Study Guide

Memoirs of a Geisha Quotes

  • Identity

    My name back then was Chiyo. I wouldn't be known by my geisha name, Sayuri, until years later. (1.25)

    This is a bit of foreshadowing that becoming a geisha isn't as simple as troweling on a lot of makeup and putting on a pretty kimono. It changes a young woman's identity so much, she even gets a new name.

    I'm sure I looked no more elegant than a guest at an inn looks wearing a robe on the way to the bath. But I'd never before worn anything nearly so glamorous on my body. (4.58)

    We think Chiyo loves her robe so much not because of how it looks, but because of what it means. Her robe is a small upgrade in her status. It's a mile marker on her journey to a different life.

    Only when she sits before her mirror to apply her makeup with care does she become a geisha. And I don't mean that this is when she begins to look like one. This is when she begins to think like one too. (5.20)

    Thinking like a geisha almost makes it seem like a brainwashing process. And, in a way, it kind of is. Does anyone want to be a geisha? They must be convinced that it's a lifestyle they can enjoy.

    Couldn't the wrong sort of living turn anyone mean? (8.8)

    This quote raises a bit of a geisha-or-the-egg situation. Is a person turned mean because of a bad situation, or does a mean person cause bad situations? Sayuri thinks it is the former.

    The point wasn't to become a geisha, but to be one. To become a geisha…well, that was hardly a purpose in life. But to be a geisha…I could see it now as a stepping-stone to something else. (9.57)

    What's the difference between being a geisha and becoming a geisha? Perhaps becoming one is to fake-it-til-you-make-it, but finally making it means being a geisha.

    My new name came from "sa," meaning "together," "yu," from the zodiac sign for the Hen—in order to balance other elements in my personality—and "ri," meaning "understanding." (14.20)

    A geisha's name can be chosen to define her identity, or to change it—or, in Sayuri's case, a little of both. She is understanding, but the "yu" balances out her personality. And what about "together"? What could that mean? Sayuri has to learn to be comfortable by herself most of the time.

    Back in my tipsy house on the sea cliffs, I'd been Sakamoto Chiyo. Now my name was Nitta Sayuri. (24.11)

    The name change has completely eradicated her past identity and replaced it with something else. Do you think Sayuri is different than Chiyo? Or are they the same girl in different makeup?

    I sometimes lift the brocade cover on the mirror of my makeup stand, and have the briefest flicker of a thought that I may find her there in the glass, smirking at me. (27.101)

    Sayuri fears that she has become like Hatsumomo. Considering she and Mameha teamed up to drive Hatsumomo crazy and get her kicked out of Gion—which is exactly what Hatsumomo tried to do to Sayuri—we think she is right to feel this way.

    "Do you mean to say you could consider giving yourself to a man like the Minister? Don't you feel there's right and wrong in this world, and good and bad? Or have you spent too much of your life in Gion?" (32.86)

    This quote recalls a few prior quotes: the brainwashing quote, the one about being vs. becoming a geisha, and the quote about certain situations turning a person mean. But here we see that living in Gion for so long has made Sayuri a geisha through and through, using her sexuality as currency.

    Because I'd set my sights on becoming a geisha only to win the affections of the Chairman, probably I ought to have felt no sense of loss in withdrawing from Gion. (35.6)

    At the end of the book, Sayuri needs a new identity, so she makes one in New York as the owner of a teahouse. Sure, she needs help from the Chairman, but it is the first time in her life she has been able to establish her own identity, instead of having someone else do it for her.

  • Coming of Age

    "Never forget them, Chiyo-chan," [Auntie] said. "They're all that's left of your childhood." (8.64)

    One tragic part of some coming-of-age stories is the death of the protagonist's parents. For Chiyo, that event comes very soon, and without her being there. It is very sad, but so was her whole childhood, so it fits.

    I suppose that by "dignity" I mean a kind of self-confidence, or certainty. (12.90)

    Part of coming-of-age means that Chiyo feels more comfortable in her own skin, even if that skin is covered in a forty-pound kimono and eight pounds of makeup.

    Evidently in the six months since I'd last seen them, I'd changed more than I realized. (13.8)

    Chiyo experiences quite a growth spurt in her early teens, which makes her noticeable, both to fellow geisha and to the creepy men who love geisha.

    I may have been no more than fourteen, but it seemed to me I'd lived two lives already. My new life was still beginning, though my old life had come to an end some time ago. (13.44)

    Chiyo definitely lives a more difficult life than most young people her age, but that makes the book interesting. No one wants to read a boring coming-of-age story where everything goes perfectly for the main character.

    I've heard it said that the week in which a young girl prepares for her debut as an apprentice geisha is like when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. (14.1)

    A young girl becoming an apprentice (and later a geisha) is a metamorphosis of sorts, coming with an assortment of new, colorful kimonos. It's like a coming-out ritual for a debutante or other sort of society girl to mark her coming of age.

    Every time I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass of a shop, I felt I was someone to be taken seriously; not a girl anymore, but a young woman. (14.11)

    We're surprised Sayuri existed before Britney Spears, because Britney would sing of exactly this same feeling many years later.

    I thought Sayuri was a lovely name, but it felt strange not to be known as Chiyo any longer. (14.21)

    Sayuri is basically Chiyo's adult name, but haven't we all experience a similar feeling— that it feels strange to be growing up?

    "A woman's cave is particularly special to a man if no other eel has ever been in it before. Do you understand? We call this mizuage." (19.56)

    Losing your virginity is a big part of any coming-of-age story, but Memoirs of a Geisha cranks up the discomfort on this often-awkward event by auctioning off Sayuri's virginity to the highest bidder.

    It's strange and very hard to explain, but the world looked different to me after mizuage. Pumpkin, who hadn't yet had hers, now seemed inexperienced and childlike to me somehow, even though she was older. (24.33)

    Some people feel cocky after losing their virginity, as if the world is different and they are somehow more mature than others. Sayuri is one of these people.

    The mortuary tablets back in the okiya were all that remained of my childhood. (34.18)

    This quote echoes the first one we mentioned in this section and emphasizes the powerful imagery. "Mortuary" shows us that Sayuri's childhood, and her younger identity as Chiyo, are dead and gone.

  • Tradition and Customs

    Yes, [Sayuri] does elucidate for us the very secret world in which she lived—the rabbit's view of the field, if you will. (Translator's Note.3)

    This is a nice metaphor. Sure, you can see a field, but you don't know what it looks like from a rabbit's-eye view. Most people know that geisha exist, but they don't know what their lives are like. This book will reveal it. (Also, "rabbit" conjures up the image of a frail, vulnerable creature, which is patronizing.)

    "Your job is to bow as low as you can, and don't look them in the eye." (3.81)

    Navigating Japanese customs of "how low can you go" when it comes to bowing can be difficult, even for a native Japanese person. Chiyo is rural, so she doesn't understand many customs; as she learns them, so do we.

    "Do as you're told; don't be too much trouble; and you might begin learning the arts of a geisha two or three months from now." (3.117)

    Not only does Chiyo have to learn basic Japanese customs, she will also have to learn the "arts of a geisha," which are more intricate and complicated.

    Beginning my training meant going to a school in another section of Gion to take lessons in things like music, dance, and tea ceremony. (4.2)

    Sometimes the arts of a geisha seem relatively mundane. Many kids take music or dance lessons. But these arts are very relatable for anyone, making geisha culture seem less foreign.

    To begin with, you must understand that a housewife and a geisha wear kimono very differently. (5.41)

    Here we go, here is something that your average Western reader may not know. A kimono is a kimono, right? Wrong. Geisha kimono are elegant and insanely expensive. A housewife's is much more utilitarian.

    A woman who must take her sash on and off all night can't be bothered with tying it behind her again and again. (7.24)

    Part of geisha tradition is to separate them from prostitutes. This is one of the distinguishing characteristics between a geisha and a prostitute, in the way they dress.

    "That would be a lovely bow, if only you were a farmer visiting Kyoto for the first time," [Mameha] said. "But since you want to appear cultivated you must do it like this." (10.69)

    Sometimes it seems like learning how to bow will never end. But Mameha is a very good, very experienced geisha, so she can give Chiyo much more detailed instructions than anyone else possibly could.

    Geisha never marry. Or at least those who do no longer continue as geisha. (12.66)

    This is an interesting fact. Geisha seem to be eternal mistresses. But it makes sense, in the context of being a geisha, because who would want to flirt with a married woman?

    I went out to kneel before the Baron, feeling very nervous—for I'd never met an aristocrat before. (15.95)

    Sayuri must put her kneeling and bowing skills to the test. It seems like working as a geisha is one test after another, and they have to be good students and pass each one in order to succeed.

    We call this change "turning the collar," because an apprentice wears a red collar while a geisha wears a white one. (25.8)

    Here is a bit of geisha trivia that no one would probably know. With all the striking colors a geisha wears, plus their elaborate hair ornaments, who would notice a collar? It seems to be a custom with much more significance to the geisha herself than to anyone else.

  • Appearances

    In the years since, I've been called beautiful more often than I can remember. Though, of course, geisha are always called beautiful, even those who aren't. But when Mr. Tanaka said it to me, before I'd ever heard of such a thing as a geisha, I could almost believe it was true. (1.73)

    At an early age, Chiyo learns that compliments on her physical appearance feel good, so she will put her physical appearance at a priority above anything else. This is something a geisha must do in order to be successful.

    It struck me as odd that even though no one could have called her a beauty, Mr. Tanaka's eyes were fixed on her like a rag on a hook. (2.78)

    Young Chiyo makes an interesting observation that some geisha aren't pretty. They're simply pretty because of all the makeup, which shows that the allure of the geisha is in the general mystique, not necessarily in the individual attractiveness of the geisha. However, Sayuri actually is pretty, which is how she becomes a top geisha.

    The problem, as I later learned, was that in her geisha days she'd used a kind of white makeup we call "China Clay," made with a base of lead. (4.15)

    This is why Granny's face has a strange appearance. The lead-based makeup damaged it. Geisha will do anything to achieve their perfect appearance. We have a feeling that even if they knew the damage it would cause, they'd still use it to appear beautiful and mysterious.

    The contrast with [Hatsumomo's] friend Korin was like comparing a rock along the roadside with a jewel. (6.55)

    Here again we see an unattractive geisha, and the more attractive of the pair, Hatsumomo, is the more successful one. Looks may not be absolutely necessary for a geisha, but they are a very nice benefit.

    Every young geisha may be proud of her hairstyle at first, but she comes to hate it within three or four days. (14.12)

    The geisha sure look pretty, but Sayuri describes them in a way that starts to seem gross, like how they won't wash their hair for days and days. A geisha's motto might as well be that looks are deceiving.

    "Here's a case where the name and the girl go together. I believe she may be even prettier than you, Mameha!" (17.33)

    To Mameha's credit, she doesn't get jealous. If someone said this to Hatsumomo about Sayuri, she'd be steamed.

    I found angles in my cheeks and around my eyes that I'd never before seen. It may seem odd, but when I realized that the shape of my own face was a surprise to me, I had the sudden insight that nothing in life is ever as simple as we imagine. (23.5)

    This quote foreshadows World War II, when Sayuri's face will change a lot because she doesn't have as much food to eat. That is definitely a time in her life that is far from simple.

    I was dressed in the most formal costume an apprentice wears, a black, five-crested robe and underrobe of red, which is the color of new beginnings. (24.13)

    There is a meaning to everything the geisha puts on her body. To an average onlooker, they just look pretty, but we see here that every garment and accessory has a deeper meaning below the surface.

    Though if you were to see an apprentice and a geisha side by side, their collars would be the last thing you'd notice. The apprentice, with her elaborate, long-sleeved Japanese kimono and dangling obi, would probably make you think of a Japanese doll, whereas the geisha would look simpler, perhaps, but also more womanly. (25.8)

    The apprentice geisha is like an animal ready to mate…which she pretty much is, because of the ritual of mizuage. A fully formed geisha doesn't need to show off as much as an apprentice does. Her reputation—good or bad—is pretty much set.

    "I see angles in your face I've never seen before," [Nobu] said to me. "Don't tell me you're going hungry like everyone else. I'd never expected such a thing of you." (28.53)

    Here is the quote about Sayuri's appearance changing during the war. Count on Nobu to point it out in the most callous way. But it also shows that by the time Sayuri is a mature geisha (in her twenties) her reputation is solidifying. A younger geisha would have a much harder time getting work if her looks faded like this.

  • Sexuality

    Like prostitutes, their lower-class counterparts, geisha are often in the unusual position of knowing whether this or that public figure really does put his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. (Translator's Note.7)

    What makes a geisha "high class" and a prostitute "low class" when they both sell sex? Is it because a prostitute does it more often? Or that a geisha costs more and has more hoops to jump through to get it?

    Satsu had her scratchy bathing dress up around her shoulders and the Sugi boy was playing around with her "Mount Fujis," as the boys called them. (2.2)

    This event early on serves as an introduction to sexuality for young Chiyo, and it's something strange and unfamiliar. It will be strange and unfamiliar to her for her whole life.

    She put a finger between my legs and gave what felt to me like a pinch, in such a way that I cried out. (2.58)

    Speaking of strange and unfamiliar, getting poked by weird old women is definitely both of these. Although Chiyo doesn't quite understand why the woman is checking to see if she's "intact," this event foreshadows to readers that her virginity will be of crucial importance to her becoming a geisha.

    Japanese men, as a rule, feel about a woman's neck and throat the same way that men in the West might feel about a woman's legs. (5.34)

    This quote is an interesting bit of trivia regarding the sexual proclivity of Japanese men, and it also explains why geisha paint themselves the way they do, often leaving a suggestive trail of skin uncovered by white paint on the backs of their necks.

    Despite all these extravagant expenses, [the danna will] continue to pay her usual hourly fee whenever he spends time with her, just as her other customers do. But he's also entitled to certain "privileges." (12.71)

    Here is one difference between a prostitute and a geisha. It appears that a geisha will only take on one "client" of a sexual nature at a time, unlike a prostitute who might have multiple clients in one night.

    "Most of these innocent little girls have no idea how provocative the 'split peach' hairstyle really is! Imagine that you're walking along behind a young geisha, thinking all sorts of naughty thoughts about what you might like to do to her, and then you see on her this split-peach shape, with a big splash of red inside the cleft…and what do you think of?" (14.7)

    This is probably one of the most suggestive images in the book, but if you look at a picture of the actual hairstyle (in our "Best of the Web" section), it doesn't look as sexual as this random man claims it does.

    "Can you imagine looking at the private parts of this girl across the table? […] Probably she's no different from a baby!" (15.23)

    What's creepy is that most of the men at the table probably are imagining Sayuri naked. They don't care how young she is.

    "Every man seated here has at some point his afternoon thought of how much he would enjoy seeing you naked. What do you think of that?" (20.44)

    Here is the Baron talking, proving our point about quote #7. For a geisha, this can be both objectifying and empowering at the same time.

    To press my body against his felt so satisfying, like a meal after a long spell of hunger. (26.15)

    The one time Sayuri has a sexual encounter of her own choosing, it is pleasant, but short-lived, because a geisha must conduct these kinds of affairs in secret, and Sayuri doesn't keep the affair going.

    Somehow I felt like a fifteen-year-old girl again, because the feeling was so strangely reminiscent of Dr. Crab. I even heard myself whimper. (32.86)

    The book often makes Sayuri's sexual encounters as repulsive as possible, as if men bidding to have sex with her wasn't creepy enough. Dr. Crab, who takes her virginity, keeps a vial of her blood. And the Minister, whom Sayuri has sex with to hurt Nobu, literally drools all over her. Ick.

  • Fate and Free Will

    I wasn't born and raised to be a Kyoto geisha. (1.2)

    But sometimes fate takes control. A later quote will recall this quote, one of the earliest memorable ones in the book.

    Something happened to me—one of those trivial things with huge consequences, like losing your step and falling in front of a train. (1.42)

    Chiyo/Sayuri often sees an element of luck in her fate, and very little free will. She doesn't ever think, "If only I had done something differently" because even though her falling over on this day was a trivial thing, it was her fate to do so.

    "The pot is cracked! Look!" (1.79)

    Geisha put a lot of stock into bad omens, and having a cracked pot is a bad omen. Like a cracked pot, Chiyo's family will soon split.

    "You're the year of the monkey. I can tell it just looking at you. What a great deal of water you have! Eight, white; the planet Saturn. And an attractive girl you are. Come closer." (2.54)

    The Chinese zodiac, used by the Japanese geisha, is something that's taken very seriously.

    We lead our lives like water flowing down a hill, going more or less in one direction until we splash into something that forces us to find a new course. (9.2)

    A lot is made about Chiyo being full of water. No, it's not because of any bladder issues, and it isn't simply because her eyes are an icy blue, either. It has to do with her element, which affects her future…if you're superstitious about such a thing. And the geisha are.

    I'm not sure if this will make sense to you, but I felt as though I'd turned around to look in a different direction, so that I no longer faced backward toward the past, but forward toward the future. And now the question confronting me was this: What would that future be? (9.8)

    What would the future be? Unfortunately, the geisha's precious almanac only tells them what days are good days and bad days to try certain actions. It doesn't tell them exactly how to live their lives, so their fates remain uncertain.

    We human beings are only a part of something very much larger. […] We must use whatever methods we can to understand the movement of the universe around us and time our actions so that we are not fighting the currents, but moving with them. (10.98)

    This is a general quote about fate that you could find in almost any book with superstitious characters, but the phrase "fighting the currents" recalls Chiyo's "water" energy. She loves those water metaphors so much, it makes us thirsty like a willow tree after a long drought.

    "We don't become geisha so our lives will be satisfying. We become geisha because we have no other choice." (25.50)

    This quote recalls one of the first lines in the book, about Chiyo not being born into the life of a geisha. No one is. It's a path girls only reach by fate, and for many, it's not a good path.

    "You go around consulting almanacs, saying, 'Oh, I can't walk toward the east today, because my horoscope says it's unlucky!' But then when it's a matter of something affecting your entire lives, you simply look the other way." (25.83)

    Nobu is insulting here, as usual, but he doesn't understand that geisha have no choice over major matters in their lives, so why would they try to change them? They can only take comfort in consulting the almanac and trying to control their fates for the small things in their lives.

    I don't think I'd ever been consciously aware of it, but since the very week she'd run away, I'd carried a belief shrouded somewhere in the back of my mind that the courses of our lives would one day bring us together again. (29.5)

    And Sayuri is wrong with a capital W. She never sees her sister again. This isn't a book with a cheesy ending where the sisters are reunited by some crazy twist of fate. Once again, Sayuri's fate is against her, and she will probably never see her sister again.

  • Competition

    "Could you take the garbage out later?" (3.60)

    The instant Hatsumomo sees Chiyo, she is cruel to her. She does this as a form of psychological warfare, to make Chiyo feel inferior so that Hatsumomo is in a better position to take advantage of her.

    "Maybe you're just too pretty yourself to be able to see it elsewhere." (5.13)

    A sumo says this to Hatsumomo. It's a good quote, but it's also wrong. Hatsumomo definitely sees that Chiyo is pretty, which positions Chiyo as Gion's Next Top Geisha, and Hatsumomo's number 1 rival.

    "Everyone knows how you hate Mameha," Auntie told [Hatsumomo]. "You hate anyone more successful than you." (6.70)

    In case you hadn't guessed by this point, Hatsumomo picks her rivals from people she is either threatened by or jealous of.

    "She can't bear to have rivals," Mameha went on. "That's the reason she treats you as she does." (10.57)

    Chiyo never could even imagine that she would be a rival to the great Hatsumomo, mainly because Hatsumomo makes her feel like garbage. She doesn't have enough self-worth to consider herself a rival.

    Mameha must have made up her mind to use me in seeking her revenge on Hatsumomo. (10.86)

    Mameha and Hatsumomo are like two queens on opposite side of the chessboard, and both use Chiyo/Sayuri as a pawn. To continue the chess metaphor, a pawn is always capable of becoming a queen herself, which Sayuri does.

    "I had no idea what a fine day this would be," [Mother] said. "This morning when I woke up, two useless girls were living in the okiya. Now they'll be fighting it out…and with a couple of the most prominent geisha in Gion ushering them along!" (11.100)

    Mother is thrilled because she knows that the two geisha will work extra hard to best one another, which means more money—and an even bigger cut for her.

    "You'll have to find yourself another little friend," [Hatsumomo] said to me. "After Pumpkin and I have had our talk, she'll know better than to speak a word to you in the future. Won't you, Pumpkin?" (12.52)

    Just as Mameha uses Chiyo as a pawn against Hatsumomo, Hatusmomo uses Pumpkin as her own pawn against Chiyo.

    [Mameha] was relishing the thought of seeing Hatsumomo destroyed. (15.34)

    We later learn that Mameha takes on Chiyo at a request from the Chairman. But she definitely knows an opportunity to demolish her rival when she sees it, and she takes it.

    For one thing, the bidding hadn't been a contest between Dr. Crab and Nobu at all. It had ended up a contest between Dr. Crab and the Baron. (24.3)

    Men compete too, like these men trying to outbid each other for Sayuri's virginity. Men will later compete to be her danna too. Just as Mother knows the value of having two rivals fight for a goal, the geisha use the men's competitive nature to their advantage.

    I'd earned more in the past six months than both Hatsumomo and Pumpkin combined. (27.1)

    Looks like the competition pays off. Unfortunately, poor Pumpkin serves as collateral damage in the war between Hatsumomo and Mameha, which sets her up as a rival to Sayuri, too.

  • Family

    Even if we did survive and Mr. Tanaka adopted us, would my own family cease to exist? (3.2)

    The fragility of Chiyo's family causes her stress and anxiety from a very young age. We barely know her with a stable family because when the book opens, her mom is sick and her dad is basically helpless.

    They hadn't been born into the same family; but Granny had adopted them both. (3.90)

    As our narrator, Sayuri must clarify that "Mother," "Auntie," and "Granny" aren't actually related by blood, but by the unusual geisha rituals that bind them together like a "family."

    To learn in a single moment that both my mother and my father had died and left me, and that my sister too was lost to me forever…at once my mind felt like a broken vase that would not stand. I was lost even within the room around me. (8.63)

    In our section on fate and free will, we mentioned the bad omen of the cracked pot. Here it returns. Sayuri is like the vessel, shattered by the loss of her family. Losing your entire family is an almost impossible ordeal to bear, and it's amazing that Chiyo is able to pull through.

    When two girls are bound together as sisters, they perform a ceremony like a wedding. Afterward they see each other almost as members of the same family, calling each other "Older Sister" and "Younger Sister" just as real family members do. (11.2)

    In addition to Auntie, Mother, and Granny, the geisha have a sorority-like system of having an older mentor and a younger mentee in a "sister" relationship.

    When a man takes a mistress, he doesn't turn around and divorce his wife. (19.21)

    The tragic implication of this is that a geisha will always be a mistress, which means she can never have a real family. She will always be on the fringes of other people's families, or within a family of other geisha that she made.

    It goes without saying that this is why she adopted me. The fee for my mizuage was more than enough to repay all my debts to the okiya. (24.11)

    You might be thinking, oh, that's nice that a geisha is able to build her own family. Many people consider their friends more of a family than the people they're related to by blood. But warm, fuzzy feelings are hard to come by in an okiya. The "family" is often in competition or looking to profit off each other.

    Every day I lived with the Arashino family, I felt myself more in Nobu's debt. (29.1)

    Sayuri lives with another family, not counting the geisha "family," twice: as a child with Mr. Tanaka's family, and as an adult with the Arashino family. Both times, she is only a guest, not a part of the family, and her stay is only temporary.

    The Chairman wanted me out of Gion to keep me out of sight of Nobu, but he certainly wasn't going to marry me; he was already married. (35.5)

    Even though Sayuri tells us flat-out that men don't marry geisha, she never once mentions the Chairman's marital status until now. Does this revelation, even though it isn't unexpected, change your opinion of the Chairman and his relationship with Sayuri?

    As to the question of whether or not I really had given birth to a son of the Chairman's…if I had, I'd certainly be reluctant to talk too much about him, for fear that his identity might become publicly known. […] The best course, I feel, is to say nothing at all; I'm sure you will understand. (35.18)

    As we said, it's tragic that a geisha can never have a family of her own, but it's heavily implied here that she had the Chairman's child. But because she is a geisha, she is forbidden to talk about her own son. Once again, the concept of family is ever elusive for a geisha.