The geishas of Japan have long held a mystery that has inspired a lot of stories about who they were and how they lived their lives. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden captures this fascinating and mysterious world in a story that contrasts the rich tradition of the geishas and the changes brought about by the World War II in Kyoto. This is the story of Chiyo, with her sister Saysu who are both sold to a stranger by their own father because they have to earn a living due to extreme poverty of their family.
At the young age of nine, Chiyo has a beauty that makes her right to be a part of the geisha homes. However, her sister. Saysu, is not fortunate enough, as she does not possess beauty like her sister. Saysu is then forced into prostitution and the sisters are separated by these circumstances. Chiyo however metamorphoses into a beauty and is later known as Sayuri. Because she is the fairest among all the geisha’s in their home, she eventually earns the wrath of the other geishas who came before her including the equally lovely Hatsumomo. Sayuri is almost destroyed by her rival Hatsumomo who envies her incessantly. If it were not for the intervention of the celebrated geisha Mameha, who coaches Sayuri about the chores and duties of a geisha, it would have been Sayuri’s end. Yet destiny prevails and Sayuri turns out to be a good pupil who learns to love what she has been taught.
Author Arthur Golden succeeds in portraying the inner life of a geisha as he weaves the story in an enticing and engrossing way such that viewers find that their intricate kimonos are really not that easy to get into. Equally intricate is the way the story develops with the life of Sayuri as its focus. Golden recreates the scenes with such subtlety, sensuality and mastery of what the geisha world is all about. These glory days of Kyoto’s Gion pleasure district is recaptured well in the story.
The beauty and historical value of pre-war Japan is also seen here and which adds drama and color to the already colorful life of geishas. The book reminds me of the developmental theories which we learned in class. For instance, Bandura’s cognitive emphasis comes to mind as I view the scenes where Sayuri learns the art of being a gracious hostess. She is able to do it because she observed Hatsumomo many times over flipping the fans, turning and bowing to the clients with such excellent perfection. She is able to execute the movements excellently because of the observational learning which comes from observing the behavior of other people. Observational learning cannot occur unless cognitive processes are at work.
In the story, the character Chiyo, who later transforms into Sayuri, was a keen observer all along. From the way the people nodded, she knew that there were some people who were plotting evil against her. She observed everything, even her benefactor, who transforms her life and whose actions does not escape the glances that were meant not only to look at the surface level, but to really look and find the nuances which she may uses.
This art of observing has been perfected well by Sayuri and this is what removes her from the bind of the tradition and ennui. Observational learning is stressed in this cognitive social learning because this active, cognitive form of learning also permits individuals to be able to quickly assimilate thousands of new responses in a variety of settings. This is where their models are simply pursuing their own interests and are not trying to teach them anything. In the story, Sayuri continually learns both desirable and undesirable responses by keeping her eyes open. Moreover, in the story, we find that human development proceeds so very rapidly along so many different paths.
I am also able to correlate the learning insights that there is a broad world view of how one should situate the context of the story. Another broad world view, the contextual model has recently emerged as the perspective that many developmentalists favor (Lerner, 1996). The contextual model views development as the product of a dynamic interplay between person and environment.
People are assumed to be active in the developmental process (as in the organismic model) and the environment is active as well (as in the mechanistic model). Development may have both universal aspects and aspects peculiar to certain cultures, times or individuals. The potential exists for both qualitative and quantitative change, and development may proceed along many different paths depending on the intricate interplay between internal forces (nature) and external forces (environment).
Since the story dates back to the height of the geishas and the rich culture of Japan, I am reminded again of the cross-cultural comparisons which one can apply as one reads the story. For instance, the story has given me a broad understanding of several Japanese students in the school. Some of them have been acquaintances and I now understand the particular culture that they come from. This provided me with some new ideas on the factors that may impact on the developmental process. It has given me new insights on the link between culture and development.
Developmentalists are often hesitant to publish a new findings or conclusions until they have finally observed and studied quite a number of people so that they can conclude that their results are reliable. However, their conclusions are more often based on participants living at one point in time within one particular culture or subculture. It would then be difficult to know if these conclusions apply to future generations or even to the young people currently growing up in other societies or subcultures (Lerner, 1996).
Today, the generalizability of findings across samples and settings has become an important issue, for many theorists have implied that there are “universals” in human development—events and outcomes that all children share as they progress from infancy to adulthood. Thus, the cross-cultural guards against the overgeneralization of research findings.
In sum, one must become a knowledgeable reader in order to get the most of what the field of human development has to offer, so that one’s views of the world from books, stories and one’s experiences become integrated in a coherent whole that explains why and how one acts and behaves the way he does. The story could have ended with the characters dismissing it as one of those geisha stories, but author Arthur Golden ends with bravura because the story recaptures the glorious days of the geisha and the values that provide the redeeming factor in an engrossing story of traditional Japan.
It is interesting to note that Sayuri is able to blend well to the new environment where she is thrusted into because of her innate flexibility and strength of character from where she gets the power to rejuvenate. She is able to observe that she must obey and observe what her associates do, so that she can relate them in her own world as a geisha. She does not resent anything because she is made to do this work, but she negotiates her way around and emerges triumphant in the end where she “feels as a bird must feel when it has flown across the ocean and comes upon a creature that knows its nest.” (Starr).
Lerner, R.M. (1996). Relative plasticity, integration, temporality and diversity in human
development: A developmental, contextual perspective about theory, process and
method. Developmental Psychology. 32. pp. 781-786.
Starr. K. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. Nabou.com. Retrieved Aug. 4, 2007 at:
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