On December 16 2017 some of our class were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview Marimo Oneesan, who had been a geisha in Fukagawa since an early age, about her life and experiences. The following is a summary of some of the topics she discussed, translated to english.
Shortly after high school Marimo left her home in Southern Japan in order to become a geisha and make money to help her family. Entertainingly, she mentions that part of why she decided to travel as far as Fukagawa in order for work was that she didn’t want to meet any of the girls she knew from high school (a sentiment that is no stranger to many young adults today). As she puts it, she chose Fukagawa partially because it was by the sea like her hometown and also partially because the Tokyo geisha houses were more reputable than onsen ones, like in Atari.
The house that took her in for training held a whooping nine other girls; the largest in the area. In comparison, few other geisha sought to take on apprentices, making the majority of tea houses quite small. Even so, at the time there were still plenty of young geisha in training in Fukagawa and nearby districts the Marimo Oneesan would often encounter during lessons. This was one of the greatest chances for prospective geisha to interact because there were so few different music and dance teachers in the industry. She was incredibly skilled at dance but although the shamisen was quite a challenge for her. Through her tutorship and upbringing into the world of geisha was also when Marimo Oneesan received her name after the moss balls that are commonly found in some Hokkaido lakes. She inherited it shortly after a popular geisha with the same name retired, under the belief that having the same name would bring good fortune.
Soon Marimo debuted as a real geisha and founded her own house while still at a young age. She describes much of what life was like for geisha at that time, which differs incredibly from the culture today. For one, geisha were far more common and more demanded. Many politicians and celebrities would attend geisha banquets. To Marimo Oneesan, the chance to meet with such famous and important figures and speak to them as equals was one of the most rewarding parts of her profession. The most predominant customers however, were companies who used to pay large sums for geisha to act as hosts and drinking partners for their employees, sometimes even taking the geisha out to enjoy the city afterwards. Today this tradition has all but vanished, taking a significant portion of the industry with it.
After years of prosperity the Fukagawa geisha office was finally closed around Japan’s bubble era, when several retiring box carries could not support their retirement. They sold the land the office was located on, and they and the twenty remaining geisha divide the profits. It was yet another example of how the changing times forced many in the geisha industry to choose between tradition and survival. As the decline in the geisha and other traditions is felt all across Japan, the country will have to make hard choices about how to adapt to an ever changing world and what traditions will remain. Geisha may no longer be able to exist in the roles they’ve held for years, but only people today and the passage of time will determine what role they take in the future.