Arthur Golden (1998) Memoirs of a Geisha.
I’d already read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. Perhaps I didn’t appreciate in the way I should the first time. A few things I remembered: it was set in Japan, and it was seemingly a memoir about a Geisha. The sort of information that even the outgoing President of the United States would be able to pick up from flashcards, or the cover of the novel when prompted. Perhaps he would recognise that Japan wasn’t on his list of ‘shitty countries’ (that tend to be African) or on his axis of evil favoured by George W Bush. But the moron’s moron might confuse Japan with another country he was having a trade war with in the same way he had to be reminded what happened at Pearl Harbour.
Memoirs of a Geisha uses as a framing device a historian visiting an elderly Japanese woman, Sayuri, who has stayed in the Waldorf Tower in New York since 1956. In this way history becomes her-story. She asks him to write about her memories of Japan from her birth in 1920, through her training to be an apprentice Geisha girl in the hungry thirties of Kyoto. Her graduation, the selling of her virginity to the highest bidder which set a record in Japan. This allowed her to pay off all her debts before she was sixteen (although she claimed, modestly, her mentor Mameha’s virginity had sold for more in relative terms). The increasing militarisation of Kyoto. And the war years of deprivation, when the Geisha schools and tea houses were shut. Geisha girls were sent to work in factories. How the most celebrated of Kyoto’s Geisha’s elite scrambled to survive. The loss of the war, which brought the American’s, who didn’t rape and kill, as Sayuri supposed they would, but were rather kind, flinging sweets to children (and detonating atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki which historians, and novelists, can contrast with Japanese troops’ attrocities in the annexation of Korea, the mass rape of ‘comfort girls’ and the genocidal Rape of Manchuria, but that’s another story or stories). So here we have post-feudal Japan from 1920 to1950 before it became one of the richest nations in the world around the 1980s, to be eclipsed by its rival China (which will soon eclipse America).
In terms of emotional plotting, it’s much simpler. It’s the tale of Cinderella. An older man, the Chairman, is kind to her when she is at her lowest, and gives her money to buy a sweet. He becomes the prince of her dreams, but Geisha girls don’t marry, although they did –or do—become paid consorts to the very rich. Prince Charming may have a wife, and a Geisha as consort and lover.
Sayuri tells us there were over 800 Geisha houses in Gion when she began her training, and now there was less than sixty. The gei in geisha > means art. Her elder sister had been sold into prostitution, which was something different. Prostitution may be the oldest job in the world, but being a consort was a dying art. Geisha girls objectified the Japanese cultural idea of female beauty. Girls train from as young as three-years-old, for example, to play the lute, sing, and act in Geisha schools, and their studies continued after graduation. A spider’s web of industries evolved in small and larger cities which everyone including the tea houses were they perform has a cut of their fees for entertaining gentlemen.
Costumes that Geisha girls cost more than a year’s wages a labourer could hope to make. And any self-respecting Geisha, Mameha tells Sayuri, (and the reader) needs a varied collection of costumes so their clientele isn’t bored with the same old thing. Reputation is all. Losing face isn’t just about getting old, but by selling sexual favours is to fall to the lowest rung of common prostitution. Geisha girls must be virginal, without being virgins and must learn to stir the pot of men’s needs and desires, in other words, to entertain. They must also find a rich man to fund their costly lifestyle, in which their time is metered. Each Geisha girl must become, in modern parlance, their own brand and pay their debts to their house mothers.
Each brand has its own house (okiya).
‘Whatever any of us thought about Hatsumomo she was like an empress in our okiya since she earned the income by which we all lived.’
Hatsumomo is the ugly sister in the Cinderella story. But although equal in beauty, to Sakuri’s ‘sister’— a term which applies to a Mameha who takes her from the closed world of being a maid to train and introduce into their enclosed world of Geisha—Hatsumomo is nasty and spiteful.
‘This is our foolish lower maid, said Hatsumomo. ‘She has a name, I think but why don’t you call her “Little Miss Stupid”.’
The house brand with all its costumes is Hatsumumo’s. Her house ‘Mother’ and ‘Auntie’ are depended on her, as is the other trainee geisha and the servants, the lowest of which is ‘Litte Miss Stupid’.
Sayuri must knock Hatsumomo off her perch, claim the Chairman as her lover and become his consort. She must learn to be always a lady, but never seen with her claws out. In a patriarchal, misogynist world, image matters more than substance. Love conquers all or something less meretricious that that. It follows the money? Read on.