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Book Essay: Memoirs of a Geisha

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“The very idea!” he said, with another laugh. “You, growing up in a dump like Yoroido. That’s like making tea in a bucket!” And when he’d laughed again, he said to me, “That’s why you’re so much fun, Sayuri-san. Sometimes you almost make me believe your little jokes are real.”

So starts Arthur Golden’s best seller, a novel written in the guise of personal memoirs by a geisha whose story begins in 1929 when, as a nine-year-old girl, she is taken from her rural home in Yoroido and sold to a geisha house in Kyoto. The book traces the tumultuous path of the girl Chiyo’s transformation into a geisha (Sayuri), which is laden with incredible hardship but also the sublime aesthetics of a disappearing world. As the amazing popularity of this book attests, Golden’s story of Gion, set mainly in the three decades between 1929 and the mid 1950s, has touched a chord in U.S. audiences whose fans (more female than male) range from students and professionals, to housewives and workers (manual, office, and retired). To consider the merits of Memoirs of a Geisha for classroom instruction, it is imperative, I believe, to take account of this popular reception. If Memoirs is taught as a mass phenomenon as well as a text, it allows us to explore not only what Memoirs says about Japan, but also what its reception reveals about American audiences and the ways in which Japan gets read through the prism of the fictional Sayuri-san.