Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
In his book, “Memoirs of a Geisha”, Arthur Golden, chronologically pinnacles a tale about women’s independence, as well as how Late 19th and Early 20th Century Japanese women were perceived. He discusses sexism, and hints at how it relates to the ingenuity of a woman At first glance, the book appears to be an autobiography, written in first person; the story of a Japanese woman forced to become a geisha in the years preceding the Second World War Golden completed his masters in Japanese history from Columbia University, as well as some time dedicated to Beijing University for research among the following; He indulged into Japanese lifestyle, learning Mandarin, and acquiring an occupation in Japan. It arises as palpable that the above-mentioned was predominately used as his base, and or background for writing the book. Additionally, Golden’s research for the book included a lot of background reading, including Liza Dalby’s “Geisha”, a book written by the only American woman to become a geisha. He also interviewed Mineko Iwasaki, a woman who was one of the foremost geishas in Japan in the 1960s and 70s. As his research is apparent, Golden borrows heavily from Iwasaki’s life to create a narrative that is much more than simply an account of the traditions and rituals behind geisha training. He provides readers with a coming-of-age story that is, at once, both relatable to the hardships and ordeals attributed towards women of the west; much the same of slave women (captured Black women brought to the west), white women, and even Native American women. Published in 1997, “Memoirs of a Geisha” was an instant success, selling over 4 million copies worldwide. Due to accredited success, recognition, and overall enjoyment of the book, it was later recreated through film version in 2005
Very early on in the book, Golden effectively establishes the patriarchal nature of Japanese society, where women had to be subservient, lady like, and respectful, especially towards their male counterparts. This in turn created an image of women as distractions and liabilities, in which compares to both 19th and 20th century American society and their depiction as facets of a “…exclusively domestic realm of home, family and childrearing.”(Dubois & Dumenil 156). Golden’s protagonist, a young girl named Chiyo who grows up in a fishing village, narrates an example of this patriarchy. Japanese men did not like women to have anything to do with fishing. They sensed it as unladylike. One man within Chiyo’s village, Mr. Yamamura, found his daughter playing in side of his boat with her toys, and upon finding her, “… he beat her with a stick and then washed out the boat with sake and lye so strong it bleached streaks of coloring from the wood.” (Golden 15) He also during latter parts of the day had a priest within the village to bless it, and relieve the boat of its impurities, hence his innocent daughter. Soon after, Chiyo is shadowed by an older man, seemingly unbeknownst to her four year old self, Mr Tanaka, who shows great interest, admiration, and engrossment, chiefly about her beautiful eyes hints at sexism, and tradition towards her premature disposition when he describes how Japanese Geisha’s acquire the essence of great beauty. This is also unbeknownst to her as she describes the fact that as Mr. Tanaka was chronicling this to her, yet even when” he said it to me, before. I’d ever heard of such a thing as a Geisha, I could almost believe it was true. (Golden, 16) He therefore is inflicting male preference, ideologies, and perspective upon her as to what a woman should be like. Important to note that their aforementioned conversation was about Chiyo swallowing her blood amidst hurting herself, in which Tanaka deemed suitable. Additionally the location of where she hurt herself was at Seafood dock surrounded by fishermen and boats*.
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Later, Chiyo, and her sister Satsu is sold by her father to Mr. Tanaka, who sells her to a geisha house, indicating that she had no choice in the matter due to a poor father, and bed- riddened mother close to death. Women were considered commodities who could be sold off to meet household expenses, but in turn seen as liabilities, much like when the fisherman bleached his boat where his daughter played. The lack of choice is further driven home by Chiyo’s geisha training, where she is taught to be quiet, subservient, and do everything that would attract a man to her. Moreover, her named was changed to Sayuri, in which was mandatory within the Geisha field. That signifies that you are not self anymore and that you are upholding a new life. It also hints at enslavement, and superiority among Geishas, and evokes them to lose all dignity, and value hence a new demeaning lifestyle. She was instructed to keep her appearances, mannerisms, and attitudes within a beauty bracket. She was advised from her sister shadower, Mameha that she was ready to be a Geisha once she has been able to “stop a man in his tracks, just by flicking your eyes at him (Golden, 159).
She was even prompted to hide her true self from her doctor once Mameha advised her that she should want her “doctor to see you looking as innocent as possible. Lie back and try to look weak” (Golden, 215). this undoubtedly puts the Doctor in a role of dominance. Ultimately, she had to undergo a mizuage ceremony, where she loses her virginity to become a full geisha. The practice, very common in Japan before the 1960s, was a way of enforcing the domination of men, who could simply pay money and claim a woman’s virginity. In Golden’s book, it is shown that Chiyo had no say in whom she would lose her virginity to, and that the profits went to the okiyo, or geisha house, to pay for the debt Chiyo owed for her extensive geisha training. Chiyo was once used to independence, cooking and cleaning for herself and her mother, and was know subjugated to helplessness, sexism, misogyny and prejudice.
Another interesting point is the frequent use of water as a literary tool throughout the book, to imply sexuality. The book constantly points out that Sayuri is an individual who “has a great deal of water” in her personality (Golden 43). Water, in Japanese culture, is used to connote sexuality in the case of prostitutes (Akita 7). Geishas, who were unable to get a Danna, or a patron, often had to resort to prostitution. This is shown in the story of Pumpkin, a character in the book, who is forced into prostitution during the war, to make ends meet.
Golden’s book reinforces certain stereotypes about the geishas, in which he does in order to make the book more palatable to his target, western, and Japanese audiences. This book closely relates to the, norms, events and occurrences of objectification, and or enslavement regarding women amongst American times, notwithstanding an interesting and accurate account of patriarchal norms in Japan in pre-WWII era. Black women and men were sold to the highest bidder, and often lost their virginity to white men, and slave masters, much like Chiyo experienced. Slaves had to change their names from names of meaning, tradition, and honor to western first names, and slave owners last names given from someone of higher authority, much like the Mameha character who instructed Chiyo that Sayuri was her new name.
Equally Native American women were independent and even leaders during their tenure, especially through the matrilineal system that gave them sovereignty amidst their regions. Native American women practiced division of labor, equally sharing tasks with men, in which “consolidated women’s positions in their land” ((Dubois & Dumenil 10).. However once enslavement, and eradication occurred, women’s free practice of ingenuity, and independence were limited, and eventually stopped through dominance of the British in which held views of male dominance, superiority, and misogyny, also much like,. Japanese, and American patriarchy. Other historians and members within History, Arts, Sociology, and Psychology fields could use this to relay studies, and education. Other historians in other sectors can use this book to shed light on women’s plight and disparagement, as well as overall slavery. It should be pointed out that much has not changed today through means of glass ceilings, glass walls, unequal pay for women, and disrespect and belittlement against women, comparable to president Donald Trump’s, and Harvey Weinstein’s misogynistic insignia as an example.
I was particularly affected by the fact that Chiyo had no control over her future, or her body. The fact that she was beautiful, and had unique gray eyes, decided that she would become a commodity in the eyes of her family and countrymen. I would recommend this book to those who wish to get an insight into the role of women in Japanese society, and the oppression they had to face at the hands of men, as well as enslavement, and how this closely relates to other civilizations, and races of women throughout history.
- Akita, Kimiko. “Orientalism and the Binary of Fact and Fiction in Memoirs of a Geisha.” Global Media Journal 5.9 (2006): 1-11.
- Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a geisha: a novel. Vintage, 2005.
- Dubois, Ellen Carol, and Lynn Dumenil. Through Womens Eyes: an American History with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2016.