In a fictional translator’s note, professor of Japanese History Jakob Haarhuis writes that, at the age of fourteen, his father brought him from their home in the Netherlands to Kyoto, Japan. While in Kyoto, they saw geisha in beautiful kimono (traditional full-length robes) dance in a performance at the city’s foremost theater. At the time, Haarhuis had no idea that nearly fifty years later, he would record the memoirs of the famous Kyoto geisha Sayuri Nitta. While there have been many magazine articles about Sayuri’s life, Haarhuis says that her memoirs—which he has translated as the book that follows—mark the first time people will see the world from her perspective.
By beginning the novel with a fictional translator’s note, Arthur Golden creates the illusion that Sayuri’s memoirs are a nonfictional retelling of her experiences as a geisha rather than a fictional product of Golden’s imagination. Thus, in its first pages, the novel sets up the theme of Beauty, Artifice, and Truth by using this note as an “artifice” – which is a clever device used to trick or deceive others – to make the following stories seem more true. This is the first of many artifices we will encounter in the novel.
Haarhuis writes that if Sayuri hadn’t immigrated to New York City in 1956, then she might never have had the freedom to reflect on the years she spent as a geisha. Though geisha don’t make any formal vow of silence about the men they entertain, most geisha are very tightlipped about their experiences. They fear to reveal secrets about powerful Japanese men who have the power to ruin a geisha’s career and reputation. But since Sayuri lived in the U.S., she was free to tell her stories openly without fear of reprisal.
Traditional codes of conduct in geisha culture prevent a geisha from speaking her mind, thus indicating the sexist oppressiveness of Japanese society at this time. Unable to speak publically about their lives, geisha do not have the freedom to express their personal narratives through the act of storytelling. Golden himself, however, ended up “outing” the real-life geisha he interviewed for the book, even after she specifically requested to remain anonymous.
Haarhuis did not meet Sayuri until 1985, when a mutual friend introduced the two in New York. As their friendship grew, Haarhuis asked if he could record her incredible life story. Sayuri agreed. Over the course of eighteen months, she dictated her memoirs. After completing the project, Haarhuis asked her why she agreed to let him record her memoirs. Sayuri’s only response was that she had nothing else to do in her old age. Haarhuis writes that he will leave it up to the reader to decide if her motives were as simple as that.
Haarhuis’ skepticism about Sayuri’s motives for recounting her memoirs hints that Sayuri might be an unreliable narrator—a first-person narrator who skews, distorts, or obscures the truth of a story. Here, Sayuri appears to obscure her true motives by understating her aims for crafting this involved narrative.
Haarhuis says that he used a tape recorder while recording Sayuri’s memoirs in order to ensure accuracy but, since her death last year, he has wondered if he also wanted to preserve her uniquely expressive voice. She often spoke in a soft voice, but when she got excited, her voice would expand so that it sounded like seven or eight people were in the room. Haarhuis writes that he sometimes plays her tapes alone in his study and finds it difficult to believe that she is no longer alive.
We are reminded here that there is always an absence at the center of the novel: the absence of Sayuri’s speaking voice. On a deeper level, Sayuri’s metaphorical voice – her ability to express herself – is partially lost because we are supposedly reading her book through translations and not in the original Japanese. Moreover, any real geisha voice is lost because we are not even reading the true narrative of a geisha, but the fictional account of a white, American male author writing at the end of the 20th century. Thus, Golden risks supplanting actual geisha voices with his own – a claim many critics have made against the book.