Kyoto is running out of geisha.

Ben Hills

People think our life is glamorous,” says the geisha, sucking in her breath as a fivemetre brocade sash is wound tightly around her middle, “but it’s hard work … imagine dancing in this.” It has taken nearly an hour to transform Kaori Takagi, a high-school dropout from the countryside, into Hagika, Bush Clover Blossom, a walking, talking work of art that is – along with Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms – Japan’s ultimate cultural cliche. 

Her hair is stiff with camellia oil and pinned with silver combs, her face painted into a ghostly mask with black circles for eyes and a tiny scarlet rosebud of a mouth. She is trussed in 10 kilograms of exquisite silk and hobbles along on wooden clogs.

Tonight she will entertain a group of tourists at a local inn, pouring them sake (rice wine), trading witty banter, strumming her three-string shamisen, and performing traditional dances. She will try not to drink – extricating oneself from the costume to go to the toilet calls for the skills of Houdini.

For three centuries, geisha such as Hagika have been entertaining the wealthy merchants and haughty samurai class of Kyoto, Japan’s old imperial capital. It was here that karyukai, the “world of flowers and willows”, reached its peak of exquisite refinement.

And it is here that the 20th century has finally caught up with this ancient profession. Kyoto is running out of geisha.

“This is a very serious situation,” says Hiroyuki Yamasaki, planning chief of the Kyoto Tourism Committee. “One quarter of Kyoto’s economy depends on tourism, and the geisha is the symbol of the city’s culture.” Before the war there were more than 1,000 geisha attached to the five “flower districts” which monopolise the business. By 1955 this was down to 674, and today there are only 199 fully trained geisha and 78 apprentices left.

Look closely at the faces in last summer’s Gion matsuri – one of Japan’s most famous festivals when radiant geisha ride through the city on huge floats – and you can detect, beneath the pancake make-up, the lines and wrinkles of advancing age. About 90 per cent of the jikata (geisha who play musical instruments) are over 50, and some are in their 80s.

Yamasaki blames the vanishing geisha on the decline of traditional Japanese music (Western-style pop dominates the hit parades and karaoke machines), the collapse of Kyoto’s silk industry and the corporatisation of Japanese business.

“Before, wealthy merchants owned their companies and would think nothing of paying hundreds of thousands of yen for a geisha party,” he says. “But nowadays, shareholders might have a problem with this. Companies prefer other types of sponsorship, like boxes at J-League (Japan’s new national soccer competition).” As well, Yamasaki might have added, Japan’s postwar economic miracle has ended the heartbreak of poverty-stricken families forced to sell their daughters into the geisha industry. Older geisha in Kyoto remember being traded, at the age of six and seven, for a bag of rice or 100 yen.

The cost, controlled by another ancient Japanese tradition, the price-fixing cartel, is another major problem. Book a group of four into a teahouse, turn on a few seasonal titbits of food, some sake and two geisha and 90 minutes’ (strictly non-sexual) fun will set you back a minimum of $2,500.

The image of geisha parties has also been tainted with sleaze after revelations of the crooked political deals and bribery conducted behind the shoji screens. One prefectural government has recently been exposed for squandering $12,125 of the taxpayers’ money entertaining Tokyo bureaucrats at a party attended by just 13 people.

In the old days, the geisha’s ambition was to snare a wealthy danna, a patron who would find her a place to live and support her as a mistress. But in today’s tough economic times, sugar daddies are hard to come by and many geisha have to make do with four or five part-time danna sharing her costs.

And the costs are extortionate. Hagika’s handcrafted silken kimono is worth about $20,000, by no means the most expensive you can buy, and a popular geisha may have to maintain a wardrobe of 100 different outfits to match her age, the season of the year, the mood of the party. If she spills the sake, the dry-cleaning costs $150.

Most importantly of all, the old wooden inns and teahouses where they practise their trade are all very colourful – but conditions for the people who work there have changed little since the days of bonded serfdom.

Like many of Kyoto’s geisha, Hagika came here from rural Yamaguchi at the age of 15, hoping to earn some money to help support her widowed mother. She was taken in by the “madam” of an okiya (geisha house) who agreed to arrange for her training in exchange for her earnings – the only way a woman can become a geisha.

That was seven years ago and Hagika still has to wear the distinctive costume of a maiko, an apprentice. Just to qualify for the shamisen takes 15 years, and there are many other skills a geisha has to acquire – singing and dancing, conversation, the tea ceremony, scent-sniffing. “They are not just entertainers but highly skilled performers,” says Yamasaki.

In Hagika’s case, she was required to work up to 18 hours a day and in her first year had only two days off. Geisha get no paid holidays, have no pension and until recently did not even have medical insurance.

Hagika calculates she was earning about $60,000 a month for her madam. All she saw of this was $500 which was tossed to her as “pocket money”. Even her tips were confiscated.

Finally, last year, she plucked up courage to become the first geisha to walk out and sue the madam of her house. “It’s been a difficult time but someone had to be the first to stand up for her rights,” she says.

When the case was publicised, other geisha fed up with being exploited contacted her. Fujika (wisteria flower), who is performing tonight with Hagika, had been beaten and kicked, lost seven kilos in weight and had her hair falling out with worry before she, too, quit.

Eventually, four of the women – with financial backing from a wealthy hotelier – teamed up to form Kyoto’s first independent geisha agency. “We are keeping the traditional arts but running it like a regular business,” says Chinami Kawakita, the agency’s manager. “The girls now earn a salary and have paid holidays like any other worker.”

Traditional Kyoto closed its ranks, black-banning Hagika and her colleagues. Their music teachers refuse to teach them; teahouses won’t take their bookings; hairdressers won’t fix the special styles they need – and their regular customers have been pressured into dropping them.

But Kyoto’s new-wave geisha are winning a whole new clientele of tourists, younger businessmen, even schools by cutting their prices to an unheard-of $175 an hour. Kawakita says: “We think that is reasonable – the ‘flower districts’ are driving people away with their prices and their elitist attitude.”

Yamasaki and the geisha operators have come up with a different, more traditional solution. Instead of improving conditions and introducing a bit of competition to lure people back, they are looking for a $6 million subsidy from the local government.

“Something has to be done,” says Yamasaki, who admits even he has never been able to afford to pay for a geisha party out of his own pocket. “Kyoto without geisha – it’s unthinkable.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 30 September 1995
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section:
Page: 9
Word count: 1067
Photograph: Mayu Kanamori
Caption: Fujika, left, and Hagika, who walked out and sued the madam of her geisha house. “It’s been a difficult time but someone had to be the first to stand up for her rights.”