The cast of characters in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ by Arthur Golden provides readers with insight into geisha and Japanese culture around World War II, a time that can be defined as a struggle for all that lived through it. The women in the novel define the difference in gender status and rights. Controlled by those around them, the likes of Sayuri, Hatsumomo, and all other geisha are always fighting for freedom and independence.
Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto
The protagonist and novel’s narrator, Sayuri, a young girl from Japan, began her life as Chiyo Sakamoto, the daughter of a poor fisherman. Then one day, her father sells to the highest bidder, forcing her to an okiya, a geisha school, to train to become a premier geisha. She enters into what is essentially a life of servitude, where she’ll have to complete her geisha training, learn how to dance, compete with rivals, and more.
Despite the beauty of the geisha world, readers soon learn that Sayuri has to live the life of a servant. From that day forward, she becomes Sayuri Nitta. Her beauty and cleverness help her survive the many life challenges.
She first must overcome and outwit her rival geisha, Hatsumomo, and find a way to a relationship with the poor-tempered Nobu. She eventually falls in love the Chairman Ken Iwamura and her determination and desire to be with him ensure the success of their relationship. In the end, she immigrates to the United States (specifically New York City) with him, where she recounts her story to Jakub Haarhuis.
While Nobu has been injured in the military, having lost one arm and having burn scars covering his face, he is obsessed with getting Sayuri to become his geisha. While Sayuri values him for his loyalty, he is inflexible, ill-tempered, and prone to harsh, cutting words. But she loves Ken Iwamura, his business partner, for his gentle kindness.
As Nobu is obsessed with Sayuri, he either does not realize or does not care that Sayuri is not in love with him. He strongly believes in self-determination and that everyone should find their purpose in life. When Nobu learns that Sayuri slept with a piggish man called Sato, whom he views as beneath her, he eventually forgoes any romantic or platonic relationship with her, despite his sometimes petty and unforgiving nature.
Chairman Ken Iwamaru
The Chairman, a kind and empathetic individual with a love for others, is the co-founder of Iwamura Electric with Nobu Toshikazu, and he offers Nobu the presidency as a reward for saving the company. As a child, Sayuri is comforted by the Chairman when he gives her his handkerchief and some money. She has never received such kindness in her life, thus beginning her first love connection.
The Chairman reveals to Sayuri when they met for the first time, he had always had feelings for her and that he asked Mameha to train Sayuri as a geisha. In spite of this, he allowed Nobu to get close to Sayuri because he was so loyal to him. In the end, Nobu gives up his attempts with Sayuri, and the Chairman becomes her Danna. They have a son together, and she and her son move to New York City to open a tea shop.
In the Nitta okiya, Hatsumomo is the head geisha, ensuring everyone knows it. She is cruel and manipulative. Her jealousy of Sayuri makes her try to ruin her career by spreading terrible rumors. As a result of her jealousy and fear of Sayuri, Hatsumomo loses confidence in her abilities and starts drinking unhealthily. In the wake of her irreparable damage, Hatsumomo leaves Kyoto in shame and is most likely to become a prostitute.
As a geisha in the Gion district, Mameha is regarded as a successful geisha because of her independence, and Danna paid all of her expenses instead of an okiya. Unlike Hasumomo, Mameha is very kind and helps Chiyo become a successful geisha. She takes an interest in Chiyo and convinces Mother to let her continue training as a geisha.
In the okiya, Pumpkin is introduced as Chiyo’s only friend, arriving a few months before Chiyo arrives, so they are close in age and become fast friends. Hatsumomo became Pumpkin’s older sister and was treated equally badly by Hatsumomo as Chiyo. Still, not nearly as much as Chiyo since Hatsumomo had to teach her how to be a geisha and win the bet with Mameha. As both girls were becoming geishas, Pumpkin was jealous of Chiyo, who was prettier and more successful than her. When Gion shut down, Pumpkin got a job in a factory, which is her worst nightmare.
Mrs. Nitta is responsible for overseeing everything that passes through the Nitta okiya. She is known for being greedy and not making any deals unless it is advantageous to her. Mother’s true character shines through as she manages to maintain her business during the war.
Despite being Sayuri’s or Chiyo’s older sister, Satsu is only a minor character in the novel. In contrast to her sister, Satsu isn’t considered physically attractive enough to become a geisha, so instead of being sold into an okiya, she’s sold into a brothel. Satsu escapes prostitution in the end, but Sayuri never gets to know her.
The Baron, also known as Tsuneyoshi Matsunaga, serves as Mameha’s Danna and tries to seduce Sayuri. There is a lot of contrast between Sayuri and the Chairman. Both men want the same thing– to buy a mistress. However, they treat them differently.
One major difference is that the Chairman lets Sayuri have his child. The Baron forces Mameha to have multiple abortions. Although Sayuri loves the Chairman (or she thinks she does), Mameha does not feel anything for him and shows no emotion when he passes away.
The Minister, Deputy Minister Sato, is a drunken pig who wants Sayuri to return to Gion to entertain him. To make Nobu lose respect for herself, Sayuri arranges for him to have a night as her Danna.
The oldest maid at the okiya (geisha house). Auntie is one of the few people who show Sayuri any sign of kindness or care. She helps in providing advice on becoming a geisha and surviving the torment of Hatsumomo.
The former owner of the Nitta okiya and the one who raised Mother and Auntie. She passes away at the beginning of the novel after being electrocuted.
When World War II breaks out, Mameha sets up an arrangement where the General becomes Sayuri’s Danna during the time of war. Sayuri does this in exchange for extra rations.
A well-known kimono maker who is forced to make parachutes during WWII.
Does the Chairman marry Sayuri?
Chairman becomes Sayuri’s danna (a man who pays a geisha to be his long-term mistress) when Nobu rejects Sayuri. Since he already has a family, he does not marry her. But, he does pay all her expenses and permits her to open her teahouse in New York. He ends up taking care of her until he dies.
What happened to Sayuri’s sister?
Sayuri’s sister, Satsu, is deemed not as attractive as her sister and is sold into a brothel rather than a geisha. The sisters lose contact and never hear from one another again.
What did Pumpkin do to Sayuri?
Pumpkin ends up betraying Sayuri by bringing the Chairman instead of Nobu to walk in on her having sex with the Minister. Her jealousy from not being adopted into the Nitta okiya still lingers.
Who wins the bid for Sayuri’s mizuage?
During the auction for Sayuri’s mizuage, Dr. Crab and Nobu are the main bidders for the prize, with Dr. Crab eventually paying a record amount for her virginity.
What was Memoirs of a Geisha inspired by?
The novel ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ was based on an interview that Arthur Golden conducted with one of the most famous geisha of all time – Mineko Iwasaki. He used her story for the novel, which was later turned into a famous movie of the same name.
Who was Sayuri in love with?
Sayuri is in love with Ken Iwamura, better known as the Chairman. He is far older than she is and becomes her patron.