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Memoirs of a Geisha  
First edition cover
Author Arthur Golden
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Historical novel
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date September 23, 1997
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 448 pp (hardcover edition)
ISBN ISBN 0-375-40011-7 (hardcover edition)
OCLC Number 37689141
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 21
LC Classification PS3557.O35926 M45 1997

Memoirs of a Geisha is a novel by Arthur Golden, published in 1997. The novel, told in first person perspective, tells the fictional story of a geisha working in Kyoto, Japan, before and after World War II.


Plot summary

The novel is narrated from the point of view of Sayuri Nitta, a retired geisha in her 70s, living in the Waldorf Towers in New York City. She is interviewed by Jakob Haarhuis, a professor at New York University. Professor Haarhuis is credited as the story's translator, although he is a fictional character himself. (This is apparently a reference to the fact that Golden interviewed a retired geisha as part of his research for the novel.) The story is told in flashback format with continuous references to the time between Sayuri's career and the time she is being interviewed. She also periodically explains different aspects of geisha life.

Sayuri recalls her early childhood as Chiyo Sakamoto, a young girl growing up in a poor fishing village. Along with her older sister Satsu, she is sold into a life of servitude by her elderly father and dying mother when she is nine years old. Satsu is sold to a brothel, while Chiyo is acquired by the unsympathetic proprietress of the Nitta okiya, or geisha house, whom she addresses as "Mother". She befriends Mother's sister ("Auntie") and another young girl in the house, Pumpkin, but also earns the jealous ire of the head geisha of the house, Hatsumomo.

Hatsumomo, envious of Sayuri's beauty, sets out to make her life miserable. Chiyo comes to the okiya with a debt over her head, as she is responsible for repaying the okiya for her own purchase price. Hatsumomo adds to this debt by forcing Chiyo to destroy an expensive kimono owned by Mameha, Hatsumomo's rival. She also accuses Chiyo of stealing an obi brooch, and Mother, taking Hatsumomo's word over Chiyo's, adds the cost to her debt.

Chiyo finds Satsu and the two work out a plan to run away together. Chiyo fails and is injured when she falls off a roof, while Satsu manages to escape, never to be heard from again. Mother adds Chiyo's doctor bills to her debt and halts her geisha training, since investing in a girl who will run away does not make sense. Chiyo is henceforth destined for a life of servitude to the okiya as a maid.

One day while crying in the street, the young Chiyo is noticed by a passerby, Chairman Ken Iwamura, who gives her his handkerchief with some money to buy an iced snow-cone. Inspired by his act of kindness and awed by the beautiful geisha in his company, Chiyo resolves to become a geisha herself so that she may one day become a part of the Chairman's life.

Early in her teenage years, Mameha, one of the top geisha in Kyoto at the time, convinces Mother to continue Chiyo's training as a geisha. Chiyo becomes the "little sister" of Mameha. Under Mameha's tutelage, the girl Chiyo becomes the apprentice geisha Sayuri. Hatsumomo uses her considerable influence to attempt to sabotage Sayuri's career, and at first it appears as though she will be successful.

Mameha devises a plan to sell Sayuri's mizuage, or virginity, for a high price, thereby freeing Sayuri from debt. Her plan centers around a man, Nobu Toshikazu, who happens to be President of the company owned by the Chairman, the very object of Sayuri's affection. By feigning affection for Nobu, whom Hatsumomo finds repulsive, Sayuri is allowed some freedom from Hatsumomo's terror. However, Nobu takes her affection seriously, and reciprocates, creating a conflict within Sayuri. Nobu is close friends with the Chairman, and his desire for Sayuri effectively eliminates any chance at happiness as the Chairman's mistress. Further complicating matters is the fact that the Chairman appears not to recognize Sayuri, and although he treats her with kindness, he pays her little extra attention.

Meanwhile, her growing success impacts the careers and lives of Hatsumomo and her "little sister" Pumpkin. Hatsumomo tries to sabotage Sayuri's career, but her bitterness and jealousy ends up destroying her own. When Sayuri's virginity is sold for a record high price, she is able to pay off her debt to the okiya. Rather than Pumpkin, Sayuri is selected by Mother as the heir of the okiya, earning the name Nitta Sayuri and causing Pumpkin to despair.

Her successful career is cut short by the outbreak of World War II, but Sayuri's safety is ensured by Nobu, who sends her to a different town to live with his friend's family. Nonetheless, Sayuri and those close to her must endure a life of hard labor. After the end of the war, Nobu visits Sayuri and asks that she return to Gion to help entertain Deputy Minister Sato, who can help to restart the Chairman and Nobu's company that was all but destroyed during the war. Nobu also tells Sayuri that once Iwamura Electric's future is ensured, he will become Sayuri's danna (patron). This distresses Sayuri, but she agrees to help due to her feeling of debt toward Nobu.

Once returned to Gion, Sayuri enlists the help of Mameha and Pumpkin to entertain the Deputy Minister. The three women become geisha once more, and Sayuri reunites with the Chairman through these entertainment gatherings. Eventually, Nobu tells Sayuri that the time has come for him to become her danna and Sayuri despairs. On a weekend trip to Amami Islands with Iwamura Electric, Sayuri devises a plan to humiliate herself with the Deputy Minister in front of Nobu, thereby ending any affections Nobu has for her and freeing herself to be with the Chairman. She arranges for Pumpkin to bring Nobu by an abandoned theater at a predetermined time, and "stumble" upon Sayuri and the Minister. Pumpkin still harbors resentment towards Sayuri's success and adoption, and has seen the way Sayuri looks at the Chairman, so she brings the Chairman to the theater instead of Nobu. Humiliated, Sayuri believes that her dream of being with the Chairman is lost forever.

Three days after her return from Amami, Sayuri receives a call to meet with Iwamura Electric. She is saddened as she anticipates meeting Nobu and discussing his patronage, but is surprised when the Chairman shows up rather than Nobu. The Chairman finally reveals to her that he knows she is Chiyo, and that he was responsible for sending Mameha to her so that she may become a geisha. The Chairman wonders aloud if perhaps Sayuri "owed" something to the Minister before revealing that Pumpkin admitted Sayuri asked her to bring Nobu to the theater. Sayuri admits to having personal reasons for what she did on Amami.

The Chairman expands on his feelings of debt toward and friendship with Nobu, and how he was not able to take away the woman his friend so cherished. When he learned that Sayuri's intention was for Nobu to see her with the Minister, he decided to tell Nobu what he had seen. The Chairman tells Sayuri that Nobu has given her up for good.

Sayuri confesses her love for the Chairman, which she has been harboring for more than 15 years. The Chairman kisses her, her first true kiss.

The story ends with Sayuri recounting her subsequent life as the Chairman's mistress. In order to avoid further hurting Nobu, Sayuri agrees to retire as a geisha of Gion. She intimates that she has a son with the Chairman, and moves with her boy to New York City in order to avoid complications regarding inheritance of Iwamura Electric. The story concludes with a reflection on her life in New York and the important people in her life.

References to actual locations

Much of the novel is set in the popular geisha district of Gion in Kyoto, and contains references to actual places frequented by geisha and their patrons, such as the Ichiriki Ochaya.


After the Japanese edition of Memoirs of a Geisha was published, Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he had interviewed for background information while writing the novel. The plaintiff asserted that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity, due to the traditional code of silence about their clients, if she told him about her life as a geisha. However, Golden listed Iwasaki as a source in his acknowledgments for the novel, causing her to face a serious backlash. She even received death threats.[1] In his behalf, Arthur Golden countered that he had tapes of his conversations with Iwasaki.[2] Eventually, in 2003, Golden's publisher settled with Iwasaki out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.

Iwasaki later went on to write her own autobiography, which shows a very different picture of twentieth-century geisha than the one shown in Golden's novel. The book was published as Geisha, a Life in the U.S. and Geisha of Gion in the UK.

Notes on facts

Mizuage today is not, as the novel portrays it, the auctioning off of an apprentice geisha's virginity. It is simply a ceremony involving a haircut and a dinner party that signifies the coming of age of a geisha, completing her transition from apprentice geisha (maiko) to a full-fledged one (geiko). The financial arrangement was done until the 1950s, but it is no longer done so today.[3]

See also


  1. ^ Barry, Richard Lloyd (2006-03-30). "The Queen and the Geisha". Times Online. Retrieved 2008-10-23. 
  2. ^ A Geisha Scorned The Rough Guide to Japan: The Rough Guide, by Jan Dodd, Simon Richmond. Published by Rough Guides, 2001. ISBN 1858286999. Page 889.
  3. ^ Reynolds, Wayne; Gallagher, John (2003). Geisha : A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance and Art. PRC Publishing. ISBN 1-85648-697-4.  page 135


  • McAlpin, Heller. "Night Butterflies; Memoirs of a Geisha". Los Angeles Times, 30 November 1997. Pg. 8.
  • Dalby, Liza. "Geisha". 1983. Pp. 54-64 (prostitution); pp. 109-112 ("deflowering" and mizu-age).


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

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