Credit: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Last of Tokyo's geishas cling to a disappearing trade
Wearing tall platform sandals and a long kimono, Ikuko glides across the room as if she were balancing a glass of water on her head. She gazes at a wall of old photos in Tokyo's Akasaka geisha house.
In one image, she's pictured mid-dance in a vibrant pink kimono, her parasol half open as she coyly gazes past the camera. In another, she's seated gracefully holding a closed fan in her lap.
Geishas are required to remain unmarried, but can work in the profession as long as they want without retiring. So even now, aged 80, Ikuko is not only head of the Akasaka Geisha Association -- she's also a practicing geisha.
She first came to Tokyo in 1964, the year the city first hosted the Olympics. Back then, she said, there were 400 geishas in the Akasaka district. Today, there are just 21, a decline mirrored across the country.
Part of a secretive profession, geishas are master hostesses, entertainers and skilled performers in traditional Japanese arts. Within luxurious traditional restaurants called "ryotei," they play shamisen guitar, dance, sing and perform tea ceremonies. Historically, only exclusive guests or those with personal or business connections -- typically wealthy men -- could enter.
Geishas perfected the art of conversation, offering witty discourse as they kept the sake flowing. Geisha banquets -- especially in Tokyo -- were once places for serious business negotiations and closed-door political discussions, according to Hisafumi Iwashita, a professor at Kokugakuin University and an expert on geisha culture. But from around the middle of the 20th century, business and political leaders started to lose interest in geisha banquets, called "ozashiki," instead entertaining clients and guests at other venues, like night clubs.
"Geishas, once praised as 'flowers of Tokyo,' are fading to become nothing, like other traditional cultures," Iwashita said in a video interview. "Geishas used to be a big business and part of life, but now it is only surviving as a culture to preserve."
A day in the life of a geisha often begins in the morning and ends in the early hours of the next day, as they entertain clients all through the evening. Ikuko now follows a less punishing schedule, often spending her afternoons training younger geishas in her house.
During dance rehearsals, she assumes the "seiza" position, a traditional way of sitting in Japan: legs are tucked underneath the thighs in a kneeling position. She can sit this way for hours on end, slipping in and out the position with ease as she demonstrates dance movements to her students.
Daily preparation -- applying white makeup, painting the face and perfecting the position of the wig -- is an art in its own right. In the Akasaka geisha house, a tailor helps each performer tie their elaborate kimonos, which can cost more than $10,000 each.
Today, geishas are still hired as upscale entertainment for banquets, celebrations and events. Dining at a ryotei with geishas can cost thousands of dollars. But the Covid-19 pandemic has slashed spending and gatherings, as celebrations have been canceled.
"We are struggling for survival," Ikuko said. "All we can do is train constantly to be prepared to perform at any moment."
Koiku and Mayu, who, like Ikuko, asked to be referred to using a single name, have been geishas in Tokyo's Akasaka district for more than a decade. Koiku had wanted to work in a profession filled with beauty and tradition, but she did not expect the training to be so painstaking, or the lifestyle to be so unpredictable -- especially during the pandemic.
"The scariest part is that we don't know when this is going to end," Koiku said, referring to the impact of Covid-19 on the industry. "If this situation continues for a long time, I do not know how long we can survive for."
Koiku said she has already experienced two major downturns in work in her career: during the 2008 global financial crisis and following the earthquake and tsunami that struck east Japan in 2011. But Koike says the pandemic has been even worse. Geishas' pay is dependent on bookings, and with virtually no work during some months -- and business still less than half of pre-pandemic levels -- her income has been severely impacted.
Covid precautions also make it difficult to have intimate conversations with guests. Koiku and Mayu both hold anti-bacterial coated fans in front of their faces while talking, and must dance at least two meters (6.6 feet) away from customers.
"I'm battling anxiety every day," Mayu said. "A big challenge is to make ends meet, but the other challenge is sustaining the craftspeople for this culture.
Traditional Japanese craftspeople have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. And, for many, their survival is closely tied to the fortunes of geisha houses, Mayu and Koiku said. Each part of the elaborate ozashiki banquets showcase traditional arts, including the elaborate kimonos, wigs, "kanzashi" combs and accessories adorning the geishas. Even the intricate "shoji" paper door dividers and tatami mats lining the restaurant floors may rely on local artisans.
"The culture of the banquet protects the jobs of Japanese craftspeople," Koiku said. "We have a role to pass the traditional culture to the next generation when new, younger geishas join us."
Before World War II, it was common practice for poor Japanese families to send their children away to small businesses to work. If daughters were sent to geisha houses, their parents would be paid a regular sum of money over the course of several years. This system was outlawed in post-war Japan, however, and geishas have since been free to enter and leave the profession.
While there is no official figure for the number of geishas in Japan, it is estimated that in the 1920s, there were about 90,000 across the country, compared to just a few hundred today, according to Fiona Graham, an Australian anthropologist works as a geisha in Tokyo. Graham, who is also known as Sayuki, was the first White foreigner to be recognized as a geisha.
"I think Japanese have a lot of respect for geishas. They realize it's a serious profession and they are talented, high class artists," Graham said, adding that Western misconceptions of geishas as subservient are unfounded. "Geishas were the original working women. They have always been in control of their own lives ... they were very modern -- far more modern than Japanese wives, who had restricted lives."
Graham become interested in geisha culture after researching for a documentary on the subject. She trained for 11 months at a geisha house in Tokyo and debuted as one in 2007. She now runs her own geisha house in Tokyo's Fukugawa district, where she helps train young performers.
Graham said that geisha districts across Japan are finding new ways to attract young trainees, but that many young women who join the profession end up quitting.
"Geisha literally means 'artist,' so if you don't love your art, then it's not going to work," Graham said. "The geisha world is where you can learn about every Japanese tradition. When you're in Japanese tea houses, you're seeing the best of Japanese architecture, pottery, paintings, best of Japanese kimono, cuisine, Sake, music, dance. Everything is combined in the geisha world."
That's exactly why 20-year-old Sanae is training with Graham as an apprentice geisha, or "hangyoku."
"Modern Japanese people do not practice the tea ceremony, shamisen stringed instruments or Japanese dances anymore," said Sanae. "I would like to do my best to carry on this tradition."
During the pandemic, Graham has hosted banquets over Zoom, teaching people around the world about geisha culture virtually.
"It's opened up a whole new world where we can meet customers who might never end up in Japan, but who are still curious about the geisha world," she said.
No longer the realm of wealthy businessmen, this quintessentially Japanese tradition now counts overseas tourists -- as well as families and groups of women -- among its key customers, Graham said.
While elderly locals may be familiar with the geisha tradition, and often sing along to the traditional music, many younger customers have never met a geisha before. To reach these new customers, Graham allows patrons in for around $100 an hour (significantly cheaper than booking a banquet), after which they can invite a geisha for a casual conversation at a counter bar.
But Shota Asada, owner of the 350-year-old ryotei where Ikuko, Mayu and Koiku perform, said he's concerned about the aging clientele. The pandemic has nearly killed his business, he said.
"I wish the younger generation -- people in their 30s and 40s -- would get interested in banquets with geishas and enjoy the world of 'omotenashi,'" he said, using a term for Japanese hospitality.
Graham is more sanguine about the future of Japan's geisha industry.
"The geisha world has been declining for 100 years," she said. "To put it in perspective, classical music has (also) also been in decline for 100 years. But I don't think classical music is going to disappear."
Iwashita of Kokugakuin University said the only way for the tradition to survive in the 21st century is to "sell the culture." He said Kyoto has succeeded in this, by working closely with the local government and tourism officials to make geisha houses part of the visitor experience.
"Kyoto is a city that has been selling its old history," Iwashita said. "For the geisha world, Kyoto's way of marketing worked, and Tokyo should learn from it."
But while the future is uncertain for many in the industry, 80-year-old geisha Ikuko said the profession gave her economic independence, freeing her from societal pressure to marry and start a family.
"This is the best job a woman could have," she said, reflecting on her life and career. "I am in good health and spirits to this age. I have no regrets that I chose to become a geisha."