Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha is a historical fiction novel by American author Arthur Golden, published in 1997. The novel, told in first person perspective, tells the story of a fictional geisha working in Kyoto, Japan, before, during and after World War II, and ends with her being relocated to New York City.

Memoirs of a Geisha
First edition
AuthorArthur Golden
CountryUnited States
GenreHistorical fiction novel
PublisherAlfred A. Knopf
Publication date
September 27, 1997
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages448 pp
813/.54 21
LC ClassPS3557.O35926 M45 1997

In 2005, a film version was released.

Plot summaryEdit

In 1929, nine year-old Chiyo Sakamoto and her 15 year-old sister, Satsu, are sold by their father to work within the entertainment districts of Kyoto. They are taken from their home, the coastal fishing village of Yoroido along the Sea of Japan, and travel to Kyoto by train; upon arrival, Chiyo is taken to the Nitta okiya (geisha boarding house) in Gion, whereas Satsu - deemed less attractive and therefore a poor investment - is instead taken to a brothel within Kyoto's pleasure district.

Chiyo is taken inside, and is introduced to Auntie, Mother (Auntie's adoptive older sister and the matriarch of the house) and Granny, their elderly and poor-natured adoptive mother and the okiya's former "mother". Both Auntie and Mother are strict, though Auntie is kinder to Chiyo, whereas Mother is driven by money and business. Chiyo is also introduced to Hatsumomo - the premier geisha of the okiya, its primary earner, and one of the most famous, beautiful and ill-mannered geisha of Gion. Hatsumomo takes an instant disliking to Chiyo, and goes out of her way to torment her. Auntie warns Chiyo against both angering and trusting Hatsumomo, knowing the ill-mannered geisha's true nature very well.

Chiyo begins her "training" at the okiya, which consists of household drudgery, before she is deemed worthy enough and starts her geisha training. Having learnt the location of Satsu from Hatsumomo, upon an errand one day, Chiyo runs off to find her, and discovers her working in the pleasure district. The two conspire to run away and escape. Returning to the okiya, Chiyo discovers Hatsumomo with her boyfriend, Koichi; both Hatsumomo and Chiyo are punished after Chiyo is falsely accused of stealing by the furious Hatsumomo.

Miserable and desperate, Chiyo plans to finally run away from the okiya; however, she is caught when she falls off the roof and breaks her arm. Enraged at her for being a poor investment, Mother stops investing in Chiyo's geisha apprenticeship and returns her to the life of a maid. In a letter, Chiyo learns of her parents' deaths, and that Satsu managed to escape and return to Yoroido, only to run away with the son of a fisherman.

A few years later, a downtrodden Chiyo is given money and a handkerchief in the street by a kind stranger known to Chiyo as the Chairman. She donates the money to a shrine in Gion, praying to become a geisha of sufficient status to entertain the Chairman, and keeps the handkerchief as a memento. Soon afterwards, Pumpkin prepares to make her debut as a maiko, and the "younger sister" of Hatsumomo, whilst Chiyo remains a maid; this is, however, until Mameha, another famous geisha in Gion, persuades a reluctant Mother to reinvest in Chiyo's training, with Mameha acting as Chiyo's mentor and "older sister".

Under Mameha's care, Chiyo becomes a maiko with the given name of Sayuri (meaning "lily"), and is reacquainted with Chairman Iwamura (who appears not to recognise her), his closest friend and business partner Nobu, and a number of other prominent men. As Sayuri gains popularity, Hatsumomo - who has been refused succession of the okiya through adoption by Mother - tries to hurt Sayuri's reputation and career in the hopes of Mother adopting Pumpkin instead, through whom Hatsumomo can run the okiya by proxy.

Mameha devises a plan to orchestrate a bidding war for Sayuri's mizuage (a deflowering "ceremony" for maiko as a step to becoming a full-fledged geisha). The plan is almost ruined when Hatsumomo attempts to spread the rumour of Sayuri no longer being a virgin; however, her attempt fails, and Mameha uses the record-breaking payment for Sayuri's mizuage to cover all of her debts. Mother adopts Sayuri over Pumpkin, ultimately destroying their friendship forever, and Hatsumomo begins a downward spiral into alcoholism before being thrown out of the okiya permanently following the assault of a kabuki actor during a party.

Upon Sayuri's promotion to fully-fledged geishahood, Nobu expresses an interest in becoming Sayuri's danna (patron), but loses to General Tottori; with Japan on the eve of war, Mother decides that a connection to the military is more important to the okiya. In 1944, geisha districts are ordered to close, and with many geisha conscripted to work in the factories, Sayuri desperately asks Nobu for help to avoid being conscripted into factory work. He sends Sayuri far north to live with his old friend, Arashino, a kimono maker, where she stays for much of the war.

At the end of the war, Nobu visits Sayuri, asking that she return to Gion to entertain the new Deputy Minister, Sato, whose aid Nobu desperately needs to rebuild his and the Chairman's business, Iwamura Electric. Sayuri returns to Gion to find Pumpkin working in a new okiya; despite hoping to rekindle their friendship, Pumpkin later sabotages Sayuri's plan to scare Nobu off from proposing to be her danna, as revenge for taking her place in the adoption so many years ago.

A few days after her plan fails, Sayuri is summoned to meet a client at a teahouse. Believing Nobu has called her to discuss the arrangements for becoming her danna, Sayuri is surprised to see the Chairman instead, and confesses that she has worked for years to become close to the Chairman. The Chairman admits that he has always known she was the girl he met on the street, and confesses his feelings for her as well, but felt he owed Nobu - his oldest and closest friend - the chance to be with Sayuri out of kindness. He also admits to having asked Mameha to train Sayuri.

Sayuri peacefully retires from geisha work when the Chairman becomes her danna. It is heavily implied that they have an illegitimate son together. Foreseeing the consequences this could have regarding the inheritance of Iwamura Electric, she relocates to New York City and opens her own small tea house for entertaining Japanese men on business in the United States. Sayuri severs her links to the Nitta okiya and, in effect, Japan. The Chairman remains her danna until his death and the story concludes with a reflection on Sayuri and her life.

References to actual locationsEdit

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. Part of the story is also set in the Amami Islands, and Sayuri narrates the story from her suite in the Waldorf towers in New York City.


After the Japanese edition of the novel 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 if she told him about her life as a geisha, due to the traditional code of silence about their clients. However, Golden listed Iwasaki as a source in his acknowledgments for the novel, causing her to face a serious backlash, to the point of death threats.[1] In his defense, Arthur Golden countered that he had tapes of his conversations with Iwasaki.[2][clarification needed] Eventually, in 2003, Golden's publisher settled with Iwasaki out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.

Iwasaki later went on to write an autobiography, which shows a very different picture of 20th century geisha life than the one shown in Golden's novel.[3] The book was published as Geisha, A Life[4][5] in the US and Geisha of Gion in the UK.

Film versionEdit

In 2005, film director Rob Marshall made a film version of the novel. It stars the Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi as Sayuri, Gong Li as Hatsumomo, and Michelle Yeoh as Mameha; and Japanese actors Ken Watanabe as the Chairman, Suzuka Ohgo as Sayuri's childhood incarnation Chiyo, and Youki Kudoh as the adult Pumpkin.

Filming was primarily done in California, and in some locations in Kyoto, including Kiyomizu-dera and Fushimi Inari-taisha. It was nominated for and won numerous awards, including nominations for six Academy Awards, three of which—Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design—it won.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Richard Lloyd Barry (March 30, 2006). "The Queen and the Geisha". The Times. UK. Archived from the original on November 16, 2006. Retrieved October 23, 2008.
  2. ^ A Geisha Scorned The Rough Guide to Japan: The Rough Guide, by Jan Dodd, Simon Richmond. Published by Rough Guides, 2001. ISBN 1-85828-699-9. Page 889.
  3. ^ Chris Kincaid (May 6, 2015). "The Battle of the Books Memoirs of a Geisha vs Geisha, A Life". Retrieved March 15, 2021.
  4. ^ Geisha, a Life
  5. ^ Tamara Weider (October 10, 2002). Remaking a memoir Archived January 6, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. Boston Phoenix. Accessed 2012-12-12.


  •   Quotations related to Memoirs of a Geisha at Wikiquote
  • McAlpin, Heller. "Night Butterflies; Memoirs of a Geisha". Los Angeles Times, November 30, 1997. Pg. 8.
  • Dalby, Liza. "Geisha". 1983. pp. 54–64 (prostitution); pp. 109–112 ("deflowering" and mizu-age).
  • Iwasaki, Mineko. Geisha; A Life. Simon and Schuster, 2003,

+Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha. G.K. Hall, 1999.