Sayuki from Asakusa, the first Western Geisha

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Sayuki from Asakusa, the first Western Geisha

Sayuki from Asakusa, the first Western Geisha

Lets  make some questions to Sayuki, the very first western geisha in the world. Let’s discover her amazing and magic life.

You debuted as a geisha in 2007 (in the Asakusa district) under the name of Sayuki.
Can you please tell us when you decided to become a geisha and why?
I got my doctorate in Social Anthropology from the University of Oxford, and then commenced lecturing in Japanese Studies and directing and working on television programs for broadcasters like BBC, NHK, National Geographic Channel etc.
I proposed a program about geisha that would be a real look at the geisha world about the time that “Memoirs of a Geisha” was planned to be made into a movie.

What attracted you to a very different life?
As above, at first it was simply a television program proposal for me to spend one-year training as a geisha and to film that. Once I started I immediately became aware that it was simply impossible to make a program while training as a geisha. I had to do one or the other and chose to continue to train and concentrate on becoming a geisha first and foremost.
I would still love to make a program… This time though I would make a reality series based on my geisha house and my little trainees.

I read you first travelled to Japan for a student exchange program when you were only 15 and grew up with a Japanese family, starting a real Japanese life.

Can you please describe how different your Australian life was from the new Japanese one? 
Did you suffer for the lack of your family?
Which were the first problems you had to deal with?
All exchange students deal with a very different culture, different food, and different school systems. But exchange students also have to live with families that are probably very different from their own. I had a wonderful Japanese family. I am still close to my Japanese father, though my mother died when I was just 20.

Who gave you the name of Sayuki? What is the meaning of that name? 
Does every geisha change her original name?
Every geisha takes on a geisha name. Often, but not always, names contain one character from the geisha mother’s name.
In my case, my geisha mother was Yukiko oneesan, and I took the character yuki, or happiness, and combined it with sa or transparent.
My geisha trainees all have the character sa and combine it with various characters:
Asaka – bright transparent fragrance
Tazusa – transparent crane
Sachika – transparent thousand fragrances.

You were the first foreign geisha in the world. Can you explain the troubles and difficulties you experienced in being accepted by Japanese geisha?
I was formally accepted into Asakusa district, so that was formal acceptance. Privately some tea-house owners and geisha may not have wanted to call me or attend my banquets, but that is the same for any geisha. I had enough support from both tea-houses and geisha to be able to make my career.
I had far more trouble from online trolls who did not understand the geisha world at all but were very vocal in attacking me. This came as a complete surprise and was quite upsetting. Academics do not get bashed online for stating the facts in their research normally!

Before being a geisha, you are a “maiko” (mai=art of dancing; ko= little girl). When and how can a girl be finally a geisha?
The word for maiko from around Tokyo to northern Japan is hangyokuwhich means half-fee reflecting the fact that trainees used to get half of the fees of geisha.
But whether a geisha becomes a hangyoku or not depends on their age at the time they debut. In my geisha house, Tazusa debuted as a hangyoku, but Asaka debuted as a geisha as I did.
My own geisha mother debuted as a geisha because she was too tall to be a hangyoku.

Can you please describe what a typical geisha day is like?
Which are the arts you have to practice?
Which art do you prefer and why?
Typically, I deal with correspondence and customers and bookings and all the business of the geisha houses in the morning with my assistants. Then the afternoons are devoted to practice. And the evenings to work. Of course, sometimes we have lunchtime banquets, and evening practice, so there are some exceptions.

Sayuki Geisha Ph © Roberto Martino for #AGeishaDay Festival
Sayuki Geisha Ph © Roberto Martino for #AGeishaDay Festival

I read you were not allowed to become a geisha mother on the grounds of being a foreigner… Is this true?
Asakusa District has clear rules about who may become a geisha, and normally by Asakusa rules I should have been allowed to become a geisha mother as I had fulfilled the required four years of working as a geisha. The Geisha Committee (10 members) decided that they would not allow me to on grounds of being a foreigner, thus contradicting their own rules. It was a great pity especially for my geisha mother as she was disabled and no longer able to work already, and I could have done a great deal to help her.

Can you explain what “being a geisha” is for you, the value and the importance of that role/the meaning of the word “geisha”?

Geisha means artist literally, and I think being a geisha always begins and ends with the art. Geisha are artists.

How is it possible to be a geisha? Can everyone become a geisha?
To work as a geisha in Japan you must have Japanese nationality or permanent residency for a start. We have had enormous problems lately with fake geisha advertising on the internet. One former furisode is currently advertising with Airbnb, for example. Please do encourage geisha fans to write to Airbnb and discourage this as customers do not know the difference and it is very damaging to real geisha, especially to the new trainees who need the work.
We also saw one foreigner try to work alone and illegally until senior Tokyo geisha reported her to Immigration.

Can you describe the difference between the life and the role of a geisha in the past (1600) and today and how it changed?
I read that in the past Geisha’s lives were harder than today and geisha suffered more. Please tell us why.

Perhaps in former times geisha had to undergo a stricter training… Many years helping out in the geisha house before debuting, or very strict practice. But I think, in the end, becoming an accomplished artist in any age is a difficult task and is never-ending. Geisha train their whole lives.

The figure of the geisha was born in 1600 and initially traditional entertainers of Japanese arts were men that were specialized in Japanese dance, singing and a variety of instruments including hand drum, shoulder drum, shamisen or Japanese flute.
In the past geisha had to live in a very rigid way in their okiya where they had to study and stay away from men. They had to start when they were 5 years old and had to be ready to live in a very strict way.
The expensive cost of their life and studies were supported by the “mother” of the okiya.

Geisha often went into debt to fund their complete training so they had to be in the service of the “mother” for all their life, hoping that one day the mother would choose one of them as her favourite.

Geisha have always come into the geisha world at different ages and for different reasons. So it is not always true that they always trained since a young age. Geisha were usually contracted into the geisha world, which meant that the geisha mother paid out a lump sum to the parents and the geisha paid the debt off over several years. Sometimes customers would pay the geisha’s debts off for them.
These days it is one of the challenges of the geisha world as to who pays for the initial training as girls (and their parents) are no longer willing or able to undergo a debt-based apprenticeship.
We have listed our trainees on Patreon, and are hoping that the many geisha fans around the world, will collectively become the danna(sponsor) of our trainees and help finance their flowering into traditional artists.

Sayuki Geisha Ph © Roberto Martino for #AGeishaDay Festival
Sayuki Geisha Ph © Roberto Martino for #AGeishaDay Festiva

I read that often geisha in the past had to offer sexual performances to their clients in exchange for cash to fund their debts with the okiya: is that true? It was called “Mizuage”. The first night of a maiko was offered to a danna (patron of the arts) selected from the okāsan.
Is today the same in some cases?

Sex or prostitution has never been part of the geisha job. Geisha have always been supposed to sell their arts, and not their bodies as did the courtesans.

Geisha were supposed to be more simply attired than the courtesans and not to compete with them.
There are not courtesans in Japan any more (though there are women who dress up as historical re-enactments for parades and such) for the simple reason that prostitution is illegal in Japan.

Hierarchy in the house: describe, please.
Hierarchy in the geisha world is dependent on the date of debut, not on real age.

Let’s speak about my favourite topic: fashion and aesthetic.
Oshiroi: make up school.

Geisha’s makeup is very complex and more elaborated than the western one. Can you please describe your traditional make up and its meaning? What materials do you use and which colours?
Is there a difference between maiko’s and geisha’s makeup?
Geisha makeup evolve because tea-houses were candle-lit and girls with white faces stood out more than others. There were some precedents also for court nobles wearing white makeup too.
The white skin and red lips make almost any Japanese woman look startlingly beautiful.
There are many subtle differences between cute hangyoku makeup and more mature adult geisha makeup, from the way eyes and eyebrows are drawn.

Kitsuke: the dressing art of kimono.
Can you describe the very roots and the meaning of the art of kimono? 
I know every geisha must have plenty of them and every kimono should be worn in different seasons. Can you tell us something more about this ancient tradition and the way you dress?
All Japanese used to be dressed in kimono. Now only specialist in Japanese culture usually wear it on a daily basis.

Of course, geisha are never seen without kimono. The geisha world lays a heavy emphasis on the seasons, and geisha try to have their kimono exactly on the season so that customers feel a sense of the season when they come to banquets.

A winter kimono that has all kinds of flowers jumbled in together can be worn from October until May so the average housewife will choose such a kimono so she can wear it for a longer time. A geisha, who has very many kimono though, will choose a kimono that may have only one single flower on it and can only wear that kimono directly before and during that season.

For example, a kimono with cherry blossom over the whole of the kimono can only be worn for about two weeks before the flowers themselves bloom.

I read ordinary people wear the obi (kimono’s belt) in a different way from geisha, they tight it in the front. Please describe the main difference of the two styles.
The normal homongi (formal) kimono is the same for normal women and geisha, but geisha have some special styles like hikizuri (trailing kimono), and some special obi styles, like tsunodashi or yanagi in Tokyo.

The difference between the kimono dressing of a maiko and a geisha.
The whole outfit and kimono and obi and wig and hair ornaments are all different for geisha and hangyoku…

How long does it take to wear a kimono and put your makeup on before starting your working days?
The new trainees take many hours to get dressed, and the fastest geisha I know can do the whole thing in 40 minutes flat.

Sayuki Geisha Ph © Roberto Martino for #AGeishaDay Festival
Sayuki Geisha Ph © Roberto Martino for #AGeishaDay Festival

What do you wear on in your free days? Can you wear casual dresses? (e.g. jeans and t-shirt)? I read that in the past you couldn’t wear jeans when you were a maiko.
Maiko in Kyoto cannot wear any western clothes because they have their own hair done up in the maiko style. So they have very restrictive lives.

Tokyo hangyoku wear wigs usually, or one-day hangyoku hairstyles, so they can revert to western clothes whenever they are not working. If they are going anywhere as geisha, though, they will always be in kimono with their hair properly done.

Hana Kanzashi: the art of the hairstyle. 
Can you please tell us something about the way you do your hair? Do you do it by yourselves?
Mostly when our own hair is done up we visit the hairdresser and have it styled there.

Sado: tea’s ceremony, value and meaning.
Tea ceremony is one Japanese art that geisha may or may not do, depending on their district and geisha house and their preferences. There has been a lot of confusion because ryotei or ochaya (Japanese restaurant) has been translated into English as “tea-house” because they originally evolved from simple tea-houses.
Geisha may study tea- ceremony but usually would only perform it on special occasions that have nothing to do with their everyday work.

Ikebana: the art of flowers.
Which flowers do you use, why and their meaning?
Flower arrangement in Japan is heavily seasonal, and flowers are chosen that are spot on the current season. Tea-house mothers are usually skilled in the art of flower arrangement, or at least, of choosing the right flowers. Geisha may do this art depending on their own interests, but it is not an integral part of being a geisha.

Japanese geisha’s kitchen: geisha must be very good in preparing sweets and drinks. Can you explain the most important and typical courses and their value?
Geisha usually have nothing to do with preparing food, or with serving it, which is the job of the tea-houses and the maids there. In some districts, geisha have to train as tea-house maids, before they become geisha so they understand the job of the women they will be working alongside with.

The art of seduction: what is seduction for a geisha? What is the difference between Western and Japanese seduction and how to be sensual?

Japanese seduction is probably very understated and delicate. Geisha need to be attractive to all their customers.

Can you please tell us something about the art of dancing, shamisen and singing?
Most geisha begin their careers with dancing unless they are already very skilled musicians when they come into the geisha world. I was already playing western flute for a long time professionally as a part-time job before I entered the geisha world, so I chose to concentrate on music rather than dance. Tazusa, in my house, is a skilled shamisen player but because she is young she needs to concentrate on dancing for now.
Many dancing geisha learn music as well, but only rarely perform at banquets because there are many older geisha who specialize as musicians. They will get their turn as musicians when they are older.

The difference between the role of a geisha in Tokyo and in Kyoto.
I think the role of a geisha is the same everywhere.

Sex in geisha’s world. 
Can a trainee and a geisha fall in love and have relationship? Was it the same in the past?
There is a wrong vision of some people who think geisha offer sexual performances to their clients: what would you like to tell them? Why is there still this belief?
Trainees are usually quite young and are supposed to be concentrating on learning a difficult profession so would not normally have boyfriends.

Geisha are entirely free in their love lives.

If there are lingering beliefs that geisha are prostitutes in the west, I think it has a lot to with whether westerners can understand the concept of women who are companions to customers, and works of art, but selling only their arts and not their bodies. What about western culture makes it difficult for westerners to understand that?

Geisha’s traditions are disappearing because of the lack of money and the difficulty to cover training expenses.
Supporting trainees in the very first year is very important. The biggest challenge to geisha houses is how to finance the training of young geisha during this crucial time. They often go into debt to fund their complete training.

Can you please tell us how it is possible to support geisha’s traditions?
As above, I have great hopes of Patreon and asking geisha fans around the world to help collectively support our young trainees.
Kimono and geisha goods are extremely expensive, but each geisha also has an obligation to support the wonderful craftsmen who make the things that geisha use.

What is exactly a danna and how to become one (danna = sponsor of geisha)?
There are many types of danna. A tabi (sock) shop that gives out free tabi to a trainee might call themselves a tabi danna. An adult geisha in a long term relationship with a man might call him a danna.

Who are your clients and where do they come from?
What do you talk about with your clients?
Clients come from absolutely everywhere and are all kinds of people. We talk with them about whatever they want to talk about.

What do you like to do in your free time?
I like getting out of Tokyo into nature and hiking or mountain climbing or staying at beautiful places and enjoying after hiking onsen in hot springs. And traveling anywhere overseas too. We would like to travel more and more as geisha in the future, especially to work with the very many Japanese restaurants that you find abroad these days, but also to do events, trade shows, festivals, fashion shows, private parties, openings, galleries etc.

How does modern technology (internet-smartphone-social media) affect your professional life? 
Can maiko and geisha use smartphones?
Yes, of course. Maiko in Kyoto are restricted from some things like using smart phones in the street, but that is because they are very young and need to be careful not to damage the geisha image in public.
It is a very funny thing to see a little hangyoku at a banquet pull her smart phone out of her obi and have it ask a customer in English if he is enjoying his meal!
For me I am never separated from my ipod and ipod speaker.

What do you think about the novel “Memoirs of a Geisha” of Arthur Golden? Does this novel describe in a good way a geisha’s past life?
One must be aware that this book is a fictional book, not non-fiction. And that it was set in the pre-war period.

And that is was written by an American man, and not by a geisha.

The book did a favour to the geisha world.

What’s the best part of the job?
As below for banquets…

To be living in a beautiful world, working in beautiful tea-houses, seeing beautiful things, as part of one’s work. To be able to spend one’s life perfecting one’s art.

Meeting many interesting and fascinating people.

What’s the most unexpected part of the job?
I was surprised to find that Kyoto, that everyone believes is most traditional, is actually quite modern in their business dealings, where Tokyo is much more conservative and old-fashioned. It is not perhaps not so surprising when you remember that when geisha culture arose, in Fukagawa, it was Tokyo that was the capital of Japan.

What is the most important aspect of being a geisha?

Perfecting one’s arts.

Why would you recommend people to try geisha experience?
As I have said elsewhere, by attending a geisha banquet you can see the best of Japanese architecture in the tea-houses, the best of Japanese cuisine, art works on the walls, flower arrangement, beautiful kimono, experience the best of sake etc., Japanese dance, music. It is a complete Japanese cultural experiencee in one, more comprehensive than anything else.

What kind of event would you recommend hiring a geisha for?
As above, we can be called to many different kinds of events from private parties to festivals.

Sayuki Geisha Ph © Roberto Martino for #AGeishaDay Festival
Sayuki Geisha Ph © Roberto Martino for #AGeishaDay Festival

Is it expensive to call a geisha and what are some of the options?
The price of a banquet is determined by the price of the tea-house and food, and the ratio of geisha to customers. One customer calling ten geisha would be extremely expensive, but ten customers calling two geisha would make it quite affordable.

What other services do you offer?
I do seven types of activities:

  • Geisha banquet
  • Geisha school – a chance to come and watch the little geisha have their lessons thus supporting the older geisha who give the lessons and the youngest geisha who are learning
  • Geisha Shopping – a chance to go around the shops of the craftsmen who make the wonderful things that geisha use, from letter paper to hair ornaments
  • Kimono Shopping – a chance to buy a kimono set, or kimono fabric etc.
  • Kabuki viewing
  • Antique market shopping – a chance to buy some fantastic antiques at Tokyo’s shrines
  • Lunch with Sayuki – a chance to learn about the geisha world…best for people who have already been to a banquet and want to ask questions etc., know more.

What would you tell to a western girl who wants to become a geisha?
It is impossible for a western girl to work legally as a geisha unless she has permanent residency or Japanese nationality. To try to work illegally would be enormously disruptive and damaging to the geisha world, as we have already seen.
There are many interesting things to do in Japan without becoming a geisha. Be an exchange student, study at university in Japan, learn Japanese arts, and then after the ten years it takes to get permanent residence, if you are still interested in being a geisha perhaps there will be a geisha house willing to accept you. Of course, the question for the geisha house would be how or who would be funding the training, and whether the girl would stay long enough to recuperate their investment.

Cover: Sayuki & Asane | Photo by Saskia Wesserling

Sayuki started in Asakusa with anthropological fieldwork in mind. But after the first year she asked for, and received, permission to continue as a geisha. Sayuki made her debut after a year of training which is normal timing. Whether one debuts as a hangyoku (maiko), or as a geisha (geiko), is dependent on whether one is over 20 or so at the time one debuts. Either way, to become a hangyoku or a geisha, cannot be done without usually a year of training first.
Sayuki has been training in several arts, including shamisen and singing, and specializes in yokobue (Japanese flute). Sayuki received permission to play flute at banquets from her teacher several months after she became a geisha. Subsequently, she received permission to study separately from the other geisha in order to take the exams for music university.

Sayuki has initiated some new things in the geisha world such as making it easier for foreigners to attend banquets by being able to contact her through her web-site. But as she rarely goes to banquets alone she is always with her geisha sisters and these new initiatives are aimed at allowing first-timers to the geisha world to meet not just Sayuki, but her geisha sisters too.

Sayuki has appeared frequently in the media in Japan. The geisha world is very strict and it is rather unusual for a geisha to appear in the media often so every interview and outside event that Sayuki did had to be approved through the geisha association. Sayuki requests that the media respect geisha rules about privacy so she is not set apart from the other geisha.

In 2011 Sayuki’s geisha mother became ill and was no longer able to keep her in her geisha house. Sayuki asked for permission to open her own house after she had been a geisha for four years (as per Asakusa rules) but this was denied on the grounds of her being a foreigner.

Sayuki currently continues to work as a geisha independently and has received support from geisha all over Tokyo, including individually from geisha from Asakusa, who work with her at her banquets. Long term she may be affiliated again with another district.

Sayuki took an MBA at Oxford before turning to social anthropology, and specializing in Japanese culture. She has lectured at a number of universities around the world, and is currently lecturing on geisha and traditional Japanese culture at Keio University in Tokyo.

She does guest lectures around the world on geisha culture. Sayuki has published several books on Japanese culture. She is also an anthropological film director and has worked on programmes for BBC, NHK, National Geographic Channel and others.

This interview was first published on the JustBaked website, click here to access the website

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