Memoirs of a Geisha
By Arthur Golden
Don’t be confused by the title. The main character Chiyo (also known as Sayuri) is not a real geisha, not a real person even. This is historical fiction, not a real memoir. Nevertheless, the history is here, exquisitely told.
At age 9, Chiyo was sold by her father and plucked from a remote fishing village to a geisha house (okiya) in western Japan. There she is subjected to intense and often brutal training to become a Japanese geisha. Her housing and training as well as the initial costs of her being purchased are expenses that she will someday have to repay – expenses that continue to accrue – thus enslaving her. She must prove herself worthy of that repayment and only her work as a successful geisha would suffice. If she fails, she will be a maid forevermore – and then only if she is not first turned out on the streets.
Success means an exhausting life as an entertainer in tea houses, at corporate functions, and such – in short, as playthings of the rich. Chiyo does well, under the tutelage of Mameha, one of the most successful geisha in Kyoto. Chiyo becomes Mameha’s “younger sister” and when she transitions from apprentice to geisha she is given the name of Sayuri.
Sayuri continues her geisha duties while remaining in the okiya and the okiya does well financially by receiving a hefty percentage of Sayuri’s income.
However, Sayuri’s story is one of unrequited love. Her heart belongs to the Chairman (a wealthy businessman), a relationship that is complicated by other relationships and entanglements. (Miss Shapin would love this story!)
After 18 years, things change. Eighteen? This book is written by a student of Japanese history and culture, not a descendant. He writes about the dependence of geisha upon an almanac, (a calendar of auspicious days) which geisha consult for their daily activities. Perhaps Chai is also present.
This has been a journey to another time and place, a culture so different from what I know. Slavery in a land of enchantment, and I was mesmerized.