Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: email@example.com
*Photo by Kerry Raftis
Before Japan’s economy took off, foreigners conjured up an image of Japan represented by such Japanese things like geisha and Mt. Fuji. The feeling was that traditional Japanese culture was mysterious and exotic, and the world of the geisha seemed irredeemably closed to outsiders.
But now a non-Japanese has finally opened a crack into this very closed world: Sayuki, the first foreigner to be a geisha in Japan. Japanese and foreign media are paying close attention to this Australian woman who debuted in December as the first white geisha in Japanese history.
My Eyes Tokyo asked her the reason she wanted to be a geisha and what she wants to realize in the traditional Japanese entertainment world. We heard her story in Daikan-yama, a modernized and fashionable town in Tokyo.
My idea to become a geisha originally started out as a television program proposal. I’m an anthropologist and I make anthropological television programs.
Obviously I’m a Japan specialist as an anthropologist. I was considering a number of different topics and this geisha proposal was one of them. I started thinking about it before the movie “Sayuri -Memoirs of a Geisha-“ came out. I knew that this was a fictional movie based on a fictional book. I thought that there would be a need for a real documentary, documenting the reality of geisha life as opposed to a fictional book.
Now I have a crew filming me as I go along living in a geisha world. I’m filming little by little throughout my first year as a geisha. I filmed my debut and I’m filming all the events I participate in month by month, and I’ll be making that intro documentary at some stage. And I would very much like to also show it, the documentary in Japan.
I made my debut on December 19, 2007. I started going to Asakusa over a year ago. I was commuting to the geisha district and training as a member of a geisha house and taking lessons, and getting a collection of kimono together. Basically I was learning everything that I needed to know to be a geisha for nearly a year before I was able to actually debut.
I didn’t know much about the geisha world before I entered that world. But no outsider knows very much about it because it is such a closed world. So I really had to learn a lot after I began. And, of course, even now I am learning heaps every day too. I had the experience of researching and living in a number of Japanese traditional environments already. I was employed in a large, very traditional company. I was in the first generation of women to be employed in the same capacity as men in the company, in a very traditional environment. And I’ve also done television programs of research on traditional festivals, the world of Shinto, extreme, very traditional sports teams, sumo and kamikaze fighters.
So there’s some degree of similarity between geisha world and all traditional worlds in Japan. Of course the geisha world is quite different again in many elements, but I can say that if I hadn’t had the experience of working in a traditional environments here it would have been difficult. I think it would have been very, very difficult to be in the geisha world.
Geishas have to keep learning all of their lives
There are a lot of very unique customs in the geisha world. It’s a world totally steeped in tradition and art. I had to learn about traditional Japanese music and traditional entertainment for the first time there so there were a lot of things I had to study.
In the geisha world, we have a clear hierarchy and our etiquette is really strict. It’s much more strict than etiquette in the rest of Japan in general so we have to pay more attention to details. It is really hard for young Japanese to master this side of geisha life too. We have to pay attention to a multitude of ways of greeting, bowing, sitting and standing and get it right, very precisely.
And we have to keep learning the geisha customs our entire life. It is not the case that you study for a while, debut, and then that is it. The learning process is life-long like a traditional apprenticeship. The debut is the start of your geisha life. It means that you have completed your preparations to start as a geisha. Even geishas in their 90’s are still taking lessons. Practicing one’s art for life is a geisha life. Geisha means “artist” literally so geishas have to practice their whole lives. I am not sure how long I will remain a geisha. I haven’t set any end point yet.
My field of research is called social anthropology. Our research methodology is called fieldwork. We have to immerse ourselves in the society that we are researching, learn the language and become an insider in a sense before we disengage and write up the research. So the geisha world for me is not just an objective subject of my research. And also, I am not just living as a geisha just for my research either. I have debuted and I have become an actual geisha.
There are actually more young people who want to be geishas than there are places to take them in
Every country has its own modern culture and traditional culture, but I hope that Japanese people learn to cherish geisha culture more. It is a very beautiful culture and worth valuing as such and handing down to posterity.
Geishas are entertainers… no, we should say we’re artists. But we perform mainly in front of small group audiences. That’s our only difference from other traditional arts. As for Western arts such as opera and ballet, these arts used to be performed also for kings, peers and nobles in the beginning. They used to be performed in private spaces like courts. But they are now only performed in large public spaces, where geishas are still performing in exclusive private spaces. The private, small space atmosphere is the essence of geisha entertainment.
In that sense, Japanese people tend to hold on to traditions for a long time. They are good at keeping traditions unchanged into the modern world, but now traditional Japanese culture is getting increasingly placed in the margins of society here.
I think that is a pity. However, that hasn’t stopped young people from wanting to become geisha. In fact, there are more young people who want to be geishas than people to take them in. Don’t forget that. There are actually quite a few people in the young generation who want to enter the geisha world.
Experience of the highest level of Japanese culture
What I would like people to know about the geisha world is the beauty of “O-zashiki” (お座敷: it literally means “parlor”): the banquets. I think there are many Japanese who don’t know anything about banquets.
O-zashikis are held in fancy Japanese-style restaurants which constitute the most beautiful examples of Japanese architecture. In the rooms are beautiful arrangements of seasonal flowers. You can see the incredible beauty of precious and antique kimonos. Geisha kimonos usually cost more than a million-yen with sashes. And you can enjoy authentic and delicious Japanese cuisine. You can listen to traditional Japanese music and see various Japanese musical instruments. You can enjoy beautiful Japanese dance.
You can’t experience the beauty of all these aspects of Japanese culture in such condensed form anywhere else. You can go and see live dancing performances but it is a whole range of different arts that are all visible at the banquests. So you can experience the highest level of Japanese culture in o-zashiki. I want people to know that.
I want to contribute to the geisha world
I haven’t abandoned my former career. On the contrary, I’m using my experience in the media. I write articles about the geisha world and do interviews. I make documentary programs and write books. I can apply all of my experience to my geisha activities now. I’m really happy with that. Being able to have become the first white geisha is really an honour and I want to be confident as a geisha first and foremost. And I also want to give something back to the society which took me in.
What is being a geisha to you?
Being a geisha is an artist, and that is a beautiful lifestyle. In some ways, this suits me very well.
I used to be an amateur flute player and I was making money by doing that for several years when I was a student. I dressed up and played baroque music in front of people. I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed the interaction with the audience. That was the most enjoyable part-time job I had.
So now I feel in a sense that I have gone back to a time of my life that I really enjoyed.
I want to write and I want to film as well,
but above all, I would like to put my best efforts into being a geisha.
Sayuki of Asakusa: http://www.sayuki.net/