Study Guide

Memoirs of a Geisha Tradition and Customs

By Arthur Golden

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.