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In the years before the Second World War, the Gion district in Japan was a viciously competitive place where women fought desperately for men s favor and munificent gifts, a girl s virginity was auctioned off to the highest bidder, and a woman could not even dream about happiness through love. In Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Sayuri, whose name was Chiyo before she became a geisha, tells of her struggle to survive in Gion s cruel hierarchy and her race to be one of the top geishas. Through all of it, Sayuri exhibits the emphasis she, as well as the society, puts on wealth and outer appearances.
Even before Sayuri enters the geisha district of Gion, to her, the exterior of a person is a significant factor when judging a person. From this sort of judgment, she develops trust and respect based on the way a person dresses, talks, or how rich s/he is. In Yoroido, Mr. Tanaka Ichiro is a person she respected revered, almost. He knew things [she] would never know and had an elegance [she] would never have for his blue kimono was finer than anything [she] would ever have occasion to wear. (pg. 20) Just because Mr. Tanaka does not wear peasant clothing, but rather a quality kimono, Sayuri puts a great deal of trust in him, only to find out that he sells her to a Mrs. Nitta, owner of a geisha house. For the first few days, she even tries to convince herself that it was only a temporary placement, and Mr. Tanaka will go back to adopt her. She fails to see that Mr. Tanaka, being an affluent businessman, is purely motivated by the money he will make from selling an extraordinarily beautiful girl, such as young Sayuri, to a geisha house. In her eyes, money equals compassion. Sayuri judges herself as well, comparing herself to others who are wealthier and more polished than her. When she meets Mr. Tanaka s daughter, Kuniko, she sees that her clothing was much more refined than mine but being the village girl I was, I chased her out into the woods barefoot (pg. 27) She degrades herself, believing that she acts in an ignorant manner solely because she is just a shabby village girl. Although she comprehends the genuine friendliness in Kuniko, she does not see this as the reason for wanting to play and chase after her. Because Kuniko has a graceful outfit and she does not, Sayuri views herself crude and ill mannered. Growing up around people who wears peasant clothing and smells of fish, Sayuri cannot help but succumb to the wonders of opulent and materialistic individuals while putting herself down.
In the geisha district of Gion in Kyoto, a woman, who is most likely a geisha, is not of importance if she is not beautiful or seductive and no one notices a man if he is not wealthy. In the okiya, another term for a geisha house, a geisha has top priority if she is the most beautiful or most called for to entertain men at teahouses. When Sayuri first entered the okiya, the first geisha she saw was Hatsumomo, one of Gion s most famous geishas at that time. She d never seen a more astonishing-looking woman. Men in the street sometimes stopped and took their cigarettes from their mouths to stare at her. (pg. 48-49) Her beauty gives her the right to treat slaves, such as Sayuri, with cruelty and give orders to elders in the okiya. Today, commanding seniors would be the ultimate disrespectful gesture. Once, just to get Sayuri in trouble, Hatsumomo framed her and led the mother of the okiya, whom they call Mother into believing that she had stolen Hatsumomo s expensive comb. No matter how innocent Sayuri was, whatever Hatsumomo said was the truth. Later in the story, Mother tells Sayuri that she d earned more in the past six months than both Hatsumomo and Pumpkin combined. Which means, she said, that it s time for you to exchange rooms with them. (pg. 317) As quick as a blink of an eye, Hatsumomo is bumped down and Sayuri becomes the one who all the slaves have to make way for. It is only because she has grown into an exceptionally pretty young lady and is earning all the money for the okiya that Mother treats her completely differently and allows her special privileges. When a danna is chosen for a geisha, it is important that the man is wealthy enough to support her and lavish her with exquisite gifts. During the brink of World War II, it was Sayuri s time to choose a danna, although it was not really her choice. Mother was afraid of running low on supplies in the okiya, so she favored the thought of having General Tottori, the man who oversees all the resources of the military, to become Sayuri s danna. She disregards Sayuri s need for happiness, and chooses General Tottori over Nobu, for his position could be of great help to the okiya. (pg. 302) However, General Tottori s wealth proves to be only temporary, for he could not even provide a safe place for Sayuri to stay during the war, as Nobu later does. Since Mother s judgment of people is based on wealth and her own greed, Sayuri is cheated of her happiness. The importance of a person in Gion is fleeting, for beauty and wealth in a person never lasts forever.
Bombarded with the teachings of materialistic values, Sayuri cannot help but benefit herself through manipulating others with her own superficial qualities. As a geisha, Sayuri s exotic beauty is all she needs to obtain the lust of men who hold great power. Even a glimpse from Sayuri is enough to make a man trip and drop what he is holding. To achieve this alluring effect, she has to spend hours preparing, dressing in intricately designed silk kimonos, applying thick makeup, and choosing the right accessories, which meant they had to be showy. When she visits a teahouse just as an apprentice geisha, a man says after she leaves, I didn t get much of an impression But she s very pretty. (pg. 182) The man pays no attention to Sayuri s politeness or her cleverness in speaking, but rather takes a great liking to her stunning beauty. The right body language is captivating to a man as well. Pouring the tea just the right way keeps a man happy by letting him think he s permitted to see parts of your body no one else can see. If an apprentice geisha [pours] tea just like a maid—the poor man will lose all hope. (pg. 168) The right way, as Sayuri learns, to pour tea is to show the prettiest part of the arm the underside, for a man in Gion is only interested in one thing: the sensuality in a woman. Other than attractiveness in the presentation of the physical beauty, Sayuri must also portray a charm that attracts men, though it may not necessarily be from within. She puts on a show, doing her best to seem as weak as possible (pg. 216) so a certain doctor, a very wealthy man who visits teahouses often, would notice her. While entertaining men at teahouses, Sayuri uses subtle flattery in her conversations to gain favor from the men. She teases a Minister, complaining that you don t like me anymore! You haven t been to see me in more than a month. Is it because Nobu-san has been unkind, and hasn t brought you to Gion as often as he should have? (pg. 382) Of course Sayuri does not actually enjoy the Minister s company, for he is an irritating man who constantly grunts like a pig. For the sake of her friend, Nobu s, company, she uses words and flattery to influence the Minister s thoughts. Being a geisha, Sayuri has no choice but to arrange a fa ade to satisfy everyone else s needs but her own. Her hopes of finding a man who sees her for who she really is slowly deteriorates.
Sayuri lived most of her life, needing to impress everyone. She astonishes many with her beauty, but that is all. She is so busy contending with others the physical beauty that she does not take the time to look into the character of others as well as herself. In the ending paragraph of the book, she states, Now I know that our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean. (pg. 428) At that point in life, Sayuri realizes that the traits she at first regarded highly in a person is ephemeral. Only the kindness and compassion in a person will last a lifetime, leaving a deep impression of his/her true inner qualities as a human being.
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