Tradition, Modernity and Sex: The role of the Male in Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (1997)

Women, specifically older women who have various degrees of control over Sayuri, dominate her private and public life. Whether it is Mother – the owner of the Okiya, who possess Sayuri and pays her tuition – or Mahema, who she is obliged to obey and respect as her tutor and “older sister”. Because of these dominant matriarchal relationships, the men she encounters are often one dimensional and forgettable. The men that she remembers and who play a significant part in developing the narrative, are often idealised and romanticised or crude and deformed.

I will argue that the males in Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) are used to symbolise the oncoming modernisation of traditional Japan and can be seen as basic masculine archetypes.

In pre-war Japan, a Geisha was a performer hired out by rich businessmen for entertainment and as an ostentatious show of wealth. The Geisha, as explained by Sayuri, had to be proficient in different forms of art, dance and conversation as well as being attractive and sexually alluring. The Geisha can be seen as being a basic commodity of the house in which they live, as they are often the sole source of the household’s income. As such, the women have no control of their own fortunes and are reliant on men to pay for their services.

The relationship between the client and the Geisha is a consumer product dichotomy. This dichotomy influences and informs all the relationships within the book. This is most plainly seen in the scenes leading up to, and including the sale of Sayuri’s Mizuage or virginity.

Sayuri is introduced, by her Older Sister Mahema, to two men. These are Dr Crab (as Sayuri nicknames him) and Nobu (who is horrifically burnt). Both men have an interest in buying the right to take her virginity. The bidding for this ‘honour’ reaches record figures and eventually goes to Dr Crab. This transaction can be seen as the most intimate of consumer and product relationships. The character of Dr Crab is used to symbolise the aggressive sexual nature of the masculine identity. During intercourse, he does not talk to her nor show any semblance of interest in her own sexual pleasure. In these actions and his disturbing collection of blood stained cotton, he also stands to reinforce the nature of the Geisha as a product. Both Nobu and Dr Crab reinforce the forceful sexuality of men in the novel. Even though Nobu never consummates his relationship with Sayuri, he is aggressive to, and jealous of, any man that she encounters.

Another, and more striking, example of this consumer product dichotomy is the Geisha’s desire to secure a wealthy Danna. That is to become the mistress of a wealthy man who will pay her expenses in return for sole sexual access to her. It is this desire that informs the Geisha’s lives and the lives of all the women connected to her. Sayuri first takes the General as her Danna due to his ability to attain items that have been rendered scarce due to wartime rationing. The role the General plays is of the masculine provider and stereotypical husband in return for making love to Sayuri twice a week. The bidding for this right is on similar lines as the bidding for a Mizuage and involves an intricate tea ceremony. However, it is worth noting that some aspects of this transaction have received criticism from Mineko Iwasaki, who provided Golden with much the historical detail of the novel and on whom the character of Sayuri is based. She argues in her autobiography, Geisha of Gion (2002), that the sexual nature of the Mizuage is fictionalised and that no such practice ever took place. However, this does not detract from the consumer product dichotomy that Golden has established within the novel.  

Sayuri encounters two male characters that come to serve as her masculine ideal. At first, this is Mr Tanaka, who Sayuri encounters as a child in her small fishing village. In addition, the second is the Chairman, who shows her kindness as a child.

Mr Tanaka serves three distinct purposes within the narrative. Firstly, he is shown as a diametric opposite to her traditional father. He is in westernised suits and runs a business whereas her father wears traditional kimono and is a fisherman. This is the first instance of men symbolising the clash of tradition and modernity within pre-war Japan. Between the two it is the modernised man who emerges victorious and in possession of Sayuri.

Secondly, he serves as a way for Sayuri to escape the poverty of her parents. She initially dreams that he will adopt her and that she will escape this way. However, it is Mr Tanaka that persuades her elderly father to sell Sayuri into servitude and her sister into prostitution. This abandonment by her father is a metaphor for old Japan being abandoned in favour of the new, westernised, and modern post-war Japan. This abandonment is total as Sayuri does not see nor speak to her father once she has left. He becomes, to her, a symbol of the past and the life that she has left. Finally, Mr Tanaka, serves as an embodiment of the ideal male and father. He is shown to be handsome and wealthy. This wealth is in contrast to her father who is on subsistence levels of food.

The other and most important man, in the novel is the Chairman. Sayuri first encounters him when he comforts her as a child. From that moment on, she projects her hopes and desires onto him; and specifically the mental image of him that she has created. In this idealised daydream, he is flawless and secretly thinks of her. As the Chairman of a large electronics firm, he symbolises both the modern and new Japan, but his use of Geisha and age mean that he can be seen as embracing aspects of tradition. It is this opposition that entices Sayuri and cause all of her action post meeting him to be focused on him, even risking her hard won reputation to secure him as her Danna. His modernity symbolises not only Sayuri’s future, as her prospective provider and lover but also the nation’s future as he makes electronic goods that would become Japan’s chief export in future years.

As the Chairman pays for the company of Geisha, he is an active participant of the consumer product dichotomy mentioned above. However, his role in this is relationship is complicated by revelations in the climax of the novel where is it revealed that he was the source of Sayuri’s good fortune and advancement. As a result, he can be seen as the creator and benefactor of the product he has created. In the climax, he declares his love for Sayuri and eventually pays off Mother so that she no longer has to perform as a Geisha. Thus ending her role in the dichotomy and securing her future.

The men who participate in the consumer product dichotomy are also used by the Geisha to further their own personal goals. For example, Dr Crab and Nobu are used by Mahema and Sayuri to displace Hatsumomo in her role of head Geisha. This inversion of roles highlights that the Geisha are well aware of their role within the dichotomy and they are able to play upon it for their own ends. However, even though they are using the men to advance their own goals they are still reliant on the men and the money that they pay.

This article has aimed to show that the men in the novel operate within a consumer product dichotomy. This dichotomy is essential to the relationships between the men and women, and also to the other women in the Geisha’s life. I have also shown that the men in the novel are used to represent Japan’s past and also, its future. This future also mirrors the future of Sayuri.

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About poetryinstasis

I am a long haired, infrequent blogger and Literature enthusiast. I also watch an unhealthy amount of Football (Soccer) and am the rarest of things as I support my local team. "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know the best" Frida Kahlo
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4 Responses to Tradition, Modernity and Sex: The role of the Male in Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (1997)

  1. Your sentence “…”or Mahema, who she is obliged to obey and respect as her tutor and “older sister”. ” Her name is Mameha not Mahema.

  2. AJE says:

    Powerful insight and great work! – One thing, in the the 11th paragraph, “his role in this is relationship is…”, may want to correct that.

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