One of Chiyo’s duties as the most junior geisha in the okiya is to stay up late into the night, waiting for Hatsumomo to come home from entertaining men, so that Chiyo can help her undress. While waiting for Hatsumomo one evening, Chiyo notices a bar of light coming from Granny’s room. The light reminds Chiyo of how the light would stream through her mother’s window. With a pang of sadness, Chiyo wonders if her mother is still alive.
The light acts as a symbolic reminder of Chiyo’s childhood. Light in novels often represents truth or epiphany, and here in this world of appearance, the beam of light transports Chiyo back to the simpler, less artificial world of her home. In this way, the light brings her back to the truth, a place where she has a real mother rather than a fake “Mother.”
On another night, a man whom Chiyo thinks looks like a workman comes into the okiya. A few minutes later, Hatsumomo arrives. Hatsumomo says that she has yet to make Chiyo’s life really miserable, but if Chiyo ever mentions to anyone that a man came to the okiya, then all that will change. Hatsumomo and the man go into a private room. Too young to understand what they’re doing, Chiyo is surprised to hear the occasional moan coming from the room.
The novel has yet to reveal to either Chiyo or the reader what role sex plays in the life of a geisha. Many (Western) readers unfamiliar with the geisha’s role in society might simply assume that geisha are prostitutes, which is not the case—although this very novel often helps perpetuate that stereotype.
Once a week, Hatsumomo and the man – who is a chef at a nearby noodle restaurant – come to the okiya and shut themselves in a room. All the maids know what they’re doing, but no one tells Mother or Granny, for fear that Hatsumomo will take revenge on all the maids. Though geisha are allowed boyfriends, Mother would be angry to learn that Hatsumomo was spending her time with him rather than entertaining paying customers. Moreover, if Hatsumomo’s male clients ever found out that Hatsumomo was seeing this man, then they might think less of her for carrying on with a noodle joint chef.
The unwritten prohibition against boyfriends is another instance of geisha having little control over their personal or professional lives. Because they are discouraged from having sexual relations with men of their choosing, geisha have little chance at finding love and building a meaningful, romantic relationship with another person. Thus, we are beginning to see that love for a geisha is an unattainable fantasy, and sex is just another commodity.
On another night, Hatsumomo comes home drunk with her geisha friend Korin. Hatsumomo shows Korin a beautiful kimono that belongs to a geisha she dislikes named Mameha. Hatsumomo explains that she blackmailed Mameha’s maid into stealing it for her. Hatsumomo brings out some ink and tells Chiyo to write on the kimono. Though she feels sorry to destroy such a beautiful piece of clothing, Chiyo does as she is told so as not to anger Hatsumomo. As Chiyo makes a mark, a maid comes out of a room and sees her do it. Hatsumomo makes a lunging motion at the maid with her arm, scaring the maid back into her room.
Chiyo feels remorse not because the kimono belongs to someone else, but because she doesn’t want to destroy a beautiful object. Chiyo’s anxiety over beauty’s destruction shows that she has not yet accepted that all beautiful things must come to an end. Over the course of the novel, she will realize that humans can do nothing to prevent beauty from eventually fading, a lesson that will help her come to terms with the reality of death.
Hatsumomo and Korin walk Chiyo to Mameha’s home so that she can return the ruined kimono. Chiyo knocks on the door and gives the kimono to the maid. Just as the door closes, Chiyo glimpses Mameha. Chiyo notices that Mameha has a perfect, oval face with smooth and delicate features.
Mameha, like Hatsumomo, is a beautiful geisha—but, as we already know from the example of Hatsumomo, we shouldn’t rush to conclude that there is an intrinsic relationship between Mameha’s attractive appearance and an attractive inner personality.
The next day, after Chiyo returns to the okiya from school, Mother and Granny tell Hatsumomo and Chiyo that they had a visit from Mameha. Before Mother can say anything else, Hatsumomo says in an exasperated tone that Chiyo was the one who ruined the kimono. Auntie walks over and says that Chiyo didn’t do it, and that everyone knows Hatsumomo hates Mameha because Mameha is more successful than Hatsumomo. Mother says no one believes Hatsumomo’s story, but that a maid did see Chiyo making the mark, so Chiyo will pay for the damages.
Mother’s actions show that she both knows the truth about Hatsumomo’s action and does not care about that truth. Mother is willing to lie and obscure the truth in order to keep Hatsumomo happy, because Hatsumomo is the principal earner in the okiya. For Mother, money and profit are more important than truth and fairness
Granny says that they should beat Chiyo for breaking the rules, and Auntie offers to do it. Auntie takes Chiyo away and tells her that the kimono will be added to Chiyo’s debt. Auntie explains that when Chiyo begins working as a geisha, most of her earnings will go to the okiya to pay back any expenses she incurred while there: food, lodging, doctor visits. Auntie says if Chiyo doesn’t become a geisha, then she’ll never make enough money to pay back her debts. If this happens, then she’ll end up like Auntie – a maid who spent her entire life paying back the debts on a pitiful maid’s salary.
Auntie’s explanation reveals that Chiyo’s status at the okiya is somewhere between a slave and indentured servant. Sold against her will to the okiya, Chiyo is now forced to work until she pays off her debts. If Chiyo never becomes a geisha, however, then she will never be able to pay her debts, effectively making her a slave for life. Auntie’s explanation thus reveals the full extent of Tanaka’s betrayal. He not only separated Chiyo from her family and home, but also effectively sold her into slavery.
Auntie explains that Granny adopted Mother and Auntie with the hopes that they would become geisha. Mother was good-looking as a younger woman and became a relatively successful geisha, but Auntie was a failure because of her bad looks and lack of grace. One time, Granny beat Auntie so violently that she broke Auntie’s hip. After that, Auntie stopped being a geisha. Auntie says that’s why she’s the one who’s going to beat Chiyo – so Granny doesn’t hurt Chiyo and ruin her chances at becoming a geisha.
Auntie’s personality contrasts most directly with Mother’s. Mother hides her greed and lack of concern for others under the appearance of elegant clothing and the name “Mother,” whereas Auntie’s appearance of cruelty – her willingness to beat Chiyo – is actually an act of compassion meant to save Chiyo from an even more brutal punishment.
As Auntie beats her with a pole, Chiyo feels like her life can’t get any worse. Every time the pole hits her bottom, Chiyo sees Hatsumomo smiling down at her. In tears at the end of the beating, Chiyo lies on the ground while Hatsumomo walks over. Angry that she has to suffer for Hatsumomo’s actions, Chiyo demands to know where her sister is. Hatsumomo smiles softly, tells Chiyo that her sister is at a jorou-ya, and gives her the address. She then gives Chiyo a shove with her foot and walks off.
Though Hatsumomo’s frank disclosure of Satsu’s location might seem out of character, we should remember that appearances are rarely as they seem in this novel. If Hatsumomo appears kind, then she mostly likely has an ulterior motive. Hatsumomo is basically a “flat” character, and we never see her humanized or portrayed sympathetically.