Is Memoirs of a Geisha a True Story? Is Sayuri Nitta Based on a Real Person?

Based on the international bestselling novel by Arthur Golden and directed by Rob Marshall, ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is a film that revolves around the tale of a Japanese hostess as she navigates her private experiences and long career before, during, and after World War II. Even though this incredible romance drama plays out like a Cinderella story set in the exotic world of Kyoto, Japan, and received mixed reviews, the one aspect that leaves everyone intrigued is whether real-life events inspired it. Thus, if you’re curious about the same, we’ve got the answers for you.

Is Memoirs of a Geisha Based on a True Story?

No, ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is not based on a true story. However, in saying that, the lead character of Chiyo Sakamoto, known as Sayuri Nitta, seems to be partly derived from a real-life former geisha named Mineko Iwasaki. After all, the Japanese businesswoman, writer, and past hostess spoke to Arthur Golden while he was drafting the 1997 book of the same name and later sued him for breach of contract and defamation of character. Mineko alleged clear parallelisms between her life and the book, which she didn’t agree upon prior, and got an out-of-court settlement in 2003.

Arthur Golden had decided to write on the subject matter while he was in Japan and met someone whose mother served as a geisha. Fascinated by the occupation, he began researching and interviewed several people who seemed successful, including Mineko. As per her records, she only agreed to talk to him after being assured that her identity would remain classified, but Arthur named her in the novel’s acknowledgments. The latter, though, has denied any such agreement. Another issue is the spotlight on the physical relationships between the geishas and all their customers.

Both in the book and the movie, the hostesses are depicted to be like sex workers. Yet, Mineko and other geisha’s have revealed that although they are skilled in music, dance, and conversations to serve their male patrons and often develop long-term relations with them, it may or may not result in sex. Of course, there are implied concerns, but it does not indicate that their entertainment establishments are brothels. In other words, ‘Memoirs of a Geisha,’ considering its World War setting, is more of an exaggerated fantasy than about real geishas.

As for the similarities between Chiyo Sakamoto/Sayuri Nitta and Mineko’s lives, apparently, one of her real-life sisters disliked her and saw her as competition in the industry, which appears to have been imitated slightly via Hatsumomo and partially through Satsu. After all, the sister was also a geisha. Mineko was pursued and scouted as heir by a geisha house (okiya) owner, so she, like Sayuri, was adopted at a very young age. Moreover, the fictional lady sought the attention of Chairman Ken Iwamura, perhaps like Mineko, who was also allegedly associated with an older man in real life.

Despite these vital details, Arthur has remarked that ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is not Mineko’s tale that has been fictionalized but a fantasy narrative that he spun from the information gathered through his conversations with the different geishas. Following his book’s release and Mineko’s entanglement with it, she faced backslash by her geisha community and several others. So, even though the duo had their disputes, Arthur stated his belief of the people being unfair to her. ”She did not provide me with any inappropriate information,” he said. ”I’m flattered that the book is being treated like an exposé, but it’s not. It’s a novel.” Therefore, the movie can be treated similarly.

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