoware. No, you can't eat it.

Keeping Abreast of Trends in Baked Goods
This is the suggestive ekubo cake, which Sayuri presents when it is time for her mizuage.