Japanese Culture



Memoirs of a GeishaMemoirs of a Geisha is a novel by Arthur Golden published in 1997. The novel tells the story of a geisha working in Kyoto during World War II. It is also the name of the film based on the book, and directed by Rob Marshall, and starring Zhang Ziyi.

Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of a geisha known as Nitta Sayuri, who lives in New York as a hostess to Japanese businessmen. Sayuri reveals in the beginning that as a child she was known as Sakamoto Chiyo, the daughter of a fisherman in a small village in Japan. Soon after her mother died, she and her older sister are taken to Gion by one of the more well-off men in her village. Her sister is sold to a brothel and Chiyo is sold to an okiya, a house for geisha.

With her unusual blue-grey eyes, Chiyo is to train to become a geisha, but is constantly antagonized by Hatsumomo, the top geisha of the Nitta okiya. Hatsumomo cannot stand competition and recognizes that Chiyo will more than rival her if she becomes a geisha. Chiyo's life goes from bad to worse thanks to Hatsumoro and she is reduced to becoming a servant in the okiya with no hope of becoming a geisha.

A chance encounter with a kind and wealthy man with the title of chairman (here after known to Chiyo as the Chairman) changes her fortune. Chiyo wins the eye of the most successful geisha in Gion, Mameha, who is despised by Hatsumomo because she outshines her in every aspect and cannot be toppled because, unlike Hatsumomo, Mameha has earned her independance as a geisha. She adopts Chiyo as her apprentice and trains Chiyo to rival Hatsumomo. Her entrance into apprenticeship is marked by being given a new name: Sayuri.

With her success and her virginity sold, Sayuri not only becomes a highly successful geisha, she manages to pay off all the debts that bound her to the Nitta okiya when she was a servant and also is adopted by the mistress of the okiya. While Sayuri's fortunes seem to soar, even now that she has finally broken free of Hatsumomo's abuse, everything collapses in 1942 because of war.

During her time as a geisha before the war, she encounters the Chairman again, but finds it impossible to get close to him as she desires. Instead, she finds herself constantly being pushed to be with Nobu, the Chairman's most trusted friend. It is Nobu that saves Sayuri from the harsh labour of the war until Gion is able to open again on the condition that she will allow him to become her patron, despite the fact that it is the Chairman she desires. Sayuri and Mameha destroy Hatsumomo's reputation entirely thereafter and Hatsumomo is thrown out of the okiya.

However, it is not until Sayuri's desire to be with the Chairman truly frees her to pursue her own destiny. When Chairman frees her from the okiya to become his mistress, she sets up a posh teahouse for Japanese businessmen in New York so that he may save face in Japan when his daughter is about to marry a man set to be the Chairman's heir.

"Memoirs of a Geisha" - Controversy
After the novel was published, Arthur Golden was sued by the geisha (Mineko Iwasaki) with whom he worked, for defamation and breach of contract. According to the plaintiff, the agreement was supposed to be total anonymity for the main character of his story. This was because there is a code of silence among the geisha community and breaking that code is a serious offence. Once the plaintiff's name was printed in the book, she received numerous death threats and requests of censure for dishonouring her profession. However, she opted to sue Golden for putting her name in the novel. In 2003, Iwasaki and Golden settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money, though reports suggested that it was quite substantial.

One issue that Iwasaki never mentioned in public, but became quite clear after she published her own biography, Geisha of Gion, was how closely Memoirs of a Geisha mirrored her own life. Indeed, many of the main characters all corresponded to people she knew or was close to. But such characters, nasty and bitter as they were in Memoirs of a Geisha, were actually very kind to her in real life. When Sayuri enters the teahouse, she is treated like a slave. But in real life, Iwasaki was shown much love and attention, given a very privileged position. "Hatsumomo" was actually a sister that she developed a close relationship with, and "Nobu" was a lover that she cared deeply for. Though she could never have said it in public (a traditional Japanese woman would not share her inner-most, personal feelings), Golden's book would have been like reading a warped version of perfectly happy events in her past. She had opened up to Golden, and he had broken her confidence to write a one-off bestseller.

Film Adaptation
A movie adaptation of the novel, produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Rob Marshall, is under production as of 2005, and is planned for release on 23 December 2005. It will star Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Youki Kudoh and Suzuka Ohgo. Though Watanabe and Kudoh are Japanese, Zhang, Gong and Yeoh are all, in fact, of Chinese descent. Suzuka Ohgo plays the younger Sayuri in the film.

The Japanese release of the film is titled "Sayuri" (Latin alphabetic)

Casting controversy
Many people were upset that central characters in the movie were not played by native Japanese actresses; indeed, the lead is played by Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi. The production crew, however, paid little attention, in a move that some consider arrogant pan-Asianism, and a refusal to recognize the diversity of cultures in Asia. In China, however, the casting caused a stir in the Chinese Internet community where some users were unhappy due to rising nationalist sentiment, especially because some mistook geisha for prostitutes.

A profession similar to that of a Geisha did exist in imperial China. These women were refined in art, literature, history and social manners. They lived in brothels but did not make a living by selling their bodies. Their job was to entertain male guests with their talents in music, chess, calligraphy, painting etc., a practice known in Chinese as "selling one's talents instead of one's body" (賣藝不賣身). However, though highly refined and famous (involved in innumerable Chinese poems, literature, legends and folklore), they did not enjoy the status accorded to geisha in Japan. Some people unfamiliar with this cultural difference misunderstood geisha in a negative way.

Some argue that part of the negative reaction was due to the relative rarity of a famous actress playing a prostitute in native Chinese films due to the generally conservative values of Chinese society and government pressure, much less the role of "prostitute" in a country whose actions are often regarded as slights to China. Even in Hong Kong, Michelle Yeoh was surrounded by reporters asking her why she accepted the part. However, others argue that this is a red herring. Cecilia Cheung, for example, played a prostitute in One Night in Mongkok in 2004. In time, the controversy died down and the majority of Chinese were not affected. Many people, including the media, are waiting to see how these three Chinese actors perform in a film adapted from a novel set in traditional Japan.

Gift for the Chinese Actress from a Geisha
On a recent visit to Tokyo to promote the film, Zhang Ziyi received a mysterious parcel and letter, revealed to have been sent by an elderly Japanese woman who had once worked as a geisha. In her letter, the woman stated that she had been touched by the trailer of the film and expected the movie to bring back fond memories for her and her friends. Inside the parcel were several exquisitely worked antique kimonos. Zhang Ziyi was moved to tears by the gesture and sent the woman an invitation to the film's Japanese premiere. She also promised to wear one of the kimonos to the event as a sign of her gratitude (The Star Online).


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