Memoirs of a Geisha

During the semester, I did not have as much time to read as I would have liked. I reread one of my favorite stories, Memoirs of a Geisha, recently and was reminded of why I enjoy this book.

The story is told from first person point-of-view from an older geisha. She begins the story when is a just a young girl in Japan during the Depression. Chiyo Sakamoto is a poor girl from a fishing village, but captures the attention of a man for her unusual eyes, which are a blue-gray color. She and her sister are taken from their home and Chiyo is sold to an okiya (house where geisha live) in a prominent area of Kyoto. The story is based on background information provided by retired geisha, Mineko Iwasaki, but Chiyo’s character is fictional. Without giving too much away, she becomes a maid before she begins her journey to being a geisha. Chiyo is in awe of the beauty of the geishas and the respect they are given, but the path is very difficult.

I enjoyed the novel because it read at a leisurely pace without being slow. In the beginning of the story, Chiyo is just a child. The narrative highlights her curiosities at that age and her emotions as she is taken from her home. It also reflects her maturity as she gets older and encounters different experiences. Reading the story made me feel like I was following Chiyo through her life. A good book will pull in its readers until they feel every emotion and that was my experience with this one. When there were moments of heartbreak, it hurt me to read of her tears and devastation. The story was very detailed, but well-balanced with dialogue. Many different characters are introduced throughout the story, but it was not confusing because there was a clear distinction between them. Each character had a strong impact on Chiyo and I could feel that through their descriptions.

Prior to reading this book, I had heard of geishas and only knew what they looked like. I did not know what they did, but there was a negative association between geishas and prostitutes. Geishas are traditional Japanese entertainers. They entertain men through song, dance, conversation and serve tea as hostesses. Young girls spent years training and perfecting their skills that would make them successful geishas. They went to schools that taught dance, musical instruments, and other skills. It was important for them to be successful because they were expected to repay their okiyas back for the money spent on their food, lodging, kimono, and other tools needed.

There is a great deal of effort and time that is required for being a geisha and not every woman can do this successfully. It is also important to note that some people would confuse geishas with prostitutes. The difference is that geisha’s wear their sash tied in the back, but the prostitutes tied theirs in the front. There are still some geishas practicing in Japan, but they are mostly in the company of the higher social class.

This book is controversial because Iwasaki sued Arthur Golden after the book’s release. According to her, he was supposed to keep her identity a secret and revealed parts of her life that were supposed to remain personal. She felt that he did not accurately portray her life and shamed the geisha profession. Iwasaki published her own book in 2002 titled, Geisha: A Life, to tell her story in her own words.

Whether the story is completely true or not, it is still a very good story that I can always come back to when I want something to read. This is also an award-winning movie.

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