In the present, Sayuri remembers that most geisha in Gion survived the Great Depression fairly easily, because wealthy businessmen and politicians always needed entertaining. However, by 1941, the war has begun to take a serious toll on the residents of Gion. Heavy rationing means that most geisha don’t get the food and medicine they need. But because of Sayuri’s connection with the General, Sayuri and the okiya manage to get by with relative ease. He keeps the okiya stocked with foodstuffs and other essentials.
With the war, the seemingly timeless world of the geisha starts falling apart in the face of harsh reality. Sayuri’s reflections also show, once again, that a geisha’s relationship to her danna is purely practical. Sayuri uses sex like a commodity, trading it for food and medicine in this time of crisis.
However, in December 1942, a military policeman arrives at the okiya. The man tells Sayuri that the police took the General into custody that morning for misappropriating military rations. Over the next few days, the military police confiscate the okiya’s stores of food, fine clothing, gold, and ceramics as punishment for receiving illegal foodstuffs. By 1943, the war has begun to make life increasingly miserable. Many people seem to feel it unpatriotic to even have a good time.
It is almost as if war has stripped Japanese society of its former beauty and artifice. All the beautiful ornaments of society – the clothing, the jewelry, the artistic crafts – are taken by the government for the war effort. In this way, war represents life stripped bare to its most brutal realities: hunger, death, and suffering. There is no place for geisha in such a world.
One day in January 1944, the military government shuts down all the geisha districts in Japan so that the women can better contribute to the war effort. Most geisha expect that they’ll have to find work in military factories. The geisha know that work in the factories is grueling and dangerous, because American bombers often target the factories. That night, feeling despondent about her future prospects, Sayuri is on the verge of tears when Nobu suddenly arrives at the okiya.
In the brutal reality that is life in Japan during the war years, the geisha have to give up their profession of creating artifice and instead turn to the routine drudgery of life in the factory. During the war, beauty turns back into suffering, and artifice into bare, unadorned reality. Sayuri cannot even bear the thought of this world without beauty.
Sayuri and Nobu talk in the reception room. Nobu says that he heard about the closing of the geisha district and has come to help her escape the factories. Not having seen Nobu since that night at the Awazumi Teahouse, Sayuri asks why he would help her if he is angry that she took the General as her danna. Nobu says that he knows that the General isn’t her danna any longer. Nobu scolds her for wasting her youth on the General, but hopes that she now knows her true destiny. Thinking of the Chairman, Sayuri says that her true destiny lies with the man who runs the Iwamura Electric company. Since Nobu thinks that she is referring to him and not the Chairman, he agrees. He tells her that he has arranged for her to work for Arashino, the kimono maker, in his small workshop outside of Kyoto.
Sayuri’s response to Nobu’s question about destiny shows how she has taken Nobu’s advice to heart. Nobu had advised her to be like water in a river – though she can’t direct where the river will flow, she can decide where in the river she wants to be. In this case, Sayuri must respond to Nobu in the way he wants, but she can do so in a way that maintains her inner loyalty and fidelity to the Chairman. In this scene, Sayuri uses fluid and ambiguous language to deceive Nobu, thereby mirroring her watery and adaptable personality.
Before leaving, Nobu tells Sayuri that they both will see a lot of suffering in the next few years, but that he will think of her every time he needs to be reminded of beauty and goodness. As Nobu walks away, Sayuri feels herself desperately squeezing the piece of paper that he had given her with Arashino’s address on it. Sayuri feels nervous and afraid because she doesn’t know when she will see Nobu, the Chairman, or even Gion again. She remembers the fear she felt as a child when Mr. Tanaka took her away from her family. Sayuri feels like she is once again being torn away from her home and from the people she cares for.
Nobu reiterates the idea that beauty is one of the few things that provides comfort during times of suffering. Importantly, it is Nobu who saves Sayuri from the factories – not the Chairman. Nobu’s love for Sayuri seems real and concrete, while, as of now, the Chairman’s love only exists as a fantasy in Sayuri’s imagination. Yet even in this time of war and harsh reality, Sayuri holds firm to her fantasy that the Chairman will one day become her danna.