Memoirs of a Geisha


Arthur Golden

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Memoirs of a Geisha Study Guide

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Brief Biography of Arthur Golden

Arthur Golden grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then attended Harvard College, where he received a B.A. in art history with a specialization in Japanese art. In 1980, he earned an M.A. in Japanese history from Columbia University. After a summer at Peking University in Beijing, China, he began working in Tokyo. While there, he met a man whose mother was a retired geisha, prompting his interest in the subject. After returning to the United States in the mid-1980s, Golden began writing his first novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, which took him six years to complete. A runaway success, the novel was on the New York Times’ bestseller list for over two years, sold more than four million copies, and was translated into thirty-two languages. Golden currently lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife and two children.
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Historical Context of Memoirs of a Geisha

While the novel makes infrequent mention of world historical events, the majority of the plot occurs from the beginning of the Great Depression in Japan to the end of World War Two. During the 1930s, a global economic depression affected almost every developed country in the world, including Japan. Sayuri, however, does not experience the effects of the Depression, since she works as a prominent geisha serving the wealthy elites of Japanese society. Sayuri also makes passing mention of Japan’s militaristic expansion into neighboring countries. In 1931, Japan invaded and annexed Manchuria, a region in northeast China. Despite local resistance against the Japanese occupation, Japan held onto Manchuria until the end of World War Two. During World War Two, the Japanese government placed harsh restrictions on its civilians, rationing food and closing down all the geisha districts in Japan. Near the end of the novel, Sayuri briefly references Japan’s surrender to the United States in 1945 and the American occupation of the country that lasted until the early 1950s.

Other Books Related to Memoirs of a Geisha

Written as if it were an actual memoir, Memoirs of a Geisha draws mostly from a nonfiction, autobiographical tradition. Golden has acknowledged that while writing the novel, he did extensive research and delved deeply into the history of geisha culture. Specifically, Golden draws from Liza Dalby’s memoir Geisha, which recounts the author’s experiences as the only American woman ever to become a geisha. Since Golden’s novel masquerades as a true memoir, it also belongs to the relatively recent literary tradition of novels written in the guise of memoirs or autobiographies. One of the earliest and most prominent examples of this form is Gertrude Stein’s 1933 book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The success of Golden’s novel also motivated the former geisha Mineko Iwesawa – whom Golden interviewed as a source for his novel – to write her own autobiography, Geisha: A Life, which refutes Golden’s sexualized portrayal of geisha culture.
Key Facts about Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Full Title: Memoirs of a Geisha
  • When Written: 1991-1997
  • Where Written: Boston, Massachusetts
  • When Published: 1997
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Fiction
  • Genre: Historical Novel, Fictional Memoir, Bildungsroman
  • Setting: Yoroido, Kyoto, and New York City; early to late twentieth century
  • Climax: When Sayuri betrays Nobu in the old theater.
  • Antagonist: Hatsumomo
  • Point of View: First-person

Extra Credit for Memoirs of a Geisha

Code of Silence: While doing research for Memoirs of a Geisha, Golden interviewed Mineko Iwasaki, a former geisha who had worked in Kyoto during the 1960s. He thanked Iwasaki by name in the book’s acknowledgements, which caused Iawaski to receive strong and threatening backlash because geishas have a traditional code of silence about their clients. She alleged that Golden broke a promise to keep her identity anonymous, but Golden maintained that Iwasaki never asked for anonymity. Iwasaki sued Golden for breach of contract and defamation of character, and the two settled out of court with no admittance of wrongdoing in 2003.

Movie Magic: The novel was made into a 2005 movie that won three Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design.