Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Memoir of modern-day geisha

A Tokyo school teaches the ancient art of entertainment to women in amatter of months, not years.

Rina Koga, just out of high school, has mastered an ancient and difficult art - all in about three months. At least, she looks as if she knows what she's doing. Her makeup and clothing seem flawless. Her demeanor, when she's in character, is gentle, charming, and attentive. She dances with real grace, when she remembers all the steps.

Ms. Koga is studying the ways of geisha, Japan's skilled and elegant female entertainers, but she's a new kind of novice. Koga and her colleagues, called furisode (foo-ree-so-deh), have cast aside centuries of geisha tradition, from the lifelong dedication to the craft to the ancient system of apprenticeships.

About these ads

Instead, they retire at age 25 and have a supervisor who swears by Disney management principles.

The furisode are bringing geisha tradition into the 21st century, though their creation was intended to revive one of Tokyo's oldest neighborhoods. And even though their opulent kimonos, alabaster skin, and cherry-red lips are meant to evoke an older Japan, the furisode owe their existence and popularity to modern times.

"My friends just couldn't imagine what kind of world this was," says the bubbly Koga, who uses the working name Ribbon. "I was interested because I wanted to learn about things that aren't part of daily life."

The Asakusa neighborhood, where the furisode school is based, has been an entertainment district for hundreds of years. Locals vow it's the only place where you can get a feel for the Tokyo of a century ago. Before World War II, it was a center for theater and geisha. After the war, 30 movie houses dotted the area's bustling shopping streets.

"But when the TV era came, fewer people visited," says Hisao Okazaki, who runs the school. Five years ago, a group of female merchants started the furisode school to revive Asakusa's reputation as a lively nightlife destination. No advertisements were posted, but that first year, 230 young women applied for positions. Twelve made it.

Applicants have to be between 18 and 25, beautiful, and well-disciplined, and have a good understanding of the Asakusa area, says Mr. Okazaki. Furisode means "long sleeves," a reference to the women's long kimono sleeves that indicate they are young and unmarried. Their three-month instruction covers basic dance, makeup, kimono, and tea ceremony, through which they learn manners and acquire the veneer of geisha. "We teach them to be poised and elegant," Okazaki says.

That includes advice on handling pushy customers. Geisha are not prostitutes, but historically some have been known to broaden their range of services. "We train them to say no in a nice way," Okazaki says.

About these ads

Their supervisor Tomoko Tsuchino rounds out that education with a dash of Disney. Ms. Tsuchino worked at Tokyo Disneyland for a short time and came away impressed with the service ethic.

"I teach the girls that eye contact is crucial, even before they say hello," says Ms. Tsuchino, who computerizes the furisode's schedules. "I love the Disney philosophy, especially the teamwork."

THE work is simple. Customers make a reservation with Okazaki, specifying the number of furisode and a restaurant. Once there, the furisode pour drinks, listen attentively, make sure clients are enjoying their meals, and dance to recorded music.

For this, they earn $26,000 a year plus two bonuses and tips. The school provides a $2,000 to $3,000 kimono free of charge. Despite the tough screenings, the yearly auditions have always drawn more women than there are places.

The good salary is part of this, Okazaki says, but he believes Japan's extended recession and shrinking job market have generated interest in traditional work. But there are limits to that interest, which make furisode status all the more appealing.

"Young people are no longer interested in long, hard training," Okazaki says, explaining that the furisode's short study period is far more attractive than the years required before geisha can begin to make money. Geisha are far more skilled than furisode, working with mentors to master dance, songs, musical instruments, and the tea ceremony, work outlined in the bestselling novel "Memoirs of a Geisha." Becoming a completely independent geisha takes about three years. Even so, they work on skills throughout careers that can last into their 80s.

"To become a complete geisha, the studying never ends," says Kotoku, a geisha who has worked in the Asakusa area for seven years. Slim and willowy in traditional sandals and a patterned kimono, she is on her way to a dance lesson. "Especially the first two, three years, there's so much to remember."

Each of the 53 geisha stables in Asakusa once housed five to 10 women, but now there are only 60 geisha in the area, says Keiji Chiba, a geisha-union manager. Mr. Chiba says the numbers have been declining because the training discourages people, and because women have many other job opportunities now.

But he also cites the dampening effect of the recession. "Opportunities are limited," says Chiba, though he denies the furisode pose any threat. Still, geisha in the area have lowered their prices from about $120 an hour to just below $100. The furisode charge about $105 and are doing well, something Okazaki attributes to their relatively low cost and, ironically, the recession. "The familiarity of traditional entertainment, the old ways, they're comforting in hard times," he argues.

Many of the furisode say that the appeal of their job is in learning Japanese arts. But for the geisha Kotoku, the furisode claim to tradition rings hollow.

"Japanese tradition is carried on through people," she says, "by listening and learning from your elders. That never happens with the furisode because they stay for such a short time, she says.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.