memoirs-of-a-geisha chapter 33


New York

Now, nearly forty years later, I sit here in New York and remember that evening with the Chairman as the moment when I finally stopped fighting against the stream of my life. It was also the end of my career as a geisha.

The reason is that the Chairman wanted to keep me away from Nobu, who now hated me. So he paid Mother a very large sum of money each month to let me stop work as a geisha.

The Chairman certainly wasn’t going to marry me; he was already married. I still lived in the okiya, but I spent most of my time in a lovely house that the Chairman bought in the northeast of Kyoto. It was supposed to be for guests of Iwamura Electric, but the Chairman and I spent three or four evenings a week together there.

During the day I no longer went to geisha school or visited the teahouses, but I saw Mameha very often. We had tea together several times a week. After all she’d done for me since I was a child, and the special role she’d played in my relationship with the Chairman, I felt a debt to her that I could never repay.

I expected that this would be my life, entertaining the Chairman in the evening and occupying myself during the day in any way I could. But in the fall of 1952, I accompanied the Chairman on his second trip to the United States. It changed my life.

The Chairman said that on his previous visit to America he’d understood real wealth for the first time. Most Japanese at this time had electricity only during certain hours, for example, but the lights in American cities were on all the time. And even in small American towns, the Chairman told me, the movie theaters were as grand as our National Theater.

But he was most amazed by the fact that every family in the United States owned a refrigerator. This could be bought with an average worker’s monthly salary. In Japan, a worker needed fifteen months’ salary to buy such a thing; few families could afford it.

Then, when I looked out of the window of my room at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and saw buildings like mountains around me, and smooth, clean streets below, I had the feeling I was seeing a world in which anything was possible.

Over the next three years I traveled with the Chairman twice more to the United States. When he was out on business during the day, my maid and I went to museums and restaurants. We even found one of the few Japanese restaurants in New York. I’d known the manager well in Gion before the war.

During lunch one afternoon I found myself in a private room in the back of the restaurant, entertaining a number of men I hadn’t seen in years — the Vice President of the Nippon Telephone Company, the new Japanese Ambassador, and a Professor from Kyoto University. It was almost like being back in Gion again.

In the summer of 1956 the Chairman and I were sitting outdoors after dinner at Iwamura Electric’s house in northeast Kyoto. The Chairman had just told me that he had a plan to open a branch of his company in New York. There was something I’d wanted to discuss with him for some time and this news gave me my chance.

«I keep thinking of the Ichiriki Teahouse,» I began, «and truthfully, I’m beginning to realize how much I miss entertaining.»

The Chairman just took a bite of his ice-cream and then put his spoon down on the dish again.

«Of course, I can never go back to work in Gion,» I continued. «I know that perfectly well. But I wonder, Danna-sama… isn’t there a place for a small teahouse in New York City?»

«I don’t know what you’re talking about,» he said. «There’s no reason why you should want to leave Japan.»

«It’s true that leaving Japan would be a big change. But now that Danna-sama will be spending more and more of his time in the United States…»

In August of that same year, I moved to New York City to start my own very small teahouse for Japanese businessmen and politicians traveling through the United States. Of course, Mother tried to make sure that my new business in New York would be controlled by the Nitta okiya, but the Chairman refused to consider any such arrangement.

Mother had power over me as long as I remained in Gion, but I broke my ties with her by leaving. The Chairman sent in two of his accountants to make sure that Mother gave me every last yen that I’d earned.

New York is an exciting city. I felt at least as much at home as I ever did in Gion. In fact, as I look back, the many long weeks I’ve spent here with the Chairman have made my life in the United States even fuller and happier than it was in Japan.

My little teahouse, on the second floor of an old club off Fifth Avenue, was successful from the beginning. A number of geisha have come from Gion to work with me there, and even Mameha sometimes visits.

I never go back to Gion; I think I’d be disturbed by all the changes. After Mother’s death, a few years ago, the Nitta okiya was pulled down and replaced by a bookshop with two apartments above it.

On his last visit to New York City, the Chairman and I took a walk through Central Park. He stood with his two weak, old hands on his walking stick, and his eyes closed, and he breathed in deeply the memories of the past.

«Sometimes,» he sighed, «I think the things I remember are more real than the things I see.»

We went back to my apartment and drank from each other until I was full of him and he was full of me. The Chairman died only a few months later.

Everything that ever happened to me was like a stream tailing over rocks, down, down, until it reached the ocean the Chairman. I’ve lived my life again just telling it to you.

It’s true that when I cross Park Avenue, I notice how strange everything is. The yellow taxis that go rushing past, making that noise with their loud horns; the women in their business suits, who looked so surprised to see a little old Japanese woman standing on the street corner in a kimono. But, really, would Yoroido seem less strange it I went back there again?

Whatever our struggles, and whether we sink or swim, our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean.


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