Study Guide

Memoirs of a Geisha Themes

  • Identity

    Most people wear makeup to either enhance, change, or hide their looks. That's the purpose of makeup, whether you're watching makeup tutorials on YouTube to transform yourself or just putting on a little guyliner before going out on a Friday night.

    But the geisha in Memoirs of a Geisha take makeup to an entirely different level. A geisha putting on makeup is like Sailor Moon transforming, except it takes hours. When she does it, she assumes a brand new identity. Her makeup is almost impenetrable, like a shield. Who is this woman underneath all that makeup? You may never know.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How would you describe Sayuri? Does she act the same in and out of geisha makeup? Does becoming a geisha change Chiyo?
    2. Is Hatsumomo as terrible as Sayuri makes her out to be? How would her character be different if this book were her memoirs instead?
    3. Sayuri didn't choose to be a geisha, but how does she feels about being a geisha at the end of the book?
    4. Who would Chiyo be if she never became Sayuri, a geisha?

    Chew on This

    Geisha are super-secretive about their identities, but this secrecy puts up a wall between them and others.

    With this book being Sayuri's memoirs, she always tries to portray herself in a positive light.

  • Coming of Age

    An alternate title for Memoirs of a Geisha would be Memoirs of a Maiko or, in English, Memoirs of Being an Apprentice Geisha. The vast majority of the book takes place on Chiyo's journey to becoming a geisha—going to school, taking classes in music and dance, and trying to find her place in the social structure of her town.

    It's something we can all relate to…except for the whole "geisha" part.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. What are the most significant moments in Chiyo/Sayuri's coming of age story?
    2. When do you think Sayuri officially becomes an adult? Or is she unable to fully mature, being trapped in geisha culture?
    3. Are the geisha coming-of-age rituals similar to anything that happens in non-geisha society?
    4. Does Sayuri mature fast as a geisha? Or is her growth stunted by living as a geisha?

    Chew on This

    Although rituals like the mizuage seem unusual or abusive to outside cultures, for Sayuri, it is a normal part of growing up.

    All of Sayuri's growth milestones—like first dance or first kiss—come within the context of being a geisha. She has no outside life.

  • Tradition and Customs

    If this book were called Memoirs of a Barista or Memoirs of a Cubicle Worker it wouldn't have been quite the sensation that it was. One of the reasons Memoirs of a Geisha was so popular when it came out is because it opened a window into the super-secret world of the geisha. Geisha weren't on AOL back then (1997 was a simpler time) revealing all their secrets, so for many people, this book served as an introduction to their unique customs.

    Questions About Tradition and Customs

    1. What are the most interesting geisha traditions to you? What rituals do you find the most strange or unusual?
    2. What makes the geisha stand out in Japanese culture?
    3. Do geisha remind you of any other sort of society, secret or otherwise?
    4. Why are readers so fascinated with the secretive world of the geisha?

    Chew on This

    Geisha keep their rituals and traditions a secret because the mystique is a major part of their image. Without it, they would not be as popular. Geisha would not exist without mystery.

    To a Westerner, Japan in the 1930s was an isolated nation with many unusual customs. The geisha are even more isolated, and therefore even stranger.

  • Appearances

    What do you wear when you go to work or to school? Do you dress for style or for comfort? Some wear jeans and a t-shirt wherever they go. Some people must dress more formal for work, wearing a powersuit and heels—and if you're like Hillary Clinton, you have one in every color of the rainbow.

    But if you're a geisha, you don't just roll off your mat and get dressed in the morning. Getting ready is a ritual. A geisha's outfit is 99.9% style and .1% comfort. Kimono look soft and comfy, yes, but they're heavy as heck and hard to walk in. Geisha may get to sleep until noon, but they have to be on at all times.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. If you were to make a YouTube video showing how a geisha gets ready, what would you make sure to include?
    2. The three main parts of a geisha's appearance are the hair, the makeup, and the kimono. What is the significance of each part of her appearance? How do these parts of her appearance change as she matures from apprentice to full geisha?
    3. Why do people find Sayuri so striking? How does she benefit from her alluring appearance?

    Chew on This

    The geisha's meticulously crafted appearance is like a mask—a full-body mask.

    Because a geisha looks perfect on the outside, many men believe she is perfect, but beneath the makeup, she is far from perfect. All the geisha have their flaws.

  • Sexuality

    "A geisha is not technically a prostitute. Here is a useful rule: Anyone who is not technically a prostitute is a prostitute." That's Roger Ebert, summing up the role of a geisha for the film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha. We couldn't have said it better ourselves, so we won't try.

    Geisha act like their job is to play guitar, dance, and pour sake, but these girls aren't selling tea in the teahouse. Here's the real T (i.e., the truth): they're selling sex. Sex sells, even in Kyoto in the 1930s.

    Questions About Sexuality

    1. So, are geisha like prostitutes? What is the difference between the geisha and the prostitutes in the book?
    2. What parts of a geisha's rituals are sexual in nature? Why is sexuality such a major component in a geisha's life?
    3. Why aren't geisha allowed to have sex lives outside the okiya?
    4. Does Sayuri ever take control of her own sexuality? When? What are the results?

    Chew on This

    A geisha is basically a commodity to be bought and sold for entertainment, and sex factors into her currency.

    A geisha's value lies in restricting her sexuality and offering it to only a few men. With too much supply there wouldn't be high demand.

  • Fate and Free Will

    Memoirs of a Geisha spends a lot of time talking about ritual. And there's a good reason for that: the life of a geisha is super-ritualized, with hours spent putting on makeup, doing hair, and wrapping themselves in glorious silk kimono. But we can't forget one important part of a geisha's morning—well, afternoon, since they sleep until noon—routine: checking their horoscopes.

    Geisha are a superstitious lot. Maybe because they feel like they got into the profession by a cruel twist of fate, they always want to take a guess as to where fate will lead them. As a result, they put great stock in their almanac.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Why are geisha superstitious? Do you think their fortunes are accurate or inaccurate?
    2. What do other characters, like Nobu, think of the geisha's superstitions?
    3. Have you consulted a Chinese almanac? What does it say about your day? Is it accurate or inaccurate?

    Chew on This

    Whether it's fate or not, Chiyo/Sayuri has no free will in geisha culture. Every major life decision is made for her.

    Because she is told from an early age that she is like "water," Chiyo/Sayuri believes she can influence her life's direction, but she cannot fully control it.

  • Competition

    When Americans think of Japan and competition, they probably think of sumo wrestling, major league gaming, or those crazy obstacles courses that inspired Wipeout and American Ninja Warrior. They probably don't think of geisha fighting and backstabbing in the okiyas of Gion.

    But Memoirs of a Geisha shows us that a geisha house is like a sorority, with a house mother, pledges, and the most important geisha—or the ones who think they're the most important—fighting to be the HGIC: head geisha in charge.

    Questions About Competition

    1. Why does Hatsumomo want Chiyo out of the okiya?
    2. Why are Mameha and Hatsumomo rivals?
    3. Which men engage in a bidding war for Sayuri's mizuage? Why are they willing to pay such a high amount for it? Who bows out of the bidding war, and why?
    4. In one memorable scene, Mameha and Sayuri attend a sumo match. How is being a geisha like sumo wrestling? How does Mameha use sumo tactics to her advantage in her competition with Hatsumomo?

    Chew on This

    Because all the geisha are in one district and the clients are limited, they must be very competitive in order to get as much business as possible.

    Both Hatsumomo and Pumpkin feel like they are competing with Sayuri because they are jealous of her. Hatsumomo is jealous of her looks, and Pumpkin is jealous of her success.

  • Family

    Geisha are masters at singing, dancing, and playing traditional Japanese music with the shamisen guitar or the tzuzumi drum. But we have to wonder if they ever put down the hand drum and pick up the disco ball to bust out a little Sister Sledge.

    After all, Memoirs of a Geisha shows us that the hierarchy of geisha society is like a family—with mothers and daughters and sisters. We can picture them all singing, "We are family. We've got all our geisha with us." Okay, maybe not at the teahouse, but they might bust a move at home with their sister geisha.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why do geisha use terms like "mother" and "sister" to describe their hierarchical structure?
    2. Does Sayuri feel like her geisha family is her real family?
    3. How does Sayuri feel about never seeing her family again? How is she able to make peace with the loss of her entire family? Do you ever think she'll see her sister again?

    Chew on This

    Geisha do their best to form a family unit because they no longer have contact with their real family. If they had a family, they wouldn't be geisha.

    Once Chiyo leaves her family, no character in the book has a real family. All the geisha are without a family, and the men live lives separate from their families.