About the Book

Book Protagonist: Sayuri Nitta
Publication Date: 1997
Genre: Drama, Historical Fiction, Romance

Historical Context

Memoirs of a Geisha

By Arthur Golden

'Memoirs of a Geisha' is a memorable novel that takes place in Japan around World War II. It features historically important locations and delves into geisha traditions.

Memoirs of a Geisha‘ was researched and written from the early 1990s to 1997, when it was eventually published. It is a historical fiction novel set in Japan around World War II (1929-1945). It was Arthur Golden’s debut novel. He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was educated in Japan and Massachusetts.

The novel plays a fine line between geisha culture and traditional accuracy, with the West (mostly within the United States) viewing the novel as a success and the East questioning its integrity and often referring to the defamation case against Golden. 

While spending most of his young adult life studying and researching Japanese art and history, in 1991, Golden set out to write a novel about the geisha culture. His inspiration for the novel came after spending a summer in Tokyo and meeting and conversing with a young man whose mother was once a geisha. He would then spend the next six years researching and developing the novel, interviewing one of the most famous geisha until he settled upon a first-person memoir from the perspective of a geisha. 

The historical context and use of historical events are lacking, with most of the focus spent on the novel’s protagonist Chiyo, and the culture and tradition of the geisha profession.

From a Western point of view, ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ gives an accurate glimpse into the world of being a geisha. Still, those from the East felt the novel over-sexualized the geisha profession, inaccurately comparing it to that of a prostitute. The novel’s popularity in the West tends to overshadow the negative criticism Golden and the novel have received. 

Publication and Legacy

The Story of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha was published in 1997. Golden spent the previous six years researching and writing the novel. The novel’s success was immediate, spending the next two years (1997-99) on the New York Times bestseller list. The novel has sold more than four million copies since it was published and has been translated into an impressive thirty-two languages. At the height of its popularity, the novel was adapted into a film in 2005. 

Despite its success and popularity, ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ still received plenty of negative criticism. While researching for the novel, Golden had the opportunity to speak to a former prominent geisha, Mineko Iwasaki.

Mineko was a famous geisha during the 60s and 70s. After speaking with Mineko, Golden promised to protect her identity and background. When the novel was published in Japan in 2001, Mineko Iwasaki sued Golden for breaching their contract and her identity. His most obvious mistake is when he uses her as a source in his acknowledgments for the novel, forcing her to deal with the backlash from the Japanese and geisha communities. In 2003 Golden eventually settled out of court with Mineko for an undisclosed fee. 

When viewing ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ just as a first-person, fictional novel, Golden’s ability to create an emotional connection between the reader and Sayuri is done incredibly well. His ability to personify Sayuri with the use of symbols and metaphors is done in a vivid, colorful manner.

But when looking at the accuracy of the tradition and culture of the geisha profession, the novel is lacking. One of Golden’s main plot points is the bidding war for Nitta Sayuri’s mizuage, her virginity. He makes it seem as though the highest bidder winning a young girl was normal, but the geisha community finds this taboo. The selling of a girl’s virginity did happen during that period, but most geisha houses did not partake. This act was eventually made illegal in Japan in the 1950s. 

Golden’s over-sexualization of the geisha culture in the novel is incredibly suggestive, almost comparing them to prostitutes. Golden tends to focus on the exotic, sexual side of a geisha and does not place enough attention and detail on the art of geisha; from the expensive, high-quality kimonos they wear to the artistic training these women undergo, traditional dance ceremonies they learn, and makeup they use. Japanese history has shown that the profession of geisha is highly respected and a culture that prefers secrecy and anonymity. 


What inspired the writing of the book Memoirs of a Geisha?

One summer, while Arthur Golden was living in Japan, he met an individual whose mother was a former geisha. After hearing this story, he spent the next six years researching and writing the novel. He was also inspired by an interview he conducted with a famous geisha who told him the story of her life and her time at a renowned geisha house.

Which war happened in Memoirs of a Geisha?

The novel takes place before and during World War II. The novel ends in 1945 during the final days of World War II.

Which country banned Memoirs of a Geisha?

When the film adaptation of the novel came out in 2005, China believed the film and novel would stoke anti-Japanese sentiment. So, they implemented a country-wide ban on the film and the novel.

Do geisha still exist in Japan?

Geisha do still exist in Japan. They are known as geiko in the modern age and can still be found in Tokyo, Kanazawa, and Kyoto. Kyoto is still the most prominent area to experience geisha, with five geiko districts remaining.

What is Arthur Golden’s educational background?

Golden first attended Harvard College, where he received a degree in art history. Then he went to Columbia University for his Master’s degree in Japanese history, primarily focusing on Japanese art.

Jacob Campbell
About Jacob Campbell
Jacob received a BA in English from Adam State University, along with a minor in Creative Writing. He pursues his love of reading and writing through his work for Book Analysis. 
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