The novel’s main story begins with an elderly Sayuri Nitta remarking that the afternoon she met Mr. Ichiro Tanaka in the year 1929 was the best and worst afternoon of her entire life. She says that if she had never met Mr. Tanaka, then she would never have become a geisha. Unlike most geisha, Sayuri wasn’t raised from an early age to be a geisha. Instead, she grew up as Chiyo Sakamoto, the daughter of a poor fisherman in the small village of Yoroido, on the Sea of Japan. She would only take the name Sayuri after she became a geisha.
The main story begins with Sayuri hinting at her transformation from the girl Chiyo to the woman Sayuri. In this way, Sayuri establishes this novel as a bildungsroman – a type of novel that charts the emotional and intellectual development of the protagonist as he or she becomes an adult. In Sayuri’s case, her change of name will signal an important step in her maturation into an adult.
Sayuri says that she inherited her mother’s translucent blue-grey eyes. Fortunetellers had told her mother that their blue eyes, a rarity among Japanese people, indicated that they both had a lot of water in their personalities. In contrast, her father Minoru Sakamoto – who was over twenty years older than her mother – had a lot of wood in his personality. Sayuri says that water flows quickly, always finding a crack to spill through, whereas wood holds fast and does not change easily. Like wood, her father acted slowly and methodically in everything he did. Sayuri says that her sister Satsu, who is six years older than her, took after their father. Satsu had a slowness about her, both in her actions and her thinking.
Sayuri introduces the symbol of the eyes. Though their meaning will become more complicated later, at this point they reflect the old saying that eyes are the “windows to the soul”—in that they provide insight into one’s identity. Throughout the novel, Sayuri will be linked to water (traditionally one of the elements composing the universe) because she has a fluid and flexible personality. While this allows her to adapt to various circumstances, it also causes her to tailor her desires and actions to benefit other people rather than help her assert her own individual wishes.
Sayuri (now referring to herself as Chiyo, her name at the time) remembers that when she was seven, her mother came down with a terrible illness. Over the course of the next two years, her mother grew so frail that before long she was unable to leave her bed because of the pain. One day, the village doctor drops by their small home near the sea to examine her mother. Chiyo’s father and the doctor discuss her mother’s condition as Chiyo makes tea. The doctor says that Sakamoto’s wife will die in a few weeks. Hearing this, Chiyo feels as if a panicked bird were flapping in her mind.
Though Sayuri tells Haarhuis her father’s name, she withholds the name of her mother. As a result, her mother seems like less of a character and more of a plot device—especially as it is her illness that will initiate the series of events that eventually lead to Sayuri becoming a geisha. Perhaps another sign of her unreliability as a narrator, Sayuri also might downplay her mother’s identity so as not to have to relive the emotional pain of her illness and death. Golden, in trying to recreate the voice of a Japanese woman, uses lots of metaphors and similes relating to nature—perhaps overdoing them at times.
When the doctor leaves, Sakamoto tells Chiyo to get incense for their Buddhist altar. Chiyo asks if he has anything else to tell her, hoping that he would say something comforting about her mother’s condition. But her father says nothing, and slowly raises a single finger, a sign that means he wants her to say nothing else.
Sakamoto’s silencing of Chiyo’s question recalls Haarhuis’ claim that powerful Japanese men keep geisha quiet. In this way, Sakamoto represents the first instance of how certain traditions and customs – like respecting one’s father – oppress women by silencing them.
To escape her worries about her mother, Chiyo runs as fast as she can down a path to the village. Slipping on the path, she falls and knocks herself into a daze. The next thing Chiyo remembers is finding herself on a table that smells like fish, staring at Mr. Ichiro Tanaka. The wealthiest man in their village, Mr. Tanaka owns the fishing company that employs most of the fishermen in Yoroido. Seeing Chiyo fall, he had carried her to one of his nearby fishing outlets. Mr. Tanaka says that he recognizes Chiyo as Mr. Sakamoto’s daughter, and he compliments her on the beautiful color of her eyes. Looking at Mr. Tanaka, Chiyo sees an intelligent sharpness in his face. Chiyo feels as if Mr. Tanaka sees the world as it really is, even if he does not always like what he sees. Mr. Tanaka calls for the doctor, who tends to Chiyo’s lip before sending her off.
Throughout the novel, Chiyo will deal with her emotional experiences by literally and metaphorically “running away” from her problems. As Chiyo matures, she will find better and more developed ways for handling her emotional pain. Chiyo’s appraisal of Mr. Tanaka’s face is also immature and naïve, as she thinks that Mr. Tanaka is a man who knows the truth of things simply because of his appearance. Yet Tanaka will turn out to be a surprisingly naïve character who sells Chiyo and her sister into sexual slavery because he thinks that their lives will be better if they are a geisha and prostitute, respectively.
After buying the incense that her father asked for, Chiyo heads back to her house. On the way she feels a mix of emotions. She worries about her mother’s health, but also feels a pleasant sensation when she thinks of Mr. Tanaka. Chiyo clutches the incense to her chest and says Mr. Tanaka’s name over and over into the wind, until she feels satisfied that she hears the music in every syllable.
Chiyo’s prayer-like chanting of Tanaka’s name reveals her innocent and romantic personality. As Chiyo matures, she will encounter the harsh realities of a geisha’s life, where love appears to be merely an illusion. Under these conditions, she will have to fight to hold onto her belief in the possibility of love.