Memoirs of a Geisha belongs to the literary genre of the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age. Novels in this genre portray the psychological development of the protagonist as he or she grows from a youth into an adult. Memoirs follows this trajectory as it illustrates Chiyo Sakamoto’s transformation from the daughter of a poor fisherman into the renowned Kyoto geisha, Sayuri Nitta. At the beginning of the novel, young Chiyo lives in an obscure Japanese fishing village, and with little education or knowledge of the outside world, she clings to the naive illusion that the world is a place of compassion and fairness. Specifically, she hopes the wealthiest man in her village, Mr. Ichiro Tanaka, will adopt her, transporting her away from her life of poverty as well as from her dying mother and emotionally absent father.
But Chiyo quickly loses these innocent illusions as her life becomes upended by the harsh reality of her society. Instead of adopting her, Tanaka arranges for her father to sell Chiyo into slavery at an okiya, where she will be made to learn how to be a geisha. At the okiya, Chiyo matures as she grapples with isolation, grief, alienation, and self-discovery. For example, after Chiyo arrives at the okiya, she learns that both of her parents have died in quick succession. Feeling as if she can never return to her childhood, Chiyo sinks into a deep, year-long depression. As she slowly emerges, she realizes that only her dreams of what the future might hold will give her the strength to go on in the uncaring environment of the okiya. This experience of grief and her subsequent realization mark the beginning of her transformation from the child Chiyo to the adult Sayuri.
Yet the novel differs from a traditional coming-of-age story with regards to Sayuri’s sexual awakening. Instead of being free to pursue relationships and come into sexual maturity on her own terms, Sayuri loses her virginity to whoever pays the highest amount to have sex with her. Paradoxically, the sexualized life of the geisha actually delays her sexual awakening. Even though she spends years as the private mistress to men, Sayuri only experiences true sexual awakening when, in her thirties, she kisses the Chairman, the love of her life. Thus the novel indicates that romantic love, rather than just sex, represents a key moment of transformation from childhood to adulthood.
Growing Up ThemeTracker
Growing Up Quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha
Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, “That afternoon when I met so-and-so…was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon.”
Water flows from place to place quickly and always finds a crack to spill through. Wood, on the other hand, holds fast to the earth.
I found myself wondering if my sister was standing before some other cruel woman, in another house somewhere in this horrible city. And I had a sudden image in my mind of my poor, sick mother propping herself on one elbow upon her futon and looking around to see where we had gone. I didn't want Mother to see me crying, but the tears pooled in my eyes before I could think of how to stop them.
“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.”
Two seasons have passed since you left Yoroido, and soon the trees will give birth to a new generation of blossoms. Flowers that grow where old ones have withered serve to remind us that death will one day come to us all.
The training of an apprentice geisha is an arduous path. However, this humble person is filled with admiration for those who are able to recast their suffering and become great artists…This humble person has been alive long enough to see two generations of children grow up, and knows how rare it is for ordinary birds to give birth to a swan. The swan who goes on living in its parents' tree will die; this is why those who are beautiful and talented bear the burden of finding their own way in the world.
So many things in my life had changed, even the way I looked; but when I unwrapped the moth from its funeral shroud, it was the same startlingly lovely creature as on the day I had entombed it…It struck me that we—that moth and I—were two opposite extremes. My existence was as unstable as a stream, changing in every way; but the moth was like a piece of stone, changing not at all. While thinking this thought, I reached out a finger to feel the moth's velvety surface; but when I brushed it with my fingertip, it turned all at once into a pile of ash….Now I understood the thing that had puzzled me all morning. The stale air had washed away. The past was gone. My mother and father were dead and I could do nothing to change it.
“Those of us with water in our personalities don't pick where we'll flow to. All we can do is flow where the landscape of our lives carries us.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
The only parties at which I managed to convince myself that my life might still have some purpose, however small, were the ones attended by military men…For several generations, army and navy officers had come to Gion to relax. But now they began to tell us, with watery eyes after their seventh or eighth cup of sake, that nothing kept their spirits up so much as their visits to Gion. Probably this was the sort of thing military officers say to the women they talk with. But the idea that I—who was nothing more than a young girl from the seashore—might truly be contributing something important to the nation…I won't pretend these parties did anything to lessen my suffering; but they did help remind me just how selfish my suffering really was.
Because I’d lived through adversity once before, what I learned about myself was like a reminder of something I'd once known but had nearly forgotten –namely, that beneath the elegant clothing, and the accomplished dancing, and the clever conversation, my life had no complexity at all, but was as simple as a stone falling toward the ground.
In the instant before that door opened, I could almost sense my life expanding just like a river whose waters have begun to swell; for I had never before taken such a drastic step to change the course of my own future. I was like a child tiptoeing along a precipice overlooking the sea. And yet somehow I hadn't imagined a great wave might come and strike me there, and wash everything away.
And so you can imagine that this kiss, the first real one of my life, seemed to me more intimate than anything I'd ever experienced. I had the feeling I was taking something from the Chairman, and that he was giving something to me, something more private than anyone had ever given me before.