Memoirs of a Geisha (Chapter 28)
In Japan we refer to the years from the Depression through World War II as kurotani-the valley of darkness, when so many people I lived like children whose heads had slipped beneath the waves. As is often the case, those of us in Gion didn’t suffer quite as badly as others. While most Japanese lived in the dark valley all through the 19305, for example, in Gion we were still warmed by a bit of sun. And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you why; women who are mistresses of cabinet ministers and naval commanders are the recipients of enormous good fortune, and they pass that good fortune along to others. You might say Gion was like a pond high up on a mountaintop, fed by streams of rich springwater. More water poured in at some spots than others, but it raised the pond as a whole.
Because of General Tottori, our okiya was one of the spots where the rich springwater came pouring in. Things grew worse and worse around us during the course of several years; and yet long after the rationing of goods had begun, we continued to receive regular supplies of foodstuffs, tea, linens, and even some luxuries like cosmetics and chocolate. We might have kept these things to ourselves and lived behind closed doors, but Gion isn’t that sort of place. Mother passed much of it along and considered it well spent, not because she was a generous woman, of course, but because we were all like spiders crowded together on the same web. From time to time people came asking for help, and we were pleased to give it when we could. At some point in the fall of 1941, for example, the military police found a maid with a box containing probably ten times more ration coupons than her okiya was supposed to have. Her mistress sent her to us for safekeeping until arrangements could be made to take her to the countryside- because of course, every okiya in Gion hoarded coupons; the better the okiya, the more it usually had. The maid was sent to us rather than to someone else because General Tottori had instructed the military police to leave us alone. So you see, even within that mountaintop pond that was Gion, we were the fish swimming in the very warmest water of all.
As the darkness continued to settle over Japan, there did finally come a time when even the pinpoint of light in which we’d managed to keep ourselves suddenly went out. It happened at a single moment, early one afternoon just a few weeks before New Year’s Day, in December 1942. 1 was eating my breakfast-or at least, my first meal of the day, for I’d been busy helping to clean the okiya in preparation for the New Year- when a man’s voice called out at our entrance. I thought he was probably just making a delivery, so I went on with my meal, but a moment later the maid interrupted me to say a military policeman had come looking for Mother.
“A military policeman?” I said. “Tell him Mother is out.” “Yes, I did, ma’am. He’d like to speak with you instead.” When I reached the front hall, I found the policeman removing his boots in the entryway. Probably most people would have felt relieved just to note that his pistol was still snapped inside its leather case, but as I say, our okiya had lived differently right up until that moment. Ordinarily a policeman would have been more apologetic even than most visitors, since his presence would alarm us. But to see him tugging at his boots . . . well, this was his way of saying he planned to come in whether we invited him or not.
I bowed and greeted him, but he did nothing more than glance at me as though he would deal with me later. Finally he pulled up his socks and pulled down his cap, and then stepped up into the front entrance hall and said he wanted to see our vegetable garden. Just like that, with no word of apology for troubling us. You see, by this time nearly everyone in Kyoto, and probably the rest of the country, had converted their decorative gardens into vegetable gardens-everyone but people like us, that is. General Tottori provided us with enough food that we didn’t need to plow up our garden, and were instead able to go on enjoying the hair moss and spearflowers, and the tiny maple in the corner. Since it was winter, I hoped the policeman would look only at the spots of frozen ground where the vegetation had died back, and imagine that we’d planted squash and sweet potatoes amid the decorative plants. So after I’d led him down to the courtyard, I didn’t say a word; I just watched as he knelt down and touched the dirt with his fingers. I suppose he wanted to feel whether or not the ground had been dug up for planting.
I was so desperate for something to say that I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Doesn’t the dusting of snow on the ground make you think of foam on the ocean?” He didn’t answer me, but just stood up to his full height and asked what vegetables we had planted.
“Officer,” I said, “I’m terribly sorry, but the truth is, we haven’t had an opportunity to plant any vegetables at all. And now that the ground is so hard and cold …”
“Your neighborhood association was quite right about you!” he said, taking off his cap. He brought out from his pocket a slip of paper and began to read a long list of misdeeds our okiya had committed. I don’t even remember them all-hoarding cotton materials, failing to turn in metal and rubber goods needed for the war effort, improper use of ration tickets, all sorts of things like that. It’s true we had done these things, just as every other okiya in Gion had. Our crime, I suppose, was that we’d enjoyed more good fortune than most, and had survived longer and in better shape than all but a very few.
Luckily for me, Mother returned just then. She didn’t seem at all surprised to find a military policeman there; and in fact, she behaved more politely toward him than I’d ever seen her behave toward anyone. She led him into our reception room and served him some of our ill-gotten tea. The door was closed, but I could hear them talking for a long while. At one point when she came out to fetch something, she pulled me aside and told me this:
“General Tottori was taken into custody this morning. You’d better hurry and hide our best things, or they’ll be gone tomorrow.”
Back in Yoroido I used to swim on chilly spring days, and afterward lie on the rocks beside the pond to soak up the heat of the sun. If the sunlight vanished suddenly behind a cloud, as it often did, the cold air seemed to close about my skin like a sheet of metal. The moment I heard of the General’s misfortune, standing there in the front entrance hall, I had that same feeling. It was as though the sun had vanished, possibly for good, and I was now condemned to stand wet and naked in the icy air. Within a week of the policeman’s visit, our okiya had been stripped of the things other families had lost long ago, such as stores of food, undergarments, and so forth. We’d always been Mameha’s source for packets of tea; I think she’d been using them to purchase favors. But now her supplies were better than ours, and she became our source instead. Toward the end of the month, the neighborhood association began confiscating many of our ceramics arid scrolls to sell them on what we called the “gray market,” which was different from the black market. The black market was for things like fuel oil, foods, metals, and so
on-mostly items that were rationed or illegal to trade. The gray market was more innocent; it was mainly house-waves selling off their precious things to raise cash. In our case, though, our things were sold to punish us as much as for any other reason, and so the cash went to benefit others. The head of the neighborhood association, who was mistress of a nearby okiya, felt deeply sorry whenever she came to take our things away. But the military police had given orders; no one could do anything but obey.
If the early years of the war had been like an exciting voyage out to sea, you might say that by about the middle of 1943 we all realized the waves were simply too big for o’ur craft. We thought we would drown, all of us; and many did. It wasn’t just that day-to-day life had grown increasingly miserable; no one dared admit it, but I think we’d all begun worrying about the outcome of the war. No one had fun any longer; many people seemed to feel it was unpatriotic even to have a good time. The closest thing to a joke I heard during this period was something the geisha Raiha said one night. For months we’d heard rumors that the military government planned to shut down all the geisha districts in Japan; lately we’d begun to realize that it really was going to happen. We were all wondering what would become of us, when suddenly Raiha spoke up.
“We can’t waste our time thinking about such things,” she said. “Nothing is bleaker than the future, except perhaps the past.”
It may not sound funny to you; but that night we laughed until tears beaded in the corners of our eyes. One day soon the geisha districts would indeed close. When they did, we were certain to end up working in the factories. To give you some idea of what life in the factories was like, let me tell you about Hatsumomo’s friend Korin.
During the previous winter, the catastrophe that every geisha in Gion feared most had actually happened to Korin. A maid tending the bath in her okiya had tried to burn newspapers to heat the water, but had lost control of the flames. The entire okiya was destroyed, along with its collection of kimono. Korin ended up working in a factory south of the city, fitting lenses into the equipment used for dropping bombs from airplanes. She came back to visit Gion from time to time as the months passed, and we were horrified at how much she’d changed. It wasn’t just that she seemed more and more unhappy; we’d all experienced unhappiness, and were prepared for it in any case. But she had a cough that was as much a part of her as a song is part of a bird; and her skin was stained as though she’d soaked it in ink-since the coal the factories used was of a very low grade and covered everything in soot as it burned. Poor Korin was forced to work double shifts while being fed no more than a bowl of weak broth with a few noodles once a day, or watery rice gruel flavored with potato skin.
So you can imagine how terrified we were of the factories. Every day that we awakened to find Gion still open, we felt grateful.
Then one morning in January of the following year, I was standing in line at the rice store in the falling snow, holding my ration coupons, when the shopkeeper next door put out his head and called into the cold:
We all of us looked at one another. I was too numbed with cold to care what he was talking about, for I wore only a heavy shawl around my peasant’s clothing; no one wore kimono during the day any longer. Finally the geisha in front of me brushed the snow from her eyebrows and asked him what he was talking about. “The war hasn’t come to an end, has it?” she asked.
“The government has announced the closing of the geisha districts,” he said. “All of you are to report to the registry office tomorrow morning.”
For a long moment we listened to the sound of a radio inside his shop. Then the door rumbled closed again, and there was nothing but the soft hiss of the falling snow. I looked at the despair on the faces of the other geisha around me and knew in an instant that we were all thinking the same thing: Which of the men we knew would save us from life in the factories?
Even though General Tottori had been my danna until the previous year, I certainly wasn’t the only geisha acquainted with him. I had to reach him before anyone else did. I wasn’t properly dressed for the weather, but I put my ration coupons back into the pocket of my peasant pants and set out at once for the northwest of the city. The General was rumored to be living in the Suruya Inn, the same one where we’d met during the evenings twice a week for so many years.
I arrived there an hour or so later, burning with the cold and dusted all over with snow. But when I greeted the mistress, she took a long look at me before bowing in apology and saying she had no idea who I was.
“It’s me, mistress . . . Sayuri! I’ve come to speak with the General.”
“Sayuri-san . . . my heavens! I never thought to see you looking like the wife of a peasant.”
She led me inside at once, but wouldn’t present me to the General until she’d first taken me upstairs and dressed me in one of her kimono. She even put on me a bit of makeup she’d stashed away, so the General would know me when he saw me.
When I entered his room, General Tottori was sitting at the table listening to a drama on the radio. His cotton robe hung open, exposing his bony chest and the thin gray hairs. I could see that his hardships of the past year had been far worse than mine. After all, he’d been accused of awful crimes-negligence, incompetence, abuse of power, and so forth; some people considered him lucky to have escaped prison. An article in a magazine had even blamed him for the Imperial Navy’s defeats in the South Pacific,
saying that he’d failed to oversee the shipment of supplies. Still, some men bear hardships better than others; and with one look at the General I could see that the weight of this past year had pressed down upon him until his bones had grown brittle, and even his face had come to look a bit misshapen. In the past he’d smelled of sour pickles all the time. Now as I bowed low on the mats near him, he had a different sort of sour smell.
“You’re looking very well, General,” I said, though of course this was a lie. “What a pleasure it is to see you again!”
The General switched off the radio. “You’re not the first to come to me,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do to help you, Sayuri.”
“But I rushed here so quickly! I can’t imagine how anyone reached you before I did!”
“Since last week nearly every geisha I know has been to see me, but I don’t have friends in power any longer. I don’t know why a geisha of your standing should come to me anyway. You’re liked by so many men with influence.”
“To be liked and to have true friends willing to help are two very different things,” I said.
“Yes, so they are. What sort of help have you come to me for anyway?”
“Any help at all, General. We talk about nothing these days in Gion but how miserable life in a factory will be.”
“Life will be miserable for the lucky ones. The rest won’t even live to see the end of the war.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The bombs will fall soon,” the General said. “You can be certain the factories will take more than their share. If you want to be alive when this war is over, you’d better find someone who can tuck you away in a safe place. I’m sorry I’m not that man. I’ve already exhausted what influence I had.”
The General asked after Mother’s health, and Auntie’s, and soon bid me good-bye. I learned only much later what he meant about exhausting his influence. The proprietress of the Suruya had a young daughter; the General had arranged to send her to a town in northern Japan.
On the way back to the okiya, I knew the time had come for me to act; but I couldn’t think what to do. Even the simple task of holding my panic at arm’s length seemed more than I could manage. I went by the apartment where Mameha was now living-for her relationship with the Baron had ended several months earlier and she’d moved into a much smaller space. I thought she might know what course I should take, but in fact, she was in nearly as much of a panic as I was.
“The Baron will do nothing to help me,” she said, her face pale with worry. “I’ve been unable to reach the other men I have in mind. You had better think of someone, Sayuri, and go to him as quickly as you can.”
I’d been out of touch with Nobu for more than four years by that time; I knew at once I couldn’t approach him. As for the Chairman . . . well, I would have grabbed at any excuse just to speak with him, but I could never have asked him for a favor. However warmly he may have treated me in the hallways, I wasn’t invited to his parties, even when lesser geisha were. I felt hurt by this, but what could I do? In any case, even if the Chairman had wanted to help me, his quarrels with the military government had been in the newspapers lately. He had too many troubles of his own.
Sol spent the rest of that afternoon going from teahouse to teahouse in the biting cold, asking about a number of men I hadn’t seen in weeks or even months. None of the mistresses knew where to find them.
That evening, the Ichiriki was busy with farewell parties. It was fascinating to see how differently all the geisha reacted to the news. Some looked as though their spirits had been murdered within them; others were like statues of the Buddha-calm and lovely, but painted over with a layer of sadness. I can’t say how I myself looked, but my mind was like an abacus. I was so busy with scheming and plotting—thinking which man I would approach, and how I would do it-that I scarcely heard the maid who told me I was wanted in another room. I imagined a group of men had requested my company; but she led me up the stairs to the second floor and along a corridor to the very back of the teahouse. She opened the door of a small tatami room I’d never entered before. And there at the table, alone with a glass of beer, sat Nobu.
Before I could even bow to him or speak a word, he said, “Sayuri-san, you’ve disappointed me!”
“My goodness! I haven’t had the honor of your company for four years, Nobu-san, and already in an instant I’ve disappointed you. What could I have done wrong so quickly?”
“I had a little bet with myself that your mouth would fall open at the sight of me.”
“The truth is, I’m too startled even to move!”
“Come inside and let the maid close the door. But first, tell her to bring another glass and another beer. There’s something you and I must drink to.”
I did as Nobu told me, and then knelt at the end of the table with a corner between us. I could feel Nobu’s eyes upon my face almost as though he were touching me. I blushed as one might blush under the warmth of the sun, for I’d forgotten how flattering it felt to be admired.
“I see angles in your face I’ve never seen before,” he said to me. “Don’t tell me you’re going hungry like everyone else. I’d never expected such a thing of you.”
“Nobu-san looks a bit thin himself.”
“I have food enough to eat, just no time for eating it.”
“I’m glad at least that you are keeping busy.”
“That’s the most peculiar thing I’ve ever heard. When you see a man who has kept himself alive by dodging bullets, do you feel glad for him that he has something to occupy his time?”
“I hope Nobu-san doesn’t mean to say that he is truly in fear for his life …”
“There’s no one out to murder me, if that’s what you mean. But if Iwamura Electric is my life, then yes, I’m certainly in fear for it. Now tell me this: What has become of that danna of yours?”
“The General is doing as well as any of us, I suppose. How kind of you to ask.”
“Oh, I don’t mean it kindly at all.”
“Very few people wish him well these days. But to change the subject, Nobu-san, am I to suppose that you have been coming here to the Ichiriki night after night, but keeping yourself hidden from me by using this peculiar upstairs room?”
“It is a peculiar room, isn’t it? I think it’s the only one in the teahouse without a garden view. It looks out on the street, if you open those paper screens.”
“Nobu-san knows the room well.”
“Not really. It’s the first time I’ve used it.”
I made a face at him when he said this, to show I didn’t believe him.
“You may think what you want, Sayuri, but it’s true I’ve never been in this room before. I think it’s a bedroom for overnight guests, when the mistress has any. She was kind enough to let me use it tonight when I explained to her why I’d come.”
“How mysterious … So you had a purpose in coming. Will I find out what it is?”
“I hear the maid returning with our beer,” Nobu said. “You’ll find out when she’s gone.”
The door slid open, and the maid placed the beer on the table. Beer was a rare commodity during this period, so it was quite something to watch the gold liquid rising in the glass. When the maid had left, we raised our glasses, and Nobu said:
“I have come here to toast your dannal”
I put down my beer when I heard this. “I must say, Nobu-san, there are few things any of us can find to be cheerful about. But it would take me weeks even to begin imagining why you should wish to drink in honor of my danna.”
“I should have been more specific. Here’s to the foolishness of your dannal Four years ago I told you he was an unworthy man, and he has proved me right. Wouldn’t you say?”
“The truth is … he isn’t my danna any longer.”
“Just my point! And even if he were, he couldn’t do a thing for you, could he? I know Gion is going to close, and everyone’s in a panic about it. I received a telephone call at my office today from a certain geisha … I won’t name her . . . but can you imagine? She asked if I could find her a job at Iwamura Electric.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what did you tell her?”
“I don’t have a job for anyone, hardly even myself. Even the Chairman may be out of a job soon, and end up in prison if he doesn’t start doing as the government orders. He’s persuaded them we don’t have the means to manufacture bayonets and bullet casings, but now they want us to design and build fighter airplanes! I mean, honestly, fighter airplanes? We manufacture appliances! Sometimes I wonder what these people are thinking.”
“Nobu-san should speak more quietly.”
“Who’s going to hear me? That General of yours?”
“Speaking of the General,” I said, “I did go to see him today, to ask for his help.”
“You’re lucky he was still alive to see you.”
“Has he been ill?”
“Not ill. But he’ll get around to killing himself one of these days, if he has the courage.”
“He didn’t help you, did he?”
“No, he said he’d already used up whatever influence he had.”
“That wouldn’t have taken him long. Why didn’t he save what little influence he had for you?”
“I haven’t seen him in more than a year …”
“You haven’t seen me in more than four years. And I have saved my best influence for you. Why didn’t
you come to me before now?”
“But I’ve imagined you angry with me all this time. Just look at you, Nobu-san! How could I have come
“How could you not? I can save you from the factories, I have access to the perfect haven. And believe me, it is perfect, just like a nest for a bird. You’re the only one I’ll give it to, Sayuri. And I won’t give it even to you, until you’ve bowed on the floor right here in front of me and admitted how wrong you were for what happened four years ago. You’re certainly right I’m angry with you! We may both be dead before we see each other again. I may have lost the one chance I had. And it isn’t enough that you brushed me aside: you wasted the very ripest years of your life on a fool, a man who won’t pay even the debt he owes to his country, much less to you. He goes on living as if he’s done nothing wrong!”
You can imagine how I was feeling by this time; for Nobu was a man who could hurl his words like stones. It wasn’t just the words themselves or their meaning, but the way he said them. At first I’d been determined not to cry, regardless of what he said; but soon it occurred to me that crying might be the very thing Nobu wanted of me. And it felt so easy, like letting a piece of paper slip from my fingers. Every tear that slid down my cheeks I cried for a different reason. There seemed so much to mourn! I cried for Nobu, and for myself; I cried at wondering what would become of us all. I even cried for General Tottori, and for Korin, who had grown so gray and hollow from life in the factory. And then I did what Nobu demanded of me. I moved away from the table to make room, and I bowed low to the floor.
“Forgive me for my foolishness,” I said.
“Oh, get up off the mats. I’m satisfied if you tell me you won’t make the same mistake again.”
“I will not.”
“Every moment you spent with that man was wasted! That’s just what I told you would happen, isn’t it? Perhaps you’ve learned enough by now to follow your destiny in the future.”
“I will follow my destiny, Nobu-san. There’s nothing more I want from life.”
“I’m pleased to hear that. And where does your destiny lead you?”
“To the man who runs Iwamura Electric,” I said. Of course, I was thinking of the Chairman.
“So it does,” Nobu said. “Now let us drink our beers together.”
I wet my lips-for I was far too confused and upset to be thirsty. Afterward Nobu told me about the nest he’d set aside. It was the home of his good friend Arashino Isamu, the kimono maker. I don’t know if you remember him, but he was the guest of honor at the party on the Baron’s estate years earlier at which Nobu and Dr. Crab were present. Mr. Arashino’s home, which was also his workshop, was on the banks of the Kamo River shallows, about five kilometers upstream from Gion. Until a few years earlier, he and his wife and daughter had made kimono in the lovely Yuzen style for which he was famous. Lately, however, all the kimono makers had been put to work sewing parachutes- for they were accustomed to working with silk, after all. It was a job I could learn quickly, said Nobu, and the Arashino family was very willing to have me. Nobu himself would make the necessary arrangements with the authorities. He wrote the address of Mr. Arashino’s home on a piece of paper and gave it to me.
I told Nobu a number of times how grateful I was. Each time I told him, he looked more pleased with himself. Just as I was about to suggest that we take a walk together in the newly fallen snow, he glanced at his watch and drained the last sip of his beer.
“Sayuri,” he said to me, “I don’t know when we will see each other again or what the world will be like when we do. We may both have seen many horrible things. But I will think of you every time I need to be reminded that there is beauty and goodness in the world.”
“Nobu-san! Perhaps you ought to have been a poet!”
“You know perfectly well there’s nothing poetic about me.”
“Do your enchanting words mean you’re about to leave? I was hoping we might take a stroll together.”
“It’s much too cold. But you may see me to the door, and we’ll say goodbye there.”
I followed Nobu down the stairs and crouched in the entryway of the teahouse to help him into his shoes. Afterward I slipped my feet into the tall wooden geta I was wearing because of the snow, and walked Nobu out to the street. Years earlier a car would have been waiting for him, but only government officials had cars these days, for almost no one could find the gasoline to run them. I suggested walking him to the trolley.
“I don’t want your company just now,” Nobu said. “I’m on my way to a meeting with our Kyoto distributor. I have too many things on my mind as it is.”
“I must say, Nobu-san, I much preferred your parting words in the room upstairs.”
“In that case, stay there next time.”
I bowed and told Nobu good-bye. Most men would probably have turned to look over their shoulders at some point; but Nobu just plodded through the snow as far as the corner, and then turned up Shijo Avenue and was gone. In my hand I held the piece of paper he’d given me, with Mr. Arashino’s address written on it. I realized I was squeezing it so hard in my fingers that if it were possible to crush it, I’m sure I would have. I couldn’t think why I felt so nervous and afraid. But after gazing a moment at the snow still falling all around me, I looked at Nobu’s deep footprints leading to the corner and had the feeling I knew just what was troubling me. When would I ever see Nobu again? Or the Chairman? Or for that matter, Gion itself? Once before, as a child, I’d been torn from my home. I suppose it was the memory of those horrible years that made me feel so alone.