Memoirs of a Geisha Quotes 💬

Three of the most prominent themes of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ are self-identity, tradition/customs, and free will. Sayuri’s desire for free will and self-identity clashed with the traditions and customs of Japan in the early twentieth century. 

Memoirs of a Geisha

Arthur Golden

Throughout the novel ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ by Arthur Golden, Chiyo, also known as Sayuri, is constantly searching for her own identity while struggling with the lack of free will. Let’s look at a few quotes and consider how they play into the larger themes of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha.’ 


My name back then was Chiyo. I wouldn’t be known by my geisha name, Sayuri, until years later.

At the novel’s beginning, Sayuri initially speaks to Jakob Haarhuis, the novel’s fictional translator, who records Sayuri’s story. As a bit of foreshadowing for the reader, Sayuri shares that drastic change will come on her path to becoming a geisha. She must not only learn the art of the geisha but become a whole new person. 

I thought Sayuri was a lovely name, but it felt strange not to be known as Chiyo any longer. 

After being adopted back into the Nitta okiya and becoming an apprentice geisha, Sayuri sees herself in a new light. Her birth name Chiyo symbolizes her childhood and how she views herself when referred to as Chiyo. By being given a geisha name, a new name, Sayuri sees this as the bridging from childhood to adulthood. 

I sometimes lift the brocade cover on the mirror of my makeup stand, and have the briefest flicker of a thought I may find her there in the glass, smirking at me.

Even though Hatsumomo’s jealousy and fear of Sayuri ultimately led to her downward spiral, Sayuri and Mameha still had a hand in her being expelled from the okiya. Sayuri is worried that she is turning into Hatsumomo after she tries to do the same to her. Sayuri now questions her “self,” convincing herself she and Hatsumomo are the same. 

Tradition and Customs

Your job is to bow as low as you can, and don’t look them in the eye. 

This is Chiyo’s first experience with Japanese customs she never understood or learned. Coming from a poor coastal village, the way higher class people from the city lived and behaved would have to be learned as they came along. And along with learning certain Japanese customs, she’ll need to know the complicated customs of a Geisha. 

A woman who must take her sash on and off all night can’t be bothered with tying it benhind her again and again.

As part of the geisha’s traditions and customs, they feel it is necessary to separate themselves from prostitutes. One of the major ways to distinguish a geisha from a prostitute is in the way they dress. In the line here, Mameha is also demeaning those who work as prostitutes, classifying them as second-class citizens.

Geisha never marry. Or at least those who do no longer continue as geisha.

Up until this point, Sayuri never realized she could never be a geisha and a wife. Traditionally geisha is this eternal mistress. They can find themselves a ‘Danna,’ a man who can support them financially, and this man can keep them “on retainer” in a sense whenever they so choose to see them. Most of these men are usually married and live in different cities. 

Lack of Free Will

Something happened to me-one of the trivial things with huge consequences, like losing your step and fall in front of a train. 

Such a powerful line from the present-day Sayuri in the novel ‘Memoirs of a Geisha.’ Before she shares her story, she foreshadows the dark past she was forced to live up to that point. Right from the beginning of the novel, Sayuri feels she never had free will. Her life is dictated by those around her, even as a geisha. 

We lead our lives like water flowing down a hill, going more or less in one direction until we splash into something that forces us to find a new course. 

One of the primary symbols and metaphors to describe Sayuri’s connection to water and the way she finds her way through life. Whatever situation/obstacle Sayuri finds herself in, she always manages to ‘flow’ through it, even in the toughest times. But within the lines is Sayuri also sharing that she must go in the direction she is led until she is sent another direction. 

We don’t become geisha so our lives will be satisfying. We become geisha because we have no other choice.

This quote perfectly defines the lack of free will Sayuri and other geisha deal with. During that period in Japanese tradition and culture, women of ‘prominent beauty’ who had no social status were forced into the life of a geisha. Sayuri found the life of a geisha was one she would not wish for another. 


What is the message of Memoirs of a Geisha?

One of the novel’s main themes is self-identity and Sayuri’s journey to understand and establish herself. The ‘water’ in her personality guides her through all her struggles and obstacles in life. 

Did Sayuri have a son with the chairman?

Sayuri implies to the novel’s translator Jack Harrhuis that she did have the Chairman’s child, But to protect her son’s reputation, she ultimately says she didn’t. 

Why is the book Memoirs of a Geisha banned in Japan?

The novel is not banned in Japan, only the film. The Japanese public was upset that the majority of the actors were played by Chinese actors and still criticized the fact that the novel was written by a white man

What is the most famous line from Memoirs of a Geisha?

With so many amazing and theme-provoking lines, here are some of the best.
“Adversity is like a strong wind. I don’t mean just that it holds us back from places we might otherwise go. It also tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that afterward we see ourselves as we really are, and not merely as we might like to be.”
“We lead our lives like water flowing down a hill, going more or less in one direction until we splash into something that forces us to find a new course.”
“This is why dreams can be such dangerous things: they smolder on like a fire does, and sometimes they consume us completely.”

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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