As a foreigner unfamiliar with Japan, penetrating the opaque surface of its society can sometimes be a daunting prospect. When Sayuki decided to enter the secretive and ancient world of the Japanese geisha, she took on cultural practices much more complex than just standing to the left on the elevator.
The Australian Oxford-educated anthropologist, who became the first ever non-Japanese geisha when she made her official debut in 2007, says it took her many months just to learn how to move properly wearing a kimono. “Standing up and sitting down are skills which take time to learn,” she explains. “The kimono is tied with the obi belt but it requires a more refined way of moving and walking in order to keep it looking beautiful and not clumsy.”
Trainee geisha in their teens used to undergo four- or five-year apprenticeships, but nowadays many women join at eighteen or after the age of 20. Either way, they cannot debut until they have learned the basics, in order to be passable at banquets, and this rarely takes less than 12 months. Bravely going where no Western woman had gone before her, Sayuki–’transparent happiness’ is her geisha name–admits that, despite being prepared for hard work, she had been initially taken aback by the tough regime at the geisha house where she was admitted to train. “It was incredibly rigorous. I had to study all day–how to walk, how to talk, how to hold things; as well as the traditional geisha arts of music, drum, singing, and my own specialty–the Japanese flute,” she says. “It completely consumed my life. A lot of hangyoku (maiko or apprentice geisha) quit after only a few days or months.”
The strict system of hierarchy in the geisha world also took some getting used to. “I had to obey my geisha ‘mother’ (a senior geisha who supervises the training of the hangyoku) in all things. It wasn’t a choice about whether to follow customs or not. I had to have the permission of both my geisha mother and the geisha office for every banquet or event, every interview, everything that I did, no matter how small.” When Sayuki attended meetings with her forty-four geisha sisters in the Asakusa Hanamachi (geisha district), she had to greet them Japanese style on her knees; one by one in turn according to their seniority, which is determined by their date of debut rather than age. “I had terrible trouble remembering the exact order and would get scolded when I got it wrong,” Sayuki laughs.
So can close female friendships be forged within the geisha community? Or does the stringent pecking order and behavioural etiquette prevent informal interaction? “Because the geisha world is so special, and it’s such a unique lifestyle, there is the potential to become close to your geisha sisters,” says Sayuki. “As of last year, I am not affiliated to Asakusa, as they would not allow a foreigner to have their own geisha house there. But I work with other geisha at every banquet that I do. Obviously, I wouldn’t be able to get that support unless I respected the hierarchy of the geisha world and accorded them respect as my older sisters. Luckily I have had the support of many geisha from inside and outside Tokyo, and I have attended banquets in every geisha district in Tokyo. If I’ve organised an event and a geisha is unavailable at the last minute, I can ring round and someone’s always willing to help out.’
Sayuki speaks of female camaraderie amongst her guests, too. “People have this misconception that geisha are only hired by men, to attend their parties and look pretty. But geisha entertain any kind of customer and a lot of my customers today are female. All-female banquets are great fun. They can get pretty raucous.” How so? “other women are always curious about what we wear under our kimonos!” What do they wear? “We wear several layers of silk, but of course geisha are famous for not wearing panties. The geisha silhouette is sharply in contrast to that of the regular female kimono wearer, which is supposed to be tubular and demure. Geisha sihouettes are curvy and the curves are enhanced in dancing geisha. The plunging neck and flashes of red against the white neck and at the throat add a real air of sensuality.” “Some of my female customers bring their kids along and that is a lot of fun, too…we sometimes make them up with a bit of white makeup and lipstick and they love that. My youngest customer so far was one year old!”
Sayuki is optimistic about the future of the geisha world, despite the fact that geisha have diminished in number over recent years. In the heyday of the nineteen twenties, there were around eighty thousand geisha in Japan; now they number roughly one thousand. Sayuki argues, however, that the tradition can be preserved if geisha only adapt their business model to suit the age. ‘Traditionally, geisha derived a great deal of their income from individual sponsors, but sponsorship is more difficult to achieve in the current economic climate. One way to compensate for that lost income might be to get corporate sponsorship instead. Kyoto maiko did a Kentucky Fried chicken ad a while ago. I would welcome the idea of working with a corporation or advertising as long as the product is suitable to geisha and enhances the geisha image.”
In order to help maintain geisha numbers, this year has seen Sayuki help support a young prospective hangyoku, helping the twenty year-old achieve her dream of becoming a geisha. She will become one of only seven hangyoku currently studying in Tokyo, and is the first to be supported by a non-Japanese geisha, though Sayuki will arrange for her to learn her lessons with the help of much more senior elder sisters. “I want to do all I can to help preserve this beautiful tradition,” says Sayuki. “I am honoured to have been allowed to be a part of it, and I’m happy to do everything in my power to contribute.”
Sayuki is also working to render the geisha world more accessible to outsiders. “Most Japanese people, let alone foreigners, have never met a geisha, and have absolutely no idea how to go about doing so. Yet it’s an aspect of Japanese culture that people find very attractive. I encourage anyone who would like to meet geisha to contact me through my website and let me know their numbers and how much they can afford per person, and I can give them some options.” One of the options she can suggest involves a simpler meal than the full multi-course tea house meals, or drinks with geisha, making it much more affordable. In the past, hiring geisha would have been impossible without being first formally introduced into the geisha house by an acquaintance with contacts. Sayuki’s project will doubtless appeal to many foreigners wishing to experience this most fascinating aspect of Japanese culture. Sayuki can be contacted through her website.
Photos ©HARUHI OKUYAMA