Today, however, the nation’s legendary geisha have fallen on hard times.
With their “willow world” contracting to a mere handful of traditional entertainment quarters in cities that are increasingly made of skyscraper steel rather than wood, fewer geisha have patrons to support them and there is concern that a way of life that is synonymous with Japan could be extinct within a few decades.
“The number of people who can understand the willow world and the skills of the geisha is declining,” Hiroyuki Yamazaki, secretary-general of the Kyoto Traditional Musical Art Foundation, said.
“It used to be that a company president would become a geisha’s patron, but with Japan‘s economic problems of recent years, that is becoming more rare.”
Concerned about the future of the geisha’s skills and eager to encourage young women to consider a career in the secretive world of tea houses, poetry and the music of the samisen catskin lute, Yamazaki’s foundation has announced plans to provide elderly geishas with a pension.
Plans are afoot to provide
“We need to support the geisha because their fate will have an effect upon the city’s image,” Yamazaki said. “We need them to help attract more tourists to Kyoto and to maintain this very important traditional Japanese cultural asset.”
Working with the prefecture and city governments, the foundation plans to give working geishas over the age of 60 monthly pensions of Y50,000 ($500) from April next year.
According to Yamazaki, some 60 women in Kyoto will be eligible to receive the payments, including one who is still working at the grand old age of 93.
Often misunderstood in the West, geisha used to join an “okiya”, or geisha house, at a young age and learn to play a variety of musical instruments, sing, recite poetry and perform traditional dances.
They are dispatched most evenings from their “okiya” to upmarket restaurants to provide entertainment, usually to men. There is no physical side to the relationship with customers.
In modern-day Japan, geishas
In the past – as portrayed in Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, which is soon to be released as a film – wealthy men vied to become their patrons, wooing the head of the okiya with expensive gifts.
Kyoto has five geisha districts. But there were seven such areas in the Edo period, which ended in 1867, which housed over 1000 geishas. Today, there are a mere 193.
Other traditional towns have also seen the swing in the geishas’ fortunes, with the coastal resort of Atami, south-west of Tokyo, looking to broaden the appeal of geisha by offering young women – those with the highest disposable incomes in modern-day Japan – the opportunity to wear the wigs, hair ornaments, make-up and layers of kimono before taking a leisurely stroll through the town’s entertainment quarter.
The Kyoto foundation’s pension scheme – which will be in addition to the national pension – will be open to geisha across the rest of Japan and has been welcomed because it will allow them to continue their music classes and provide security in their old age.
“Very few people have patrons now because it is just too expensive”
“Every day, I have lessons in dancing or the taiko drums or samisen,” says Atsumi, a geisha working in Hakone, a mountain resort town at the foot of Mount Fuji.
“Each one is not so expensive, but as we all have to practice every day, it can become pricey.
“I have been doing this for 22 years now after I started at the age of 18,” she said. “But things are very different compared to how they were when I first started.
“Very few people have patrons now because it is just too expensive. I think the idea of a pension scheme is very good because it means we won’t have to worry about the future quite so much,” she said.