In the present, Sayuri explains about how one of the main hurdles to becoming a geisha is finding an “older sister.” By the time a girl is finally ready to make her debut as an apprentice, she needs to have established a relationship with a more experienced geisha, who is called an older sister. The older sister takes her younger one around the city, introducing her around Gion to her customers and patrons. In this way, apprentice geisha get experience while experienced geisha receive a portion of the apprentices’ income. Chiyo, however, had no one to be her older sister. Hatsumomo would never have done it, and few other geisha would risk Hatsumomo’s wrath by taking Chiyo on as a sister.
Once again, familial relationships in the world of the geisha consist of economic rather than biological or emotional bonds. The familial-sounding title of “older sister” is simply an artifice that softens the economic reality: geisha “sisterhood” is actually just an economic transaction where younger geisha pay older geisha for the right to gain access to their cliental. Through this “sisterhood” younger geisha gain experience and older geisha make money.
A few weeks after Chiyo’s encounter with Mameha, Mameha arrives at the okiya to speak with Mother. Chiyo cleans outside the reception room where Mother entertains guests so that Chiyo can overhear their conversation. Mameha tells Mother that she remembers meeting a beautiful and graceful girl named Chiyo at the geisha school two years ago. Since she hasn’t seen Chiyo in such a long time, Mameha says she’s come to the okiya to see if Chiyo is sick. Mother says Chiyo is perfectly healthy but stopped going to school because she was poorly suited for geisha life. Mameha acts surprised, saying that she thought Chiyo had such potential. Mameha says that she was even hoping to become Chiyo’s older sister.
Mameha’s lies show that she is an artful deceiver, and at this point, Mameha’s motives for helping Chiyo are unknown. Since we now see that Mameha is a convincing liar, we should be skeptical of what reasons Mameha gives in the following passage for taking Chiyo on as an apprentice.
Shocked that Mameha shows interest in one of her maids, Mother asks why she would want to take on Chiyo as her apprentice. Mameha says that she thinks Chiyo’s eyes will make her one of the most successful geisha in Gion. Mother responds that the Depression has hurt the okiya, so she would be taking a large risk investing more money in Chiyo by letting her become a geisha. Mother explains that Chiyo already has very high debts to pay. Mameha says that she thinks Chiyo will pay off any debts by the time she’s twenty, despite the city being in the midst of the Depression.
Mameha’s remark about Chiyo’s eyes implies that Mameha wants to be Chiyo’s older sister because she thinks Chiyo will make a lot of money. After all, the more Chiyo makes, the more her older sister will earn. We don’t know it yet, but these aren’t her true reasons—and thus Mameha uses Chiyo’s spectacular eyes as a veil to conceal her actual motives. In this way, Chiyo’s eyes become associated with deception.
Persuaded by Mameha’s confidence in Chiyo’s ability to bring in money, Mother suggests a deal. She says that the okiya will pay Mameha only half of what she usually gets for being an older sister, but if Chiyo pays back all her debts by the age of twenty, then the okiya will pay Mameha the additional amount plus another fifty percent over her normal rate. Mameha agrees, but says she wants to see Chiyo’s debt first.
The fact that Mameha eagerly agrees to Mother’s terms before even having a chance to see Chiyo’s debts suggests that she might have motives other than making money for taking Chiyo on as an apprentice. Why else would Mameha take such a financial risk during the Great Depression? Her true reasons will only be revealed at the end of the novel.
At that moment, Auntie tells Chiyo to go out to do an errand. When Chiyo comes back, Mameha is already gone. Chiyo goes to Mother’s room, where Mother asks her why Mameha would want to be her older sister. At that moment, Hatsumomo comes into the room and casually says that Mameha is just trying to annoy Hatsumomo as revenge for the ruined kimono. Hatsumomo says Mother should let Mameha try to mentor Chiyo, since Mameha’s plan will fail if she hopes to ever turn Chiyo into a successful geisha. Hatsumomo even says that Pumpkin, who is Hatsumomo’s younger sister, will be a better geisha after she has “sharpened her claws” by competing with Chiyo. Mother smiles at the thought of the two girls competing to make money for the okiya.
The reason Hatsumomo gives for why Mameha would help Chiyo reveals more about Hatsumomo’s character than it does about Mameha’s motives. Hatsumomo is so self-centered that she immediately assumes that Mameha’s motives revolve around her. Additionally Hatsumomo, who is no stranger to taking revenge, jumps to the conclusion that Mameha is being malicious and vengeful towards Hatsumomo rather than kind and helpful to Chiyo.