For the next year, Sayuri lives with the Arashino family, sewing parachutes for the war effort. As each day passes, she feels herself more and more in Nobu’s debt because she doesn’t suffer as badly as other geisha, many of whom work in factories or become prostitutes. Sayuri learns that Korin died in a factory firebombing, and that the Baron killed himself for fear that the Americans would invade and take away his aristocratic title and landholdings. Yet Sayuri still suffers as well. The only food she eats is soybean dregs and rice bran, and she feels herself growing thinner every day.
Sayuri’s experience of war reiterates how times of extreme suffering often destroy beauty in the world. Instead of making beautiful kimono, Arashino now makes parachutes for the war effort. Instead of entertaining men with her arts, Sayuri now sews together those same parachutes. Even the Baron – an old fashioned aesthete and connoisseur of all beautiful objects – cannot handle the grimness of war and kills himself.
With the Americans firebombing all over Japan, Sayuri worries for the safety of her friends. She also comes to the realization that she might never see Satsu again. Sayuri had always believed that their paths would cross, but now with the chaos of war and Sayuri’s new name, Sayuri believes it’s unlikely that Satsu will ever find her.
As war ravages Japan and erases memories of the country’s former glory and beauty, so too does it erase any last hopes Sayuri has for reclaiming anything from her childhood. In this way, war and suffering become all-encompassingly destructive.
In the present, Sayuri says that the adversity she experienced during that year made her reflect on the superficiality of her life as a geisha. At Arashino’s, she realizes that beneath the elegant clothing and beautiful makeup, her life had no complexity at all, but “was as simple as a stone falling toward the ground.” She had spent almost everyday of her life yearning for the Chairman, but now she realizes that it is possible that she might never even see him again. Fearing that she has wasted her life, Sayuri feels like a dancer who had practiced since childhood for a performance she will never give.
Life during the war strips away most illusions from Sayuri’s life. Without all the beautiful artifices of the geisha society, she realizes that her life has little real meaning—and so she has not really changed from the young maid who cried near the stream because her life had no purpose. Sayuri realizes that she has spent too much time on the trivialities of geisha life and not enough on pursuing her one true desire: the Chairman’s affection.
Sayuri in the present says that the months following Japan’s surrender in August 1945 were the darkest months of the ordeal. Everyone in Japan felt humiliated that the Americans had so completely defeated their country. But within a year after surrender, the country begins to rebound and people start to think that Japan will one day return to its former glory. During the American occupation of the country, Arashino begins making kimono again and Sayuri works in the basement boiling dyes for the clothing. The dyes cause her once beautiful hands to stain and peel. Every night she dreams of Gion, but Sayuri doesn’t feel free to return to Gion until Mother summons her. Mother and Auntie survived the war years selling contraband on the black market in a village outside Kyoto.
The staining of Sayuri’s hands with the dyes of the kimono provides a vivid symbol of how beauty is made from suffering. When we see a lovely kimono or beautiful piece of art, we don’t immediately think of the human suffering – whether physical or psychological – that went into its creation, but pain is often a necessary ingredient for art. Thus Sayuri’s stained hands are a physical reminder of the ugliness – the pain and suffering – that is often required for real beauty to come into existence.
One afternoon in November, 1946, Nobu comes to Arashino’s home to find out why Sayuri hasn’t returned to Gion. Sayuri says she would love to, but the decision isn’t hers to make. When she says that she is waiting for Mother to reopen the okiya, Nobu responds that he will take care of Mother. Nobu then gives Sayuri a piece of rubble from one of his factories. Nobu explains that the Americans bombed nearly half of his factories and that the Iwamura Electric company is in dire straits. But Nobu says that when his business is on its feet again, he will replace the rubble with a jewel. At that time, he will propose to be her danna. Sayuri feels her skin go cold at this, but she shows no sign of her feelings so as not to offend her friend who saved her from the factories.
Though Sayuri has known Nobu for years, she still feels unable to express her true feelings and desires around him. This is mostly because of the oppressive sexist expectations that dictate that a geisha silence her own desires if they conflict with those of a male patron. Thus, by conceding to Nobu’s proposal, Sayuri fails to take an active role in following her own desires and determining her life for herself.
Nobu continues. He tells Sayuri that he needs her in Gion so that she can perform a task for him. Nobu says that all through the war, the Chairman resisted converting their factories into military factories. By the time he agreed to cooperate, the war was almost over and nothing they made for the war effort was even used in battle. Nonetheless, the American government classified the company as helping the Japanese, which means that the Americans will seize all their assets and bankrupt the company. Nobu says that Sayuri needs to entertain an old client of hers, Noritaka Sato, who is now the Deputy Minister of Finance. Nobu hopes that if they get on the Deputy Minister’s good side, then he will use his influence to plead with the Americans to reconsider the case. Sayuri says she doesn’t remember Sato. Nobu responds that he’s a dull, piggish man who used to stare at her at parties. Because she’s in Nobu’s debt, Sayuri agrees to help him.
The Chairman’s stand against war shows that he is perhaps a more ethical man than Nobu. Though Nobu is a veteran who has seen the brutality of war, the Chairman was the one to stop the government from making their factory part of the Japanese war machine. The Chairman’s brave and ethical stand against war shows that he might actually be as noble as Sayuri imagines that he is. Likewise, the Chairman – in contrast with Sayuri – is a person who will not let others make decisions for him. He risked jail or even execution by refusing the Japanese government in a time of war: an act of true self-determination.
Before leaving, Nobu reminds Sayuri that their destinies are intertwined. Hearing him use the word destiny, Sayuri feels all of her hopes of winning the Chairman’s affection flood through her once again. Sayuri asks him if the Chairman will join them when they entertain Sato. Nobu says that he will worry about the arrangements, and that she should simply get herself back to Gion.
Sayuri still believes that mystical destiny – instead of her own actions and choices – will bring her together with the Chairman, but relying on destiny to make her desires real will never get her closer to her goal. In the end, her belief in destiny seems like an excuse for her passivity.