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Authors: Arthur Golden

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Memoirs of a Geisha

BOOK: Memoirs of a Geisha

For my wife, Trudy,
and my children, Hays and Tess


One evening in the spring of 1936, when I was a boy of fourteen, my father took me to a dance performance in Kyoto. I remember only two things about it. The first is that he and I were the only Westerners in the audience; we had come from our home in the Netherlands only a few weeks earlier, so I had not yet adjusted to the cultural isolation and still felt it acutely. The second is how pleased I was, after months of intensive study of the Japanese language, to find that I could now understand fragments of the conversations I overheard. As for the young Japanese women dancing on the stage before me, I remember nothing of them except a vague impression of brightly colored kimono. I certainly had no way of knowing that in a time and place as far away as New York City nearly fifty years in the future, one among them would become my good friend and would dictate her extraordinary memoirs to me.

As a historian, I have always regarded memoirs as source material. A memoir provides a record not so much of the memoirist as of the memoirist's world. It must differ from biography in that a memoirist can never achieve the perspective that a biographer possesses as a matter of course. Autobiography, if there really is such a thing, is like asking a rabbit to tell us what he looks like hopping through the grasses of the field. How would he know? If we want to hear about the field, on the other hand, no one is in a better circumstance to tell us—so long as we keep in mind that we are missing all those things the rabbit was in no position to observe.

I say this with the certainty of an academician who has based a career on such distinctions. And yet I must confess that the memoirs of my dear friend Nitta Sayuri have impelled me to rethink my views. Yes, she does elucidate for us the very secret world in which she lived—the rabbit's view of the field, if you will. There may well be no better record of the strange life of a geisha than the one Sayuri offers. But she leaves behind as well a record of herself that is far more complete, more accurate, and more compelling than the lengthy chapter examining her life in the book
Glittering Jewels of Japan
, or in the various magazine articles about her that have appeared over the years. It seems that at least in the case of this one unusual subject, no one knew the memoirist as well as the memoirist herself.

That Sayuri should have risen to prominence was largely a matter of chance. Other women have led similar lives. The renowned Kato Yuki—a geisha who captured the heart of George Morgan, nephew of J. Pierpont, and became his bride-in-exile during the first decade of this century—may have lived a life even more unusual in some ways than Sayuri's. But only Sayuri has documented her own saga so completely. For a long while I believed that her choice to do so was a fortuitous accident. If she had remained in Japan, her life would have been too full for her to consider compiling her memoirs. However, in 1956 circumstances in her life led Sayuri to emigrate to the United States. For her remaining forty years, she was a resident of New York City's Waldorf Towers, where she created for herself an elegant Japanese-style suite on the thirty-second floor. Even then her life continued at its frenetic pace. Her suite saw more than its share of Japanese artists, intellectuals, business figures—even cabinet ministers and a gangster or two. I did not meet her until an acquaintance introduced us in 1985. As a scholar of Japan, I had encountered Sayuri's name, though I knew almost nothing about her. Our friendship grew, and she confided in me more and more. One day I asked if she would ever permit her story to be told.

“Well, Jakob-san, I might, if it's you who records it,” she told me.

So it was that we began our task. Sayuri was clear that she wanted to dictate her memoirs rather than write them herself, because, as she explained, she was so accustomed to talking face-to-face that she would hardly know how to proceed with no one in the room to listen. I agreed, and the manuscript was dictated to me over the course of eighteen months. I was never more aware of Sayuri's Kyoto dialect—in which geisha themselves are called
, and kimono are sometimes known as
than when I began to wonder how I would render its nuances in translation. But from the very start I felt myself lost in her world. On all but a few occasions we met in the evening; because of long habit, this was the time when Sayuri's mind was most alive. Usually she preferred to work in her suite at the Waldorf Towers, but from time to time we met in a private room at a Japanese restaurant on Park Avenue, where she was well known. Our sessions generally lasted two or three hours. Although we tape-recorded each session, her secretary was present to transcribe her dictation as well, which she did very faithfully. But Sayuri never spoke to the tape recorder or to the secretary; she spoke always to me. When she had doubts about where to proceed, I was the one who steered her. I regarded myself as the foundation upon which the enterprise was based and felt that her story would never have been told had I not gained her trust. Now I've come to see that the truth may be otherwise. Sayuri chose me as her amanuensis, to be sure, but she may have been waiting all along for the right candidate to present himself.

Which brings us to the central question: Why did Sayuri want her story told? Geisha may not take any formal vow of silence, but their existence is predicated on the singularly Japanese conviction that what goes on during the morning in the office and what goes on during the evening behind closed doors bear no relationship to one another, and must always remain compartmentalized and separate. Geisha simply do not talk for the record about their experiences. Like prostitutes, their lower-class counterparts, geisha are often in the unusual position of knowing whether this or that public figure really does put his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. Probably it is to their credit that these butterflies of the night regard their roles as a kind of public trust, but in any case, the geisha who violates that trust puts herself in an untenable position. Sayuri's circumstances in telling her story were unusual, in that no one in Japan had power over her any longer. Her ties with her native country had already been severed. This may tell us, at least in part, why she no longer felt constrained to silence, but it does not tell us why she chose to talk. I was afraid to raise the question with her; what if, in examining her own scruples on the subject, she should change her mind? Even when the manuscript was complete, I felt reluctant to ask. Only after she had received her advance from the publisher did I feel it safe to query her: Why had she wanted to document her life?

“What else do I have to do with my time these days?” she replied.

As to whether or not her motives were really as simple as this, I leave the reader to decide.

Though she was eager to have her biography recorded, Sayuri did insist upon several conditions. She wanted the manuscript published only after her death and the deaths of several men who had figured prominently in her life. As it turned out, they all predeceased her. It was a great concern of Sayuri's that no one be embarrassed by her revelations. Whenever possible I have left names unchanged, though Sayuri did hide the identities of certain men even from me through the convention, rather common among geisha, of referring to customers by means of an epithet. When encountering characters such as Mr. Snowshowers—whose moniker suggests itself because of his dandruff—the reader who believes Sayuri is only trying to amuse may have misunderstood her real intent.

When I asked Sayuri's permission to use a tape recorder, I intended it only as a safeguard against any possible errors of transcription on the part of her secretary. Since her death last year, however, I have wondered if I had another motive as well—namely, to preserve her voice, which had a quality of expressiveness I have rarely encountered. Customarily she spoke with a soft tone, as one might expect of a woman who has made a career of entertaining men. But when she wished to bring a scene to life before me, her voice could make me think there were six or eight people in the room. Sometimes still, I play her tapes during the evenings in my study and find it very difficult to believe she is no longer alive.

Jakob Haarhuis
Arnold Rusoff Professor of Japanese History
New York University


Although the character of Sayuri and her story are completely invented, the historical facts of a geisha's day-to-day life in the 1930s and 1940s are not. In the course of my extensive research I am indebted to one individual above all others. Mineko Iwasaki, one of Gion's top geisha in the 1960s and 1970s, opened her Kyoto home to me during May 1992, and corrected my every misconception about the life of a geisha--even though everyone I knew who had lived in Kyoto, or who lived there still, told me never to expect such candor. While brushing up my Japanese on the airplane, I worried that Mineko, whom I had not yet met, might talk with me for an hour about the weather and call it an interview. Instead she took me on an insider's tour of Gion, and together with her husband, Jin, and her sisters, Yaetchiyo and the late Kuniko, patiently answered all my questions about the ritual of a geisha's life in intimate detail. She became, and remains, a good friend. I have the fondest memories of her family's trip to visit us in Boston, and the otherworldly sense my wife and I felt while watching tennis on television in our living room with our new friend, a Japanese woman in her forties who also happened to be one of the last geisha trained in the old tradition.

To Mineko, thank you for everything.

I was introduced to Mineko by Mrs. Reiko Nagura, a longtime friend and a fiercely intelligent woman of my mother's generation, who speaks Japanese, English, and German with equal fluency. She won a prize for a short story she wrote in English while an undergraduate at Barnard, only a few years after first coming to the United States to study, and soon became a lifelong friend of my grandmother's. The affection between her family and mine is now in its fourth generation. Her home has been a regular haven on my visits to Tokyo; I owe her a greater debt than I can express. Along with every other kindness she has done for me, she read over my manuscript at various stages and offered a great many invaluable suggestions.

During the years I have worked on this novel, my wife, Trudy, has provided more help and support than I had any right to expect. Beyond her endless patience, her willingness to drop everything and read when I needed her eye, and her frankness and extreme thoughtfulness, she has given me that greatest of gifts: constancy and understanding.

Robin Desser of Knopf is the kind of editor every writer dreams about: passionate, insightful, committed, always helpful—and a load of fun besides.

For her warmth, her directness, her professionalism, and her charm, there is no one quite like Leigh Feldman. I am extremely lucky to have her for an agent.

Helen Bartlett, you know all you did to help me from early on. Thanks to you, and to Denise Stewart.

I'm very grateful to my good friend Sara Laschever, for her careful reading of the manuscript, her generous involvement, and her many thoughtful suggestions and ideas.

Teruko Craig was kind enough to spend hours talking with me about her life as a schoolgirl in Kyoto during the war. I am grateful also to Liza Dalby, the only American woman ever to become a geisha, and to her excellent book,
, an anthropological study of geisha culture, which also recounts her experiences in the Pontocho district; she generously lent me a number of useful Japanese and English books from her personal collection.

Thanks also to Kiharu Nakamura, who has written about her experiences as a geisha in the Shimbashi district of Tokyo, and kindly spent an evening talking with me during the course of my research.

I am grateful, too, for the thoughtful insights and empathetic concern of my brother, Stephen.

Robert Singer, curator of Japanese art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, went to considerable trouble while I was in Kyoto to show me firsthand how aristocrats there once lived.

Bowen Dees, whom I met on an airplane, permitted me to read his unpublished manuscript about his experiences in Japan during the Allied Occupation.

I'm thankful also to Allan Palmer for giving me the benefit of his extensive knowledge of tea ceremony and Japanese superstitions.

John Rosenfield taught me Japanese art history as no one else can, and made a university as gigantic as Harvard feel like a small college. I'm grateful to him for helpful advice all along the way.

I'm profoundly in Barry Minsky's debt, for the valuable role he played as I worked to bring this novel into being.

In addition, for their kindnesses too numerous to recount, thanks to David Kuhn, Merry White, Kazumi Aoki, Yasu Ikuma, Megumi Nakatani, David Sand, Yoshio Imakita, Mameve Medwed, the late Celia Millward, Camilla Trinchieri, Barbara Shapiro, Steve Weisman, Yoshikata Tsukamoto, Carol Janeway of Knopf, Lynn Pleshette, Denise Rusoff, David Schwab, Alison Tolman, Lidia Yagoda, and Len Rosen.

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