Date of Award


Degree Type

Honors College Thesis

Academic Program

English BA



First Advisor

Charles Sumner, Ph.D.

Advisor Department



Memoirs of a Geisha is a 1997 historical fiction novel by Arthur Golden. It is told as the fictional memoirs of the late Sayuri Nitta, a famous former geisha who worked in Gion in the 1930s as one of the most successful geisha in history. Since its publication, Memoirs has been criticized for an Orientalist and historically inaccurate depiction of geisha—particularly by Mineko Iwasaki, a real former geisha whom Golden interviewed when writing the novel. The first chapter of this thesis is dedicated to an explanation of Orientalism as the problematic, stereotype-driven depictions of the East made by the West, especially as it relates to Japanese women. The first chapter will also cover the circumstances and events that have caused debate on whether or not geisha participated in sex work, as is depicted in the novel. In the second chapter of this thesis, I argue that although the novel states that geisha are not prostitutes, the debate of whether or not geisha are sex workers is inherent to the history of Japanese women being depicted through a sexual and stereotypical lens by the West. This chapter also focuses on the matter of accuracy in historical fiction, and how much, if any, is to be expected. I conclude that regardless of accuracy, the novel’s appeal still lies in its Western audience being unknowledgeable but curious about geisha. The final chapter is composed of my own analysis of the text, concluding that Orientalism is present. I find that the novel’s framing device as the translated interviews of Sayuri Nitta is further used to intrigue the Western reader, and that even outside of the performance of sex work, the behavior and descriptions of the geisha characters are still representative of a highly sexualized image. I also find that, regardless of the novel’s accuracy to the role of sex work in a geisha’s career, the novel simultaneously criticizes v aspects of sex work and sexual slavery while simultaneously using them as plot devices and more sources of sexual imagery. My conclusion is that the matters of the novel’s accuracy and the importance of accuracy itself cannot be objectively answered, but analysis of the text shows that it is another example of female Japanese characters being victimized and sexualized.