It is hard to believe this is the fourth year since I became a geisha in Tokyo's Asakusa district in December 2007. It has been such a busy time, learning new things and exploring a very different society. From March this year, I took a break from the geisha world in the aftermath of the tsunami and this has given me some time to look back and reflect on my first three years of geisha life.
How did this all come about in the first place? I came to Japan first as an exchange student. I knew next to nothing about Japan but I was mesmerized by the idea of going to another country for a whole year. That first year ended up becoming 10 as I graduated from high school and university, and then I started working here. I now realize I needed all of that background later for functioning in Japanese society in order to become a geisha.
I discovered the field of social anthropology while taking my MBA at the University of Oxford. Social anthropology has a unique method of research whereby anthropologists do their fieldwork by observing people. After getting my doctorate, I started making television documentaries and always tried to take an anthropological approach by really getting inside a society. When I decided to make a documentary on geisha, it was natural that I should try to be the geisha in the documentary.Sayuki clad in geisha attire. (Photo courtesy of Sayuki)
As I had no particular contacts with the geisha world, I approached my seniors at Keio University for introductions. If I had just walked in out of the blue, I would have had no chance at all.
Key social figures meet at tea-houses, secure in the knowledge that the strict code of the geisha world on secrecy will be maintained, and that geisha will never talk about who their customers are or what was discussed. I had to convince them that I was not interested in revealing who the customers were, but interested in the geisha world itself: the customs and traditions.
It became increasingly apparent that I couldn't debut without going through all the steps that every other geisha must go through. I had wanted to concentrate only on the Japanese flute, as I had played Western flute for many years, but I was obliged to at least start three other arts as a condition of being accepted. After nearly a year of training, I was allowed to formally debut as a fully fledged geisha, the first gaikokujin geisha in Japanese history.
My geisha mother really went out on a limb to take me in. To take on a geisha daughter is to take on the task of raising me in a very strict tradition, and also to take on a great deal of responsibility, for it is the geisha mother who is criticized if the new geisha doesn't fulfill the obligations of geisha society.
Now that I have three years experience myself, I would very much like to have the opportunity one day of being the older sister to a younger geisha. Many young Japanese girls write to me and ask me about geisha life and I am always happy to answer. (By Sayuki)Sayuki (Photo courtesy of Sayuki)
Sayuki first came to Japan at age 15 on a school exchange. She later studied at Keio University and then completed a doctorate at Oxford University. She now operates a kimono shop in Asakusa, Tokyo.