Juushika's Reviews > Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
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it was ok

Memoirs of a Geisha is an American novel, and as such the attempt at West does East, especially on the complex and delicate subject of the geisha, is compelling, interesting, but also heavy-handed and ultimately ineffective (even more so in the case of the film). It is a wonderful introduction to geisha, Japanese culture, and the East for the uninitiated Western reader, and I can see why the book is popular, but I found it disappointing. For the reader already familiar with the culture, western influences are all too clear and the book comes off as a bit clunky and imperfect. I also had some problems with the general perception of the characters by readers versus the way the characters were actually portrayed in the book--Memoirs is far from the good-willed fairy tale that people assume it is. By all means, read it, but leave it open for critique and remember that a more authentic representation of eastern culture, especially in the details, will come from the east itself.

A lot of my critique stems from the fact that this movie has attained such wide-spread fame and been made into a movie, to be sure. I feel like it is being perpetuated as something it is not. Even the introduction to the book (a faux translator's note) perpetuates the myth that Memoirs is an accurate, beautiful, in-depth reflection of the life of a geisha, when in truth it is no more that historical fiction and is written by an outsider. Golden has done his research and is well-educated on his subjects, and I have no problem with people reading from, taking interest in, and even learning from this book; I do, however, think it is important that readers don't conflate the American novel with Japanese reality. They aren't the same thing, no matter how much research Golden did, and if we take the book as an accurate representation we're actually underestimating and undervaluing geisha, Japan, and Japanese culture.

Because Golden attempts to write from within the geisha culture, as a Japanese woman, he must do more than report the "facts" of that life--he must also pretend to be a part of it. Pretend he does, acting out a role as if he has studied inflection, script, and motivation. He certainly knows what makes writing "Japanese" but his attempt to mimic it is not entirely successful. The emphasis on elements, the independent sentences, the visual details are too prevalent and too obvious, as if Golden is trying to call our attention to them and thus to the Japanese style of the text. He does manage to draw attention, but to me, at least, what I came away with was the sense that Golden was an American trying really hard to sound Japanese--that is, the effect betrayed the attempt and the obvious attempt ruined the sincerity of the novel, for me. I felt like I was being smacked over the head with beauty! wood! water! kimono! haiku! and I felt insulted and disappointed.

The problems that I saw in the text were certainly secondary to the purpose of the text: to entertain, to introduce Western readers to Japanese culture, and to sell books (and eventually a film). They may not be obvious to all readers and they aren't so sever that the book isn't worth reading. I just think readers need to keep in mind that what Golden writes is fiction. Historical fiction, yes, but still fiction, therefore we should look for a true representation of Japanese culture within Japanese culture itself and take Memoirs with a grain of salt.

I also had problems with the rushed end of the book, the belief that Sayuri is a honest, good, modest, generous person when she really acts for herself and at harm to others throughout much of the book, the perpetuation of Hatsumomo as unjustified and cruel when she has all the reason in the world, and in general the public belief that Memoirs is some sort of fairy tale when in fact it is heavy-handed, biased, and takes a biased or unrelatistic view toward situations, characters, and love. However, all of those complains are secondary, in my view, to the major complain above, and should be come obvious to the reader.

Memoirs goes quickly, is compelling, and makes a good read, and I don't want to sound too unreasonably harsh on it. However, I believe the book has a lot of faults that aren't widely acknowledged and I think we as readers need to keep them in mind. This is an imperfect Western book, and while it may be a fun or good book it is not Japanese, authentic, or entirely well done.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
February 21, 2006 – Finished Reading
March 26, 2008 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-50 of 58 (58 new)

Alisa Thank you for taking time to write the comments I could intuitively feel but do not have the background in Japanese culture to voice. I also agree with your comments about characters and the fact that even though the book is entertaining it is fiction.

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lowdown I really enjoyed your commentary on the book. I think I was one of the people you speak of who made the mistake of taking fiction for fact with this book, that is, in the first 200 pages. Once I read the author bio and realized that it was a white guy from Massachusetts writing as if he was a geisha in WWII Japan, I was suspicious from the next word on. I really don't know why he even bothered to try and write the story in the first person.

I have notoriously heard that the movie is a pile of crap, so I have chosen not to watch it.

With that said, it was a very entertaining book until around page 400 and then again for the last 2 pages. Somewhere in between there he gets very caught up with her love affair and he really lost it for me. However, the last two pages made me weep. I thought they were heart felt and beautiful.

If you have time, can you please recommend some books that you feel accurately represent the culture?
I would also be interested to hear read your thoughts/reviews on any of Murakami's books.
Thanks again

John Conrad Excellent review. It's nice to hear an insiders perspective and I especially found the word "clunky" to be apt for Golden's awkward tale.

Melissa Duh. Of course it's fiction. If I wanted a history lesson or a biography from an actual geisha, I would have picked something up from the non-fiction section of the library.

Anyone who reads this book and takes it for a historically accurate representation has bigger problems than just misinterpreting the intention of this book. The purpose of a novel is to enlighten the human condition, not teach history.

I feel the main point of this novel was the sweeping and bittersweet love story between Sayuri and the Chairman, the tragic notion that life is full of compromise, but that some amount of good can be hoped for in spite of all the disappointments.

And of course the author is entitled to write the story from whatever viewpoint he or she wishes. To vilify Golden for having the audacity to write from the point of view of an imagined Japanese geisha in a time-gone-by is an insult to every author who has ventured beyond the limits of their own experience and explored a view on life from someone else's perspective. (Hello, Harriet Beecher Stowe??) And naturally an author is almost duty-bound to seek a perspective other than his or her own - otherwise, we'd just be reading the person's memoirs.

It's FICTION, people. ENJOY IT.

Melissa I like the detailed background about the flaws in what is posed as historical accuracy. I have wondered about many of these elements for some time. I will however take the story at face value because I did like the story but move on from there.

message 6: by Ivy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ivy Like Melissa said...it is fiction...and I enjoyed it as such, however I would be interested in some historically accurate representations of the japanese/geisha culture and would appreciate it Juushika if you could suggest some.

message 7: by De (new) - rated it 1 star

De Ana I really like your review of this book, it explains all the problems I had with the book but didn't know how to voice. Thank you!

Kellyna You have a great review, and point of view on the book I never even thought of. But then again, the book IS fiction.

Maia what a great review! Thank you! I'm one of those readers who'd put off reading this book for ages, even as most of my friends and acquaintances fell to reading it--essentially, I put it off because when i read fiction, I'm looking for 'truth': not specifically historical or non-historical truth but, rather, the truth of authenticity in the voice. And, to be honest, knowing from the first that this was a white American guy with a long list of degrees from Mass (a white American guy who simply studied Japanese history and spend a short while in Japan--would have been different if he'd grown up there, perhaps) I was suspicious and reluctant. In the end, I found myself reading it on a long holiday after I'd exhausted all my other books and someone left this one behind. And I won't lie: it was a compelling read in many ways. I did enjoy it. But I didn't buy it. So thanks for your inside note, it places it all into context.

message 10: by Angrybeaver (new)

Angrybeaver "Comfort Women" by Nora Okja Keller provides an excellent contrast to Arthur Golden's book "Memoirs of a Geisha." However, I warn you in advance that it is gut wrenching in its' sincerity. While Golden's work was superficial and deliberately artistic Keller's book chases thru your imagination like a howling lost soul. It is described as a book about mothers and daughters but it is as much about a relationship between the self one chooses to reveal and the self one chooses to hold sacrosanct. It's easy to fly thru the book at the speed of light but I don't recommend doing it that way...read it as slowly as you can and refuse to miss details that are hauntingly written and provoking. A warning though, this is an emotionally intense book versus a vacation read.

Connor Sherman I would like to know a lot more about Japanese culture, but I have no idea where to start. I started with this, but after reading your review it made me feel ignorant for thinking it was actually true. If anyone can recommend me some books about Japanese culture, Japan, or even geisha, I would really appreciate it!

message 12: by Anna (new)

Anna Thanks for the review! It was very informative and got me wondering if you could give some examples of inaccuracies in the book when Golden was trying to depict the Japanese geisha life.

Heidi Parton I don’t think that Golden was necessarily trying to be tricky by writing the fictional translator’s note; Nathaniel Hawthorne did the same thing in The Scarlet Letter. It’s a literary device that isn’t used often, but is done so to create a certain artistic effect. Whether that device is successful or not is up for debate. Also, I think it’s totally feasible for a person of one gender to write from the perspective of another gender and be successful at it. Flannery O’Connor wrote about men authentically; William Faulkner occasionally wrote from his female characters’ perspectives and succeeded. It’s just that such a thing requires a greater removal of the self—you have to be able to see completely through that character’s eyes, which includes not just what they see and feel and think, but how they see and feel and think it. Whether Golden succeeded in doing so is, again, what is up for debate; I’d say he didn’t completely. And, as far as cultural authenticity goes, being an "outsider" who has read novels by great Japanese authors, it's easy for me to see how Western Memoirs of a Geisha is. There’s a marked tonal difference, for one; it’s much warmer and more effusive than a Japanese novel would be. The pacing is different, too; more direct, I guess, or with a more clearly marked plot arc. However, Golden wasn't writing for a Japanese audience; he was writing for a general American audience that has entirely different expectations. I think it's important to keep that in mind. While I wouldn’t put this book up on a pedestal and call it a contemporary classic, I will say that it’s solid popular fiction. If anyone is interested in reading Japanese novels, I recommend Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari or Masks by Enchi Fumiko (my favorite novel).

message 14: by Reid (new) - rated it 1 star

Reid Totally agree about all the nature nature nature metaphors, they became incessant and insulting, as you say. Ruined a good story.

message 15: by Anna (new)

Anna Heidi wrote: "I don’t think that Golden was necessarily trying to be tricky by writing the fictional translator’s note; Nathaniel Hawthorne did the same thing in The Scarlet Letter. It’s a literary device that i..."

I completely agree with the pacing difference. I hadn't even realized it until you mentioned it, actually...

message 16: by Gina (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gina Mellon Geisha, a Life, is allegedly the premise for Sayuri's character, and she writes this book, to clear up any falacies he may have implied w Memoirs. Please forgive my brief review, but after reading both I can still say that Memoirs, did exactly what a good "fiction" book does for me. Leaves a lasting impression,that I for one won't soon forget.

Barbara Find Women of Comfort

Rachel Scheidt I don't know what you're talking about but Hatsumomo DID NOT have any reason to treat Chiyo so unkindly. Only like once does she give her a reason to hate her and that's already after Chiyo's got in trouble for the lies Hatsumomo told and she was already treating her like a dog. After someone did all that stuff to me i'd want to be mean to her too.

message 19: by Jeff (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jeff I think it's unfortunate that you would review a tasteful book based on a heavy-handed movie interpretation of that book.

Monica "It is a wonderful introduction to geisha, Japanese culture, and the East for the uninitiated Western reader" Here I am! The uninitiated Western reader. Can you suggest me another book I should read that faces Japanese culture's aspects in a better way?

Celestina A very interesting view of the book that I have not even considered.This is one of my favourite books of all time but I've never really thought deeply about the characters. A nice review.

message 22: by Sarah (new)

Sarah I thought Arthur Golden did a fantastic job with this tale. I'm not interested in whether it is historically or culturally accurate. I don't think that is what people are looking for when they pick up a 'fiction' book. I got what I was looking for with this book; an in-depth and deeply moving story.

Juushika The answer to "what book should I read instead?" is apparently Geisha, a Life (among other books mentioned in comments above, obviously); Golden interviewed and then misrepresented Mineko Iwasaki in creation of Memoirs, and she wrote her own autobiography in response. I've not yet read it but it's well vouched for, and its existence also clearly answers the question of whether or not Golden's novel is appropriative and problematic (it is).

I wrote this review years ago, pretending to know a lot more than I did (in its own way problematic!), and so can no longer engage in responses to my criticism, but I still stand by the view that this book is unforgivably flawed--the sort of flaws that can't be dismissed by the eternal cry that it's "just" fiction.

Marius Hancu While reading Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, you may want to see my questions related to it as answered in the alt.usage.english (AUE) Usenet newsgroup. My thanks to the participating AUE members. The focus of my questions was the language: rare words, funny or original expressions, special or strange constructs — as I saw them, from within my own idiosyncrasies.

message 25: by india (new) - added it

india Good book

message 26: by india (new) - added it

india The first place in my heart disease and stroke of genius to figure out how many people are going to the boy was a good day at work and the same time I see you soon to be released in the same time period of time for me to get to see you soon then I have to be honest I'm not a bad thing about it but it's still available in my head hurts like that I am a bit late to India to be in town of your friends are the only reason you soon then we will have a great hi how are you guys have fun with that one of the same time I see you soon and the boy was I wrong but it doesn't matter if you'd like me a pic of your own home and then I have no

message 27: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Just read this guy's bio, he's from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As someone who's from East Asia but now lives in Tennessee, that just strikes me as hilarious.

message 28: by Soplada (new)

Soplada yes, actually i started it but felt the unnatural voice in it so i decided to close it...

message 29: by Pat (new) - rated it 4 stars

Pat H Don't read Jules Verne, then.... I heard he's never been under the sea, around the world, or in the center of the earth...!! You should probably warn the readers so they don't enjoy his books too much!!!

Jacob Young I felt that this book was terrific and very enlightening, particularly for those who possess little to no knowledge of Japanese history and culture. In fact, Golden has a Master's degree in Japanese history.

Isabel I think the same sometimes about some writers creating plots about another culture. The book is good but could be much better. I was reading great novel about unexpected tasmanian tiger escaping in lake district moors in 1810. I believed sometimes create a simple but strong plot like I found inside Mauler´s story written for a great local writer is much well written than create a fantastic drama about a geisha in Japan. Is just my point of view, off course. Writers telling a great powrful stories about simple events in their own land sometimes turn a classic novel as Shawn Williamson did in his first novel.

David Your review can be summed up in one sentence: "I am very smart."

Laura A biography is non-fiction. This book is historical fiction. Two different things. People who want hard facts, they read non-fiction.
Don't worry, the East has biased books about the West as well. The same way W.Europe has on E.Europe. Personally, I don't see anything wrong with an American studying Japanese culture and writing a fiction novel loosely based on it.
What I'm trying to say is this: if you want historical facts and a deep explanation of Japanese culture, don't read this book; or any other fictional books - no historical fiction novel is 100% accurate. So, read non-fiction about Japan - but keep in mind that autobiographies are biased as well.

Don't get me wrong, I also read fiction novel set in or some part of it based on my country, and it was terrible - the author didn't do any kind of research (and tabloids don't count).
My point is, fiction =/= facts.

message 34: by T Huong (new) - added it

T Huong Although I appreciate the extensive review, I can’t say I agree with your points. As a modern reader I am sometimes disconcerted with the motivations of people from another period in history. However, to focus simply on the knowledge that the book was written by a 'Western man' ann 'outsider’ and therefore lacks in authenticity seems ridiculous to me. As an 'Easterner' myself, I find that even we can be sometimes insanely biased towards our own culture, so there is no true authentic representation.

message 35: by Autumn (new)

Autumn What would you recommend instead?

message 36: by Cris N. (last edited Apr 02, 2016 08:40PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Cris N. It's interesting to find a review from someone who seems to had had some of the same feelings I did about Golden's writing. Not that a Westerner couldn't write something that really seemed like it was written by a Japanese person, just that it takes a deep grasp of the cultural spirit and Golden didn't quite do it right (even if he did grasp it to some extent). Though I wonder if that's because he put too much effort to imitate or if if it's just the way he writes by nature. However, one big thing I'll disagree with is the issue of Hatsumomo; I thought she was a very horrible person who did mostly unjustifiable things.

I noticed in the comments that people were asking for alternatives on geisha. I think that's kind of obvious if you do a bit of web surfing; Kafu Nagai, Yasunari Kawabata, not to mention Mineko Iwasaki's own autobiography. Probably some other Japanese classic authors like Yukio Mishima or Natsume Soseki have geisha as characters in some of their works as well, although they won't be a central focus.

message 37: by Saonli (new) - added it

Saonli Bedi So..the biggest problem I had with the book was to accept how willfully an individual's rights were violated, and i couldn't see any beauty in the language or characters beyond a point. It has left me seething against men who subjected women to a lesser life, but more against women who never questioned it. It may have been a story worth telling, as a wake-up call to count our blessings and to guard and fight for our basic rights. A Geishas life is shallow, fickle and unsavoury. I don't see any romanticism in it. There is certainly more to life than to please a man. If this was the culture that needed to be introduced to the world, I think the author may not have bothered. It is depressing, unjust and superficial.

message 38: by Zo (new) - rated it 4 stars

Zo Wow, I didn't realize the translater's note was fake. Guess I need to take everything I read in this book with more than just a grain of salt... -.-"

message 39: by Mari (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mari Seriously, how long can it take to learn to play an instrument with two strings? And we are supposed to believe that they auction of virginity, but that they are NOT whores? Yeaaah. Riiiiiight.

Cristina Batlle Vols brega?

Florida Fomaneg Great review! Couldn't have said it better.

Haritini Your review is spot on, I had the exact same thoughts

message 43: by Jear The Book (new)

Jear The Book Nice job.

message 44: by David (new) - added it

David Cooper You're talking as though the author didn't spend many years researching Japanese culture... It's not just an "ignorant Westerner tries to talk about Japan." He literally studied Eastern culture for a decade...

Monika Obermeier I’m mixed Japanese, raised in the culture and I found this book offensive. Golden wrote it to sensationalize rather than share a reality. The woman he interviewed as actually infuriated enough she wrote her own book, “Geisha, A Life,” and it is amazing.
And yes, back in the day virgins were auctioned. Women’s rights, though better now than in the past, have a ways to go in Japan still.

message 46: by Serena (new)

Serena Nelson Can someone please explain to me what the discrepancies are in this book? What is not accurate, and in this case - what is the *actual* truth of those sensationalised/made up situations in this book?

I have always loved Japan, but never learnt about Geishas - I thought this might be a good book to start with to understand the lifestyle...but now, I kind of feel like i don't want to waste (for lack of a better word, because no books are a "waste" - All books & their authors are precious and valued contributors to my life), but, yes - I don't want to "waste" my time on inaccurate information.
(So even though I am going to read this book anyway) - I just would like to know which parts of this book to take with a grain of salt 🤔😊
Any guidance would be much appreciated 😁👌🏻

Thank you for your time
Take care, I hope to hear back soon from anyone who can shed some light on this issue for me...it would be truly appreciated ☺️🙏🏻

Talk soon! (I hope)
Serena b

message 47: by Juushika (last edited Feb 06, 2018 05:03AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Juushika Serena wrote: "Can someone please explain to me what the discrepancies are in this book? What is not accurate, and in this case - what is the *actual* truth of those sensationalised/made up situations in this boo..."

You can do a quick online search for "Memoirs of a Geisha controversy" to get a recap of issues surrounding it. Wikipedia also has brief summaries:
Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he had interviewed for background information while writing the novel [...] Iwasaki later went on to write an autobiography, which shows a very different picture of twentieth-century geisha life than the one shown in Golden's novel. The book was published as Geisha, a Life in the U.S. and Geisha of Gion in the U.K. [...] Kimiko Akita, in "Orientalism and the Binary of Fact and Fiction in Memoirs of a Geisha", argues that Memoirs of a Geisha contains orientalist tropes and deep "cultural misrepresentations".

As it is a direct response to Memoirs, Iwasaki's aforementioned Geisha, a Life is probably the best long-form counterpoint.

Marina You have put into words how I have always felt about this book but could not put into words myself. This was my introduction to historical east asian literature and I really really appreciate this, but the fact this was written by a white dude makes me really uncomfortable.

Hikari Tanaka This is EXACTLY how I feel, you nailed it. I completely agree with everything, thank you so much for putting it in exact words.

message 50: by Mandy (new)

Mandy  Smith Couldn’t disagree more.

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