Memoirs of a Geisha

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Themes and Colors
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
Beauty, Artifice, and Truth  Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Sex and Love Theme Icon
Tradition, Ritual, and Gender Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Memoirs of a Geisha, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Growing Up Theme Icon

Memoirs of a Geisha belongs to the literary genre of the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age. Novels in this genre portray the psychological development of the protagonist as he or she grows from a youth into an adult. Memoirs follows this trajectory as it illustrates Chiyo Sakamoto’s transformation from the daughter of a poor fisherman into the renowned Kyoto geisha, Sayuri Nitta. At the beginning of the novel, young Chiyo lives in an obscure Japanese fishing village, and with little education or knowledge of the outside world, she clings to the naive illusion that the world is a place of compassion and fairness. Specifically, she hopes the wealthiest man in her village, Mr. Ichiro Tanaka, will adopt her, transporting her away from her life of poverty as well as from her dying mother and emotionally absent father.

But Chiyo quickly loses these innocent illusions as her life becomes upended by the harsh reality of her society. Instead of adopting her, Tanaka arranges for her father to sell Chiyo into slavery at an okiya, where she will be made to learn how to be a geisha. At the okiya, Chiyo matures as she grapples with isolation, grief, alienation, and self-discovery. For example, after Chiyo arrives at the okiya, she learns that both of her parents have died in quick succession. Feeling as if she can never return to her childhood, Chiyo sinks into a deep, year-long depression. As she slowly emerges, she realizes that only her dreams of what the future might hold will give her the strength to go on in the uncaring environment of the okiya. This experience of grief and her subsequent realization mark the beginning of her transformation from the child Chiyo to the adult Sayuri.

Yet the novel differs from a traditional coming-of-age story with regards to Sayuri’s sexual awakening. Instead of being free to pursue relationships and come into sexual maturity on her own terms, Sayuri loses her virginity to whoever pays the highest amount to have sex with her. Paradoxically, the sexualized life of the geisha actually delays her sexual awakening. Even though she spends years as the private mistress to men, Sayuri only experiences true sexual awakening when, in her thirties, she kisses the Chairman, the love of her life. Thus the novel indicates that romantic love, rather than just sex, represents a key moment of transformation from childhood to adulthood.

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Growing Up Quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha

Below you will find the important quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha related to the theme of Growing Up.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, “That afternoon when I met so-and-so…was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon.”

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Jakob Haarhuis
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to our protagonist and narrator, Sayuri. Sayuri, a famous geisha, will tell us a little about the history of her profession, and also tell us the story of how she became a geisha and found fame and fortune. The novel, then, is a kind of coming-of-age story, designed to show us a young woman's transformation into a famous and confident geisha.

The story of how Sayuri (originally named Chiyo) becomes Sayuri is both tragic and optimistic, and by the same token the profession of geisha is both liberating and imprisoning. Sayuri gains new privileges and liberties for herself in becoming a geisha--but we should never forget that she's also selling herself to other men, and on occasion she's forced to have sex with strangers (something real geishas have denied). In all, the novel will take an ambivalent position on the profession of geisha: like the afternoon we're going to hear about, it's both "the very best" and "the very worst."


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Water flows from place to place quickly and always finds a crack to spill through. Wood, on the other hand, holds fast to the earth.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker)
Related Symbols: Water, Rivers, and Streams, Sayuri’s Eyes
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sayuri describes her personality by describing her physical appearance. Like her mother, she has blue eyes--a rarity in Japan, and a sign of having "water" in one's personality. Sayuri also notes that her father was slow and deliberate, much like wood. Because of her eyes, however, Sayuri suggests that she takes more after her mother.

The symbolism of the two elements in this passage is clear: Sayuri is both fluid and flexible, like water (always conforming to its surroundings), while her sister Satsu, like her father, is steadfast like wood. The passage is also important because it suggests that Sayuri's life was partly predetermined by her very nature--it was the "water" in her personality that made her the person she is today.

Chapter 3 Quotes

I found myself wondering if my sister was standing before some other cruel woman, in another house somewhere in this horrible city. And I had a sudden image in my mind of my poor, sick mother propping herself on one elbow upon her futon and looking around to see where we had gone. I didn't want Mother to see me crying, but the tears pooled in my eyes before I could think of how to stop them.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Mother/Ms. Nitta , Satsu Sakamoto , Mrs. Sakamoto
Related Symbols: Sayuri’s Eyes
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sayuri (at this point still Chiyo) has been sent to work under Mother at an okiya, a place for training geishas. As she looks at her "Mother"--not really a mother at all, just a supervisor--Chiyo finds herself thinking of her real family: her sick mother and her sister, who has also been "sold." For the time being, Chiyo has no real control over her own feelings: she's just a little girl, and she can't stop herself from crying.

The passage is moving, but it also conveys an important point: Chiyo is a novice in the world of geishas, and the world of appearances. To become a geisha, Chiyo will have to learn how to control her true feelings, suppressing disgust and contempt when such emotions aren't useful. By the same token, she'll have to turn her back on her biological family in order to focus on her surrogate family at the okiya, as well as the men she encounters as a geisha.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“I’ve found a place to spend my life. I'll work as hard as I have to so they don't send me away. But I'd sooner throw myself off a cliff than spoil my chances to be a geisha like Hatsumomo.”

Related Characters: Pumpkin (speaker), Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto, Hatsumomo
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Chiyo gets to know Pumpkin, one of the young women in the okiya. Pumpkin is an young woman who aspires to do nothing in life but be a geisha. She looks up to geishas in the okiya, such as Hatsumomo, a proud, cruel, but beautiful geisha. Pumpkin even claims that she'd rather die than give up on becoming a geisha: it's the best life she can imagine for herself.

The passage is tragic because it underscores how imprisoned and hopeless some of the residents of the okiya are. Pumpkin is a kind young woman, but she's been convinced that her only chance for success in life is to become a geisha. Even more tragically, Pumpkin might be right: while it's demeaning, sexist work in some ways, working as a geisha affords young women from poor backgrounds an incredible opportunity for social mobility. In short, being a geisha means both freedom and imprisonment.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Two seasons have passed since you left Yoroido, and soon the trees will give birth to a new generation of blossoms. Flowers that grow where old ones have withered serve to remind us that death will one day come to us all.

Related Characters: Ichiro Tanaka (speaker), Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Chiyo receives a message from Mr. Tanaka, the man who largely arranged for Chiyo and her sister to be sold into servitude. Tanaka tells Chiyo that her parents have died, and her sister has run off with a lover. Tanaka seems sympathetic to Chiyo's sadness for her family, and yet he's oblivious to the fact that he is responsible for much of Chiyo's sadness. He tries to paper over the issue by making an eloquent observation about the way that beauty replaces death and sadness, if given enough time.

One should take Tanaka's observations with a grain of salt, of course, but they're not entirely wrong (and he seems to be misguided more than malicious in his intentions). As we'll see, Chiyo finds the courage to move past tragedy by finding beauty in her otherwise sad life. Furthermore, Tanaka's observation conveys the kinship between beauty and death--the very sight of beauty is also a sign of death, and vice-versa. There is, one could argue, something sad about beauty itself--one of the central ideas of a novel about geishas.

The training of an apprentice geisha is an arduous path. However, this humble person is filled with admiration for those who are able to recast their suffering and become great artists…This humble person has been alive long enough to see two generations of children grow up, and knows how rare it is for ordinary birds to give birth to a swan. The swan who goes on living in its parents' tree will die; this is why those who are beautiful and talented bear the burden of finding their own way in the world.

Related Characters: Ichiro Tanaka (speaker), Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mr. Tanaka, the man who caused Chiyo to be sold into slavery, continues to offer Chiyo some encouragement. He tells Chiyo that her parents have died, but urges her to move past the tragedy. It's easy for Mr. Tanaka to talk about "moving on"--it's not his parents. But Mr. Tanaka also makes a good point: Chiyo can't spend the rest of her life mourning for her parents. Like the swan of his metaphor, she must eventually move past the tragedy and find beauty on her own terms.

Tanaka's words symbolize the importance of optimism and beauty in fighting tragedy. Beauty can be an important force in fighting off the specter of sadness, but it's also a reminder of sadness itself: the more beautiful something or someone is, the more ephemeral and fragile it often is, and so the greater its potential for sadness. In short, Tanaka's words are inspiring and yet full of contradictions. Beauty helps people move past sadness, and yet it also reminds them of their own sadness.

Chapter 9 Quotes

So many things in my life had changed, even the way I looked; but when I unwrapped the moth from its funeral shroud, it was the same startlingly lovely creature as on the day I had entombed it…It struck me that we—that moth and I—were two opposite extremes. My existence was as unstable as a stream, changing in every way; but the moth was like a piece of stone, changing not at all. While thinking this thought, I reached out a finger to feel the moth's velvety surface; but when I brushed it with my fingertip, it turned all at once into a pile of ash….Now I understood the thing that had puzzled me all morning. The stale air had washed away. The past was gone. My mother and father were dead and I could do nothing to change it.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Minoru Sakamoto , Mrs. Sakamoto
Related Symbols: Water, Rivers, and Streams
Page Number: 107-108
Explanation and Analysis:

One year earlier (around the time she learned of her parents' deaths), Chiyo "buried" a tiny moth and hid it in the foundations of the okiya. A year later, she retrieves the dead moth and finds that it looks exactly the same. In a world in which everything seems to be changing, the dead moth is a symbol of stability and comfort for the young Chiyo. Chiyo has lost her parents, been sent to a new, difficult life, etc.--even the tiniest constant in her life makes her feel better.

The passage is one of the turning-points in the novel: the moment in which Chiyo seems to reach some acceptance with her parents' deaths, and begins to try making a name for herself on her own. Chiyo will not dwell in the past any longer; instead, she'll try to find fortune on her own terms.

Chapter 10 Quotes

“Those of us with water in our personalities don't pick where we'll flow to. All we can do is flow where the landscape of our lives carries us.”

Related Characters: Mameha (speaker), Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto
Related Symbols: Water, Rivers, and Streams
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mameha offers Chiyo a metaphor for her life as a geisha. Mameha is teaching Chiyo about the geisha's art, and she wants Chiyo to understand the kind of life a geisha with "water" in her personality--like Chiyo and Mameha--will have. Thus she gives us another metaphor connecting water to life: water rushes around, flowing uncontrollably in response to gravity and other forces. By the same token, a geisha can't really control where she's sent or whom she sees--she just goes with the flow.

In this analogy, water is passive--it responds to the powers that be. Mameha is an experienced geisha, and her analogy conveys the contradictions of a geisha's life: geishas are essentially prisoners, and yet they're also freer, more talented, and better traveled than many other women in Japan--they're both free and not free.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“When I say successful, I mean a geisha who has earned her independence. Until a geisha has assembled her own collection of kimono – or until she's been adopted as the daughter of an okiya, which is just about the same thing –she'll be in someone else's power all her life.”

Related Characters: Mameha (speaker), Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto, Hatsumomo
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mameha tells Chiyo about the importance of independence in a geisha's life. A geisha can be extremely popular and well-liked, but she might not be very successful. A successful geisha is one who's gained some measure of independence from her clients and patrons--i..e, a geisha who's earned enough money to support herself. A geisha with her own source of money doesn't have to rely on her clients to support her and feed her, and therefore she can be choosier with her clients, and more selective about what they do together.

In short, Mameha complicates our understanding of geishas so far. A geisha, in Golden's previous descriptions, was basically a slave. Now, we're told that geishas have a way out, at least up to a point: if they make enough money they can take some control over their destinies. Mameha is wise enough to realize that popularity counts only in the way it can bring in richer clients, which can then lead to greater independence. By passing on such a lesson to Chiyo, it's implied, she trains Chiyo to think long-term and value her own freedom.

Chapter 14 Quotes

It was as if the little girl named Chiyo, running barefoot from the pond to her tipsy house, no longer existed. I felt that this new girl, Sayuri, with her gleaming white face and her red lips, had destroyed her.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker)
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Chiyo becomes Sayuri--a transformation that symbolizes her growth into the role of geisha. Sayuri is a little uncomfortable with her new name: she recognizes, accurately, that by taking on a new name, she's turning her back on her old life and starting again.

The notion that choosing a new name could cause a spiritual transformation is consonant with the novel's view of appearances and outward beauty. Appearances are never arbitrary in the novel: when Chiyo takes on the name Sayuri, she changes her entire being, not just her name. By the same token, Sayuri begins to turn her back on her past: she's no longer fixated on her old life, and has even become a new person altogether--a geisha.

Chapter 17 Quotes

“I'm the one who picked it,” Mameha said. "The fortune-teller doesn't pick names; he only tells us if they're acceptable."
“One day, Mameha,” Nobu replied, “you'll grow up and stop listening to fools.”
“Now, now, Nobu-san,” said the Chairman, “anyone hearing you talk would think you're the most modern man in the nation. Yet I've never known anyone who believes more strongly in destiny than you do.”
“Every man has his destiny. But who needs to go to a fortuneteller to find it? Do I go to a chef to find out if I'm hungry?” Nobu said.

Related Characters: Toshikazu Nobu (speaker), Chairman Ken Iwamura (speaker), Mameha (speaker)
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sayuri spends time with Mameha and her clients, the Chairman and Nobu. Nobu is interested in how Sayuri chose a name for herself--tellingly, Mameha answers on her behalf, illustrating that Sayuki is still nervous around her future clients. Nobu rejects the idea that a fortune-teller is needed to choose a choose's name (a belief that was supposedly a popular part of Japanese culture at the time). Nobu implies that fortune-telling in general is an illusion--it has no real bearing on life. And yet the Chairman points out at Nobu, for all his exasperation with superstition and ritual, is just as superstitious as the average person: he believes in destiny.

What does the Chairman mean by "destiny?" Nobu seems to subscribe to the belief that everyone has a destiny, even if it's sometimes hard to see (a fortune teller who claims to be able to understand destiny is just a liar). Nobu's observations relate back to Sayuri's own: she feels that she has a destiny, although she sometimes struggles to understand it.

Chapter 25 Quotes

The only parties at which I managed to convince myself that my life might still have some purpose, however small, were the ones attended by military men…For several generations, army and navy officers had come to Gion to relax. But now they began to tell us, with watery eyes after their seventh or eighth cup of sake, that nothing kept their spirits up so much as their visits to Gion. Probably this was the sort of thing military officers say to the women they talk with. But the idea that I—who was nothing more than a young girl from the seashore—might truly be contributing something important to the nation…I won't pretend these parties did anything to lessen my suffering; but they did help remind me just how selfish my suffering really was.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker)
Page Number: 296
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sayuri thinks about her work as a geisha during the war. During the late 1930s, when Japan was locked in military conflict with China, Sayuri entertained many soldiers, giving them a sense of happiness and optimism when they needed it most.

The passage shows Sayuri becoming more mature and channeling her maturity into her profession. Sayuri has become so used to being a geisha that she lives in an isolated world, mostly separate from the war and society at large. But now she feels like she can bring some happiness to those who need it, and in doing so serve her country in some small way. She's begun to take pride in her work, and notes with hope that she may have improved the lives of noble Japanese soldiers. In this, Sayuri also gains new perspective on her own selfish desire to be with the Chairman: there's more to her life, she realizes, than finding the right mate.

Chapter 29 Quotes

Because I’d lived through adversity once before, what I learned about myself was like a reminder of something I'd once known but had nearly forgotten –namely, that beneath the elegant clothing, and the accomplished dancing, and the clever conversation, my life had no complexity at all, but was as simple as a stone falling toward the ground.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker)
Page Number: 348
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sayuri becomes filled with despair. she's separated from the Chairman, the love of her life, and becomes sure that she'll never see him again. Sayuri takes no more pleasure in her work--gone are the days when she felt proud of herself for bringing joy to a group of soldiers--and thinks of her life as a dull, miserable fall.

Sayuri's chosen metaphor is interesting because it conveys a sense of inevitability: a stone falling toward the ground has no control over its movement; it just obeys the laws of gravity. The metaphor is even more fatalistic than Sayuri's previous nature metaphor of choice--water (water, at least, can flow in different directions as it moves down the stream, as Nobu pointed out--a falling stone moves in one direction, and one direction only). The metaphor reflects the fact that Sayuri has become deeply depressed due to her circumstances.

Chapter 34 Quotes

In the instant before that door opened, I could almost sense my life expanding just like a river whose waters have begun to swell; for I had never before taken such a drastic step to change the course of my own future. I was like a child tiptoeing along a precipice overlooking the sea. And yet somehow I hadn't imagined a great wave might come and strike me there, and wash everything away.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Chairman Ken Iwamura
Related Symbols: Water, Rivers, and Streams
Page Number: 405
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sayuri is in the middle of having sex with a man she doesn't even like (let alone love): Sato. Sayuri is shocked when Pumpkin, her old "friend," opens the door, leading the Chairman--the actual love of Sayuri's life--inside. Sayuri had planned for Pumpkin to lead Nobu into the room, in a desperate attempt to manipulate him into leaving her, thus allowing her to pursue the Chairman. Here, Sayuri's plan has seemingly backfired in the worst possible way, all thanks to Pumpkin.

Sayuri conveys her anxiety with yet another water metaphor. Previously, water has been a metaphor for destiny, or--at times--freedom. But here, water symbolizes neither: the water in question is a huge, monstrous wave, symbolizing the destruction of Sayuri's plans and--so she thinks--her future with the Chairman.

And so you can imagine that this kiss, the first real one of my life, seemed to me more intimate than anything I'd ever experienced. I had the feeling I was taking something from the Chairman, and that he was giving something to me, something more private than anyone had ever given me before.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Chairman Ken Iwamura
Page Number: 416
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene (which leads the novel toward a happy ending), Sayuri confesses her feelings for the Chairman, and the Chairman reciprocates her feelings. The Chairman kisses Sayuri warmly and deeply, and Sayuri is amazed to realize that she's never been kissed so passionately in her life. Despite working in a sexualized world for many years, Sayuri has never felt real passion or intimacy: the constant presence of sexuality has trivialized the feeling, leading her to take a narrow view of desire. But now, with the Chairman, Sayuri discovers the love that can exist within desire and sexual intimacy, that sex is not just a giving or a taking, but a giving and a taking, an equal exchange of the most personal kind.