memoirs-of-a-geisha chapter 23


World War II

Having General Tottori as my danna brought little change to my life. But his help to the okiya was extremely useful, at least from Mother’s point of view. He paid for many of my expenses, as a danna usually does-including the cost of my lessons, my annual registration fee at the school, my medical expenses and… Oh,

I don’t even know what else-my socks probably.

But more importantly, his job with the army was everything Mameha had said it would be. For example, Mother grew sick during March of 1939. We were terribly worried about her and the doctors were no help. But after a telephone call to the General, an important doctor from the military hospital called and gave Mother some medicine that cured her.

The General sent regular deliveries of tea and sugar, as well as some luxuries like make-up and chocolates, which were becoming scarce even in Gion. And of course, Mother had been quite wrong about the war ending within six months. We couldn’t believe it at the time but we’d hardly seen the beginning of the dark years.

In Japan we refer to the years of the Depression through World War II as kuraitani-the valley of darkness. In Gion we never suffered as much as others. While most Japanese lived in this dark valley all through the 1930s, for example, in Gion we were still warmed by a bit of sun. And because of General Tottori the sun still reached us, even in World War II.

At least, it reached us until one afternoon just a few weeks before New Year’s Day, in December 1942. I’d been busy helping to clean the okiya in preparation for the New Year. I was eating my lunch when a man’s voice called out at our entrance. Mother spoke to him and then spoke hurriedly to me. «General Tottori was arrested this morning,» she said. «You’d better hide our best things, or they’ll be gone tomorrow.»

Within a week we were no longer the people who helped all their friends; instead we were the people who most needed help. We’d always got tea for Mameha, but now she began to get it for us.

One day soon the geisha districts would close and we feared we would all end up in factories. We all knew geisha who were already there. Hatsumomo’s tall friend, for example, the geisha Korin. She was in a Tokyo factory working double shifts with only a bowl of weak soup with a bit of potato in it for food every day.

Then one morning in the January of 1943, I was standing in line at the rice store in the falling snow, when the shopkeeper next door put out his head and called into the cold:

«It’s happened!»

We all looked at each other. For a moment I was too cold to care what he meant. I had thin peasants’ clothing on; no one wore a kimono during the day any longer. Finally the geisha in front of me wiped some snow from her face and asked the shopkeeper what he meant.

«The government has announced the closing of the geisha district,» he said. «All of you must report to the registry office tomorrow morning for factory work.»

I looked at the desperation on the faces of the other geisha around me and I knew we were all thinking the same thing: Which of the men we knew could save us from life in the factories?

There was a rumor that General Tottori had been released and was living in the Suruya Inn, the same place where we’d met during the evenings for so many years. Even though the General had been my datum until the previous year, I certainly wasn’t the only geisha who knew him. I had to reach him before anybody else did.

I wasn’t dressed for the weather, but I started at once for the northwest of the city. I arrived there an hour or two later, red with the cold and covered with snow. But when I greeted the mistress of the inn, she took a long look at me before bowing in apology and saying she had no idea who I was.

«It’s me… Sayuri. I’ve come to speak with the General.»

«Sayuri-san! I never thought I’d see you looking like the wife of a peasant.»

She led me inside at once, but before she took me to the General, she dressed me in one of her kimonos. She even found some make-up she had hidden and put it on me, so the General would know who I was.

When I entered his room, General Tottori was sitting at the table listening to the radio. I could see in his face and on his thin body how hard the past years had been for him. He’d been accused of some awful crimes, including theft; some people thought he was lucky not to be in prison. I read an attack on him in a magazine that said that the Japanese Navy’s defeat in the South Pacific was all his fault because the supplies were so bad.

«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 person 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 top geisha like you should come to me anyway. You’re liked by so many men with influence.»


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