Memoirs of a Geisha

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Tradition, Ritual, and Gender Theme Analysis

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.
Tradition, Ritual, and Gender Theme Icon

From the daily interactions with male clients to the ceremony of losing her virginity, tradition and ritual govern almost every facet of the geisha’s life. Throughout the novel, Sayuri must navigate the social terrain of these customs, learning when to abide by tradition and when to flout it. Sayuri enters the geisha world as a complete novice who is unfamiliar with how an apprentice geisha must act or speak to those around her. By focusing on a character who is completely ignorant of geisha practices, the novel is able to more thoroughly explore and represent them—because the protagonist (like the average Western reader) must learn them for the first time as well. Over time, Sayuri learns to master these traditions, becoming the most successful geisha in Kyoto.

For Sayuri, as well as most geisha in the novel, tradition rarely seems to have value in itself. Instead, Sayuri and the other geisha use tradition as a means to an end—by perfectly embodying these traditions, Sayuri can live up to the expectations of her clients and, in doing so, achieve a modicum of financial security. This practical use of tradition suggests that geisha, at some level, know that the established practices of their profession are oppressive towards women. This is made most obvious in the fact that it is traditional for a teenaged geisha-in-training to lose her virginity to the man who pays the most to sleep with her. Yet it is also evident on a more day-to-day level, in that traditional geisha are forced to conform to the fantasies of their male clientele, who want the women to remain beautiful objects or playthings for their amusement, rather than nuanced and complicated human beings with their own desires and dreams. Thus the geisha only adopt these traditions as a way of succeeding in a society that allows them few other paths for autonomy.

These practices, moreover, become a constrictive force for Sayuri. Though she only learned the traditions in order to make use of them, she begins to rely on them so much that she forgets how to break the rules when necessary. For example, the social norms that prevent geisha from expressing themselves make her feel incapable of voicing her affection for the Chairman. Thus, by the end of the novel, Sayuri must, in a sense, relearn her childhood disregard of the rules. She does so when she neglects the traditions of the geisha by sleeping with a man who is not her danna, thereby betraying her loyal client Nobu. This “transgression” allows Sayuri to break free of the oppressive norms that privilege a client’s desires as more important than a geisha’s. In this way, the novel ends with Sayuri fulfilling her own desire—rather than a client’s—by becoming the geisha of the Chairman, the man she loves.

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Tradition, Ritual, and Gender Quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha

Below you will find the important quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha related to the theme of Tradition, Ritual, and Gender.
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.


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Chapter 5 Quotes

You see, when a geisha wakes up in the morning she is just like any other woman. Her face may be greasy from sleep, and her breath unpleasant. It may be true that she wears a startling hairstyle even as she struggles to open her eyes; but in every other respect she's a woman like any other, and not a geisha at all. Only when she sits before her mirror to apply her makeup with care does she become a geisha. And I don't mean that this is when she begins to look like one. This is when she begins to think like one too.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Hatsumomo
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Chiyo watches as a popular geisha, Hatusomomo, wakes up and puts on her makeup. As she watches, Sayuri notes that a geisha first waking up is just like any other woman: greasy skin, bad breath, etc. A woman becomes a geisha, however, when she puts on her makeup and uses artifice and decoration to make herself look beautiful in a certain way. Being a geisha isn't just a combination of appearances, though--it's a state of mind. As Sayuri implies, geishas are highly trained professionals, taught how to be civil and charming at all times; in other words, taught to think like geishas. Even though being a geisha is largely about outward appearances, it's also about cultivating a certain mental image of oneself, too.

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 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 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.