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.
Sex and Love Theme Icon

The events of Memoirs of a Geisha occur during a time in Japan when geisha played an integral part in social life. In the West, “geisha” is basically synonymous with “prostitute.” However, in actuality, a geisha was an elite entertainer who mastered the arts of singing, dancing, playing instruments, and telling stories. Though a geisha might flirt with the men she entertains, the clients must satisfy themselves with the illusion of sex rather than the act itself. After all, if a man simply wanted sex, then he could visit one of the many legal brothels in the city. Instead of trading in sex, the geisha trades in the illusion of love, giving men the psychological gratification of feeling as though these beautiful geisha desire their company.

But this is not to say that sex plays no part in a geisha’s life. Wealthy men bid to take an apprentice geisha’s virginity, while more experienced geisha seek to establish an exclusive relationship with a danna, the Japanese word for patrons who provided for the geisha in exchange for sex. Most geisha in the novel see their patrons as privileged clients rather than romantic partners, and so sex itself becomes a currency rather than an emotional connection or even a pleasurable experience for the geisha. It is notable however, that the real-life geisha Mineko Iwasaki—whom Golden interviewed for the novel—has since refuted Golden’s sexualized portrayal of geisha culture, and wrote her own autobiography in response.

In the novel’s world—where love is only an illusion that conceals the true economic relationship between geisha and danna, most geisha believe that love is not possible for them. Sayuri, however, is the exception. After the Chairman bestowed an act of kindness on her when she was only a teenager, Sayuri began to yearn for him, working her entire life to be a good enough geisha so that he would want to be her danna. Even after Sayuri’s mentor Mameha tells her to give up her illusions of love—since all a geisha can ever hope for is to have a wealthy danna who isn’t cruel—Sayuri’s belief in the possibility for love remains resolute. Though it might seem overly sentimental, this conviction, in addition to her growing willingness to define her own path in life, ultimately leads her to a loving relationship with the Chairman by the book’s end.

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Sex and Love Quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha

Below you will find the important quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha related to the theme of Sex and Love.
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.


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Chapter 5 Quotes

In fact, a geisha leaves a tiny margin of skin bare all around the hairline, causing her makeup to look even more artificial, something like a mask worn in Noh drama. When a man sits beside her and sees her makeup like a mask, he becomes that much more aware of the bare skin beneath.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Hatsumomo
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Chiyo watches as the popular geisha Hatsumomo puts on her makeup; as she watches, she describes the way that a geisha decorates her own face. A geisha wears extremely thick makeup, to the point where the contours of the face are largely hidden. And yet the geisha also doesn't try to pretend that the thick white makeup is the same color and texture as her skin; on the contrary, she makes it clear that the makeup is artificial, leaving a thin layer of naked skin around her forehead.

The geisha's makeup is highly erotic, though the eroticism of the makeup could easily be lost on readers. Paradoxically, the whole point of thick, heavy makeup isn't to disguise the skin so much as it is to encourage the client to think about the skin underneath. Appearances are important to geishas, but not just as ends in themselves; rather, they're designed to communicate something about what lies beneath, either literally or metaphorically.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Auntie took Hatsumomo by the arms and held her from behind, while Mother began to pull open the seams of Hatsumomo's kimono at the thigh. I thought Hatsumomo would resist, but she didn't. She looked at me with cold eyes as Mother gathered up the koshimaki and pushed her knees apart. Then Mother reached up between her legs, and when her hand came out again her fingertips were wet. She rubbed her thumb and fingers together for a time, and then smelled them. After this she drew back her hand and slapped Hatsumomo across the face, leaving a streak of moisture.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Hatsumomo , Mother/Ms. Nitta , Auntie
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mother accuses Hatsumomo of having spent time with her boyfriend; i.e., having had sex with a man who wasn't a client--a major no-no for a geisha. To Chiyo's great surprise, Hatsumomo doesn't resist when Mother feels her genitalia to determine if she's been having sex. Hatsumomo's passivity suggests that after years of working as a geisha, she's become numb to the idea that her body and sexuality belong to somebody else, whether it's Mother or a client.

Mother seems to determine that Hatsumomo has, indeed, been having sex with someone who's not a client, as she immediately slaps Hatsumomo--a major event, as Hatsumomo is usually the favorite of the okiya, and the one in the position of power. Mother, however, is concerned only with money, and she treats her geishas like objects or products that must be kept in good condition.

Chapter 9 Quotes

But how can I describe what I saw in that instant? He was looking at me as a musician might look at his instrument just before he begins to play, with understanding and mastery. I felt that he could see into me as though I were a part of him. How I would have loved to be the instrument he played!

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Chairman Ken Iwamura
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to one of the key characters of the novel, the Chairman (Ken Iwamura). The Chairman and Chiyo cross paths shortly after Chiyo retrieves her dead moth from the foundations of the okiya. He notices that she's sad, and offers her his handkerchief--a sign of his kindness and gentleness. Chiyo is immediately struck by the Chairman, both for his handsomeness and his kind personality.

The passage conveys the sexual nature of Chiyo's attraction to the Chairman, as well as her deeper emotional bond with him. Phrases like 'see into me," "a part of him," "the instrument he played," and "mastery" move back and forth between intimate and objectifying, spiritual and sexual--not a bad way to sum up the geisha's profession. And notice, too, that Chiyo seems to want to be the Chairman's object, more than his partner or his equal. She's been raised in a culture in which women are trained to be inferior to men--thus, even when she's envisioning her ideal life, she can't help but objectify herself. (This is also a common critique of the author, Arthur Golden--that Sayuri's great "goal" in life is simply to be rescued by the right man.)

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 22 Quotes

I would gladly have exchanged the robe the Baron was offering me for some way out of the situation. But he was a man with so much authority that even Mameha couldn't disobey him. If she had no way of refusing his wishes, how could I?... I suppose I finally came to the conclusion that I had no choice but to obey him and pay the consequences, whatever they might be. I lowered my eyes to the mats in shame; and in this same dreamlike state I'd been feeling all along, I became aware of the Baron taking my hand and guiding me through the corridors toward the back of his house.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Mameha , The Baron
Page Number: 260
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Baron--one of Sayuri's clients--takes Sayuri to his room. Inside, the Baron seems to be preparing to rape or assault Sayuri--an event that, in theory, isn't supposed to happen to geishas like Sayuri, but sometimes does. The Baron asks Sayuri to remove her clothing in order to try on the beautiful kimono he's bought her as a gift--clearly just an invitation for Sayuri to undress in front of him.

The passage shows the darker underside of the geisha world. Although geisha are cultured, sophisticated women who entertain their clients with song and conversation, they can also be sex workers (at least Golden describes it). A man like the Baron is so powerful that he can do whatever he wants with Sayuri--and he can do so because Sayuri, for all her training, is still a sexual object, purchased and traded between powerful men.

Chapter 25 Quotes

Since moving to New York I’ve learned what the word “geisha” really means to most Westerners. From time to time at elegant parties, I've been introduced to some young woman or other in a splendid dress and jewelry. When she learns I was once a geisha in Kyoto, she forms her mouth into a sort of smile, although the corners don’t turn up quite as they should… This woman is thinking, “My goodness. I'm talking with a prostitute.” A moment later she's rescued by her escort, a wealthy man a good thirty or forty years older than she is. Well, I often find myself wondering why she can't sense how much we really have in common. She is a kept woman, you see, and in my day, so was I.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker)
Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

Sayuri, returning to her present self as the narrator in New York, offers some thoughts on the relationship between geishas, prostitutes, and "kept women." Many Americans think that "geisha" is synonymous with prostitute. Sayuri, however, wishes she could correct these people: a geisha, she insists, isn't a prostitute, since she's trained to entertain men at a higher, more cultured level. Furthermore, geishas don't just have sex with their clients--the majority of their clients don't have any kind of romantic encounters with them, sexual or otherwise. A geisha is more like a "kept woman"--i.e., a Western woman who relies completely on her boyfriend or husband for money and housing.

The point here isn't that geishas are entirely different from prostitutes--as we've already seen, geishas do encounter sexual advances from their clients, and even initiate bidding wars about who gets to have sex with them (at least in the world of the novel). Geishas and prostitutes are both sexualized objects, passed between clients--even if geishas are more trained and cultured. The point of the passage, rather, is that Westerners hypocritically criticize geishas when there are plenty of women in their own culture who navigate their ways through upperclass society in much the same way as geishas, and never get any real criticism for doing so. The Western world hypocritically criticizes geishas for their vulgarity, when the West itself is full of women who play a similar part.

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.