Memoirs of a Geisha

The word Geisha has several different meanings. Geisha translates to art performer, the “gei” meaning art and the “sha” meaning people who are skilled hostesses that are trained to entertain guests through singing, dancing, conversation, and ceremonies. Throughout the years, especially during World War II, there has been controversy over what a Geisha does. For example, in the Western society some may look at a Geisha and think they are distorted into prostitutes. But in a Eastern society, more specifically in a Japanese culture, the lifestyle of a Geisha is committed to art and beauty.

In the book “Memoirs of a Geisha” we are able to see the transformation of the main character Sayuri, whom was living the lifestyle as a poor girl who was then taken into the Geisha house and was used as a slave but then became one of the most successful Geisha of their time. The novel can be criticized in a Marxist- Feminist theory because the Geisha’s were portrayed as works of art, the women were very dependent on men to support their lifestyle and high class males were able to purchase a Geisha for her virginity.

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The life of a Geisha can be looked upon in many different aspects. Some may look at them as women who give their life away to serve drunk men, and even as prostitutes. But within their own culture, Geisha’s are looked upon as beautiful works of art. They are portrayed as works of art because of the way they carry themselves gracefully, also their skills in music and dance give them more talent and as well as the beauty of their makeup bring out the true form of a Geisha. The following quote from the book Memoirs of a Geisha is a direct example of a real Geisha explaining her own definition of what she thinks they are.

“Remember Chiyo, geisha’s are not courtesans and we are not wives. We sell our skills not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty. The very word “Geisha” means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art” (Golden). By analyzing this quote with a feminist theory perspective, Geisha’s are considered to be objectified as ethereal beings who earn their rights as humans by being able to share their talents and intelligence with others. It also dehumanizes a Geisha because others treat them as possessions to be displayed rather than the humans that they are. In the novel, Dr. Crab who bids for Sayuri’s virginity is an example which proves being treated as a possession when he tells her.

“you must be quite the commodity”(Golden).

In order for a Geisha to be successful and live a suitable lifestyle, so must her danna. A danna is a Geishas patron or sponsor, or it could also be her husband or “master of house”. This can be relatable to society’s patriarchal structure which can be criticized in a Marxist critique. The novel has many important information which reflect on the role of a woman and her rights. It contained information which examined the way they had to live which was under systems that forced them to be dependent on men, rather than being strong independent women. If women were to become independent it would be because she had obtained her danna. In the novel it also explains that if a woman was not to become a Geisha she will achieve nothing in her life and would remain as a maid all her life. There were also several references to higher and lower class okiya’s in the novel.

Those who were part of a lower class okiya, were not as popular as the ones who were apart of high classes and also they had to make themselves available to men on a nightly basis to earn more income. In the novel there were several example of Mahema explaining how difficult it is for a Geisha to live a life independent, the only possible way is if a woman had enough money that she earned she would gain her independence and be able to move out of her okiya and do as she pleases. An example of tension between individual independence is while Sayuri longs for the freedom to choose to love and Mahema replies to her by saying “we don’t become geisha’s because we want our lives to be happy; we become geishas because we have no other choice”. Also because of the roles of women and their rights it contains forms of subordination from the way a Geisha had to live under repressive patriarchal systems that forced them into being dependent on men instead of being strong and independent.

“But as a geisha without a danna, she didn’t make it enough to gain her independence and move out of the okiya” (Golden, 148) This quote explains the dependency on men because Sayuri mentions the importance of obtaining a danna and states that without one a Geisha could not own her own independence.

After a generous amount of time, Geisha’s are able to master the arcane arts of pleasing men in hopes of finding a very wealthy man who will consider buying her for her mizage. A mizage is a fee paid by a man to the okiya mother as payment for a Geisha’s virginity. The value of a Geisha is through her virginity, Mahema whom is Sayuri’s big sister in the novel reinforces the value when she tells Sayuri.

“no man would ever bid so much for a thing already taken”(Golden). If a Geisha had many debts to pay to her okiya, she would need to find a man who would be able to support her financially, this man would be known as her danna. For a Geisha to be able to find her danna, her viriginty must be auctioned off. The highest bidder among all the men who are interested in the mizage will become her danna.

“…a geisha of the first of second tier in Gion can’t be bought for a single night, not by anyone. But if the right sort of man is interested in something else- not a night together, but a much longer time and if he’s willing to offer suitable terms, well in that case a geisha will be happy to accept such arrangements”(Golden, 148). That is what differentiates a Geisha from being a prostitute; she is only sold once for her virginity and only engages in physical intimacy with her danna. A Geisha does not only just let a man find out about her virginity and decides to enter the bidding, she must be able to use her femininity and seduce her men. This is an important factor because it is a key concept of a Geisha’s lifestyle. The physical appearance of a Geisha is also intended to seduce men, by wearing thick makeup and long dresses, wearing their hair in a “peach split” to represent a virgin Geisha and nakedness on their neck are some ways that they use their sexuality to manipulate men.

The novel emphases how geisha women have to use their femininity to find men. For example in the novel, Mahema challenges Sayuri to use a seductive stare to stop a man carrying boxes to stare at her, and she is able to successfully stop the man and also make him drop all of the boxes he was carrying. All Geisha’s just like Sayuri are trained to use their sexuality not because they want to, but because they have to. If a Geisha does not accumulate enough men to want her for bidding, she will be sold for very little and will not be able to pay back her okiya mother for all her depts. If a Geisha fails to pay back her okiya she will be seen as a bad investment. Femininity was the only thing a Geisha could sell, because society refused to value anything else that they were willing to offer. Feminine seduction was necessary to gain power and independence, much of this played into the society’s patriarchal structure.

In conclusion Memoirs of a Geisha can be criticized in a Marxist-feminist critique because of the Oppression Geisha’s had within the society such as class distinctions and the corruption of wage labours. By being dehumanized as moving works of art and beauty, the use of their femininity to obtain men who will support them financially instead of being recognized for independence.

Works Cited

Bromberg, Sarah. Cal State University. Northridge. 1997. Feminist Issues in Prostitution

Golden, Arthur. USA : Knoft. September 1997. Print. Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha

Pace, Nancy. Real Geisha, Real Women, Real men, Real Relationships, Real Feminism.
6 Jan. 2008

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