For several years in the early seventies, I had a reprieve from the rigors of the war-torn period in Southeast Asia to live in Japan. I found Japan interesting as I travelled to every location Esso Sekiyu had throughout Japan. I took repeated trips to Okinawa given the pending reversion from the U.S. to Japan. Mind you, I still made periodic trips back to Thailand to spend time in the concrete and foliage jungles there. Nonetheless, one of the more interesting parts of Japan was our office location of TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) Kaikan in Akasaka, a residential and commercial district of Minato, Tokyo. For those of you who are not aware of that neighborhood, it is command central of the Geisha district of Tokyo and generally a hip area.
Several days following my arrival in Japan, I was fortunate to attend my first evening event in an Akasaka geisha house that was a very short walk from our office. After many dinners with hostesses in Bangkok, I was quite surprised at the formality and structure of a geisha evening. There were three “gaijin” (western foreigners) and maybe a dozen of our Japanese work associates at my first geisha event. Our task was to consume vast quantities of sake and beer while being entertained by accomplished geishas playing traditional musical instruments and dancing. It was very interesting but significantly less rowdy that anything I had ever experienced in other Asian settings. On another occasion, I attended a smaller geisha event in Yokohama where we played “rock, paper, scissors” with the geisha. Each time someone lost, they were obliged to have a drink and remove an article of clothing. The geishas have an unfair advantage in such competition as they wear multiple layers of clothing, they are sober and have vast experience. By the end of the evening, the men looked rather stupid sitting around in their underwear. Recently, CNN Style published an article entitled Last of Tokyo’s Geishas Cling To A Disappearing Trade.
The article features a lovely lady, Ikuko, aged 80, who is not only head of the Akasaka Geisha Association, but also a practicing geisha. She first came to Tokyo in 1964 where there were 400 geishas in the Akasaka district. Today, there are just 21 which represents a similar rate of decline in this profession throughout Japan. Historically, Japanese businessmen and politicians felt quite comfortable in geisha banquets called “ozashiki” to entertain one another, blow off steam and be coddled by master hostesses. Not only is it a very expensive way to entertain, despite the extraordinary entertainment budgets allowed by Japanese corporations, but it has lost appeal to other livelier settings such as nightclubs where more complacent hostesses may be found. Geisha are required to remain single but can work in the profession however long they like without retiring. Oddly, Ikuko, shown below, looks very familiar to me though she would have been in her early thirties when I was in her neighborhood. However, grace and charm defy age.
The pandemic may be one of the final nails in the coffin of this very serious profession populated by talented and well-trained artists and performers. In the 1920s, there were some 90,000 geishas in Japan that has likely been reduced to something on the order of a few hundred. Kyoto most probably has the largest share of that population given its history and traditional cultural focus. The training to become a geisha is extensive and time consuming. Moreover, their elaborate kimonos can cost more than $10,000 each. Even the preparation prior to an evening event is time consuming given their traditional makeup as shown below. Nonetheless, a geisha’s pay is dependent on bookings and they have had to suffer months during the pandemic when business was less than half of that of the recent past.
Geishas Mayu and Maki have been practicing geisha for 10 years though they are quite uncertain about their futures. They are shown below bowing to Ikuko before an entertainment evening in Akasaka.
Perhaps this cultural treasure is deserving of financial support from the Government of Japan. Museums are supported so why not an art form that is pivotal to the history and culture of Japan? The Japanese have some traditions that are revered though modern Japanese are quick to accept new ideas and practices. In some respects, they have traditionally been a bit of a “throw-away society” as illustrated with single use chopsticks which is uncommon in the rest of Asia. Nonetheless, there is something to be said about preserving cultural traditions to better understand history and yourselves.
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