Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden


There are very few books and fewer writers who can tell you a story in multiple layers, which run in parallel throughout the book. And keep you educated and entertained along the storyline. These are some of the layers that I could discover through my reading of Memoirs of a Geisha:

1. The story of a little girl from a small village who is sold by her father. Betrayed by someone who she thought is going to adopt her. Serves as a maid in an Okiya (a place where Geisha’s live), discovering that her sister played a game with her years later. Faces the wrath of a senior geisha who sees her as a threat. Meeting with a man that changes her perspective on life, gives her an objective in life. Becomes an object of desire for the most part of rest of her life. Is suddenly helped by a successful geisha to become one. Learns the tricks of the trade, gets traded by the man who she desired, who wanted to give her to his friend for saving his business. Finally, she does get the man she wanted and shifts from Japan to America.

2. World of Geishas: (a parallel of Devadasis in India), literally means the artist or the entertainer. The way the Okiyas trained, nurtured, owned and billed the Geishas. A whole network of people who bring eligible little girls from various parts to Geisha districts. The retired Geishas running the houses, accounting for everything, ensuring that their old age is well taken care of. The life of geishas, their training, their apprenticeship, their rituals, their Kimonos, their hairstyles. Their politics, their superstitions, consulting fortune tellers for every move, their hierarchy, their tricks, and games. Their psychology, their understanding of human psychology. And their entertainment styles and storytelling techniques.

3. Japan in the early twentieth century: the wooden houses, the traditional tea houses and their place in the social life of a Japanese. Their musical instruments, sake, the culture, the social rituals, addressing everyone with a suffix ‘San’

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

4. Japan during the world war: how the fortunes of people and geishas in particular changed. How everyone lived in the fear of death, how the treasured items were traded for food. How everyone was forced to work in factories that produced material for war and coming back to normal life after the war.

5. The culture of Kimonos: Never knew that Kimonos like our saris comes in one single size. And has to be custom worn for every wearer according to their size and shape. There are many Kimonos described in detail throughout the book Memoirs of a Geisha. And at times it seems that each Kimono has a story written on it. The Obi, the band around the waist on top of the Kimono, is apparently a huge piece of cloth and women usually need help to wear it. The ownership of Kimonos determined the status of a lady or the Okiya. Some of the Geishas could not leave their Okiya only because they did not have enough Kimonos and had to depend on the collection that their Okiya had. I definitely want to see a Japanese girl wearing a Kimono now, especially how they tie the Obi.

6. A story of Human Emotions and relations, where you live with people you know you can not trust. But have no choice but to live with them. How the economy and your economic conditions let you take most of the decisions in life which you may otherwise never take? How our destinies are interwoven with those around us and at times whom we seemingly do not even know?

All in all a very interesting read. Now I know Japan a lot more. Just the way ‘Angels and Demons’ almost introduced me to Italy. Time to visit these places I guess.

Buy this book – Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden at Amazon India.

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  1. It literally means a “person of art”. It has been a profession that has endured and blossomed with centuries of tradition in Japan.

    Most people, who are new to the concept, either think it means a “prostitute” because some actual prostitutes call themselves that, or they have read Memoirs of a Geisha, which gives a much better albeit a sexually-charged-profession-based-account of the whole thing.

    That the profession has a sexual aspect is undeniable, but at worst, a Geisha is similar to a high-class callgirl, or a mistress as the blue blooded regalities will have it, and this too is rather optional. It is (or at least used to be) relatively common for a Geisha to become a mistress to a rich man in order to pay back her dues.

    But first and foremost, being a Geisha is about being perfection, in looks, manners and education. Their actual job consists of providing entertainment and creating a pleasant atmosphere at Geisha parties or so they can be called. This was in the past, Geisha parties were nothing special, but somewhere along the way, it turned from mainstream entertainment into what it is now.

    Geisha trainees start at a very young age : they enter a Geisha house and are called tamago (egg). They get a very intensive education in classical Japanese poetry, music (especially the koto) and dance, as well as a broad general education (mainly aimed at improving conversational skills). At the age of 17, they are elevated to the level of a ‘Maiko’, not a full Geisha yet, but allowed to attend the parties and work partially. After they have become Geishas, they start to pay back the Geisha house for their education and equipment (a good kimono costs a fortune).

    So eventually it is all sartorial you see…


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