Japanese geishas turn to TV concerts and curry commercials to revive a declining art

KYOTO, Japan – On Christmas Day last year, three dozen geishas danced, sang and talked to several hundred guests at a luxury hotel in Japan’s former capital.

Their former sisters would have been shocked.

For centuries Kyoto’s geishas have reserved their art for the wealthy few behind closed paper doors. Dressed in ornate kimono, they danced in customary styles, played rope shamisen and served drinks while conversing. Always discreetly. Yet here they were in the spotlight on stage at a hotel dinner show open to attendees who paid the yen equivalent of $200 in advance. Some fans came from as far away as Tokyo.

The show is one of the ways the city’s geishas are going more public, hoping to revive a long-declining business that has been further impacted by the pandemic.

“From what I can see, the geisha world is struggling to find a way to survive while maintaining its brand image,” said Kimiko Takeyoshi, a 48-year-old former geisha who has written books on the subject. job.

A maiko, an apprentice geisha, welcomes a guest to the Christmas dinner show.


Kyoto Traditional Musical Art Public Foundation

Netflix is ​​part of this new image. The streaming giant is working on a nine-episode drama about an apprentice geisha directed by Cannes Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda. The Kyoto Foundation is not directly involved, but some teahouses in Gion, the largest of Kyoto’s five geisha districts, helped film the series, which is slated for release this year.

Kyoto foundation spokesperson Naoki Enomoto said he hopes the drama will “help attract more young women and lead to finding successors” for traditional Japanese art performances. Netflix declined to comment.

According to author Lesley Downer, who has written several books on geisha, the role of geisha emerged in the 18th century. The term referred to entertainers who performed music and dance, distinguishing them from courtesans known by other names who provided sexual fantasies and sometimes sexual favors.

Kyoto, which was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, is a center of geisha culture with its own traditions. People here are quick to point out that geisha is Tokyo’s term – that Kyoto’s correct word is geiko.

The city is dotted with establishments called Okay, or maiko houses, which bring teenage girls from all over the country to train as maiko. They can be seen in the evening heading to work in their elaborate buns, white makeup, kimonos and wooden clogs.

There is no price list for a teahouse gathering. People familiar with the business say that serving a geiko typically costs the equivalent of about $160 an hour, plus $80 to $160 per customer for food and drink and a tip of an amount similar to each geiko for its performance of traditional music and dance.

Traditionally, potential admirers needed an introduction from an existing client to visit the teahouses where geishas serve and perform. The invoice would be sent discreetly a month or two later.

Ms Takeyoshi, the former geisha, recalls how extravagant the company was when she began her career in 1989, at the height of Japan’s “bubble economy”. She said she was so busy she could barely get home until morning. Some customers took out a wad of cash from their wallet to tip him.

These lavish spenders are hard to come by these days.

Many teahouses in Kyoto’s geisha quarters have been closed due to Covid-19 restrictions.


Miho Inada/The Wall Street Journal

Kenji Miyamoto, 51, a sales manager for a Kyoto manufacturing company, started frequenting a teahouse several years ago. He said he was visiting a few friends so they could split the bill. “I can’t afford to pay the cost on my own,” Mr Miyamoto said.

While interest in geisha culture overseas has grown and Chinese tourists jammed geiko quarters in Kyoto before the pandemic trying to take photos, the business itself has been in decline ever since. decades.

There were nearly 700 geiko, including apprentices, in the city in the 1950s, according to the traditional art foundation. Today, the number is down to 224.

Even before the pandemic, travel agents run maikos hosting small-scale events, usually at tourist restaurants. The pandemic has compounded the problems for the trade, especially during times when the government restricted the operations of night establishments.

It’s also sparked new business ideas, such as small-group maiko photo shoots costing $200-$300 per person, crowd-funded online performances, and Instagram accounts that promote geisha-themed merchandise. such as tote bags.

Toshimana, a 31-year-old geiko, appeared in a promotional video on Instagram for a ready-made curry in a package – originally developed by geiko with a local food manufacturer – one of the most popular dishes common on the Japanese table.

She said she did her best to keep a “mysterious vibe” while introducing the product. “We have to be mindful of maintaining our dignity.”

Kyoto maiko Kanotomo, right, dances on stage during the Christmas dinner show.


Kyoto Traditional Musical Art Public Foundation

A maiko recently danced for an online event hosted by a college near Kyoto in hopes of lifting the spirits of international students who had been unable to reach campus due to pandemic-related border controls in Japan.

These days, fewer teenage girls are willing to leave home at 15 to embark on years of training as maiko, prompting the industry to turn to mass media. The arts foundation cooperates with a local television station in Kyoto for a monthly program called “Maiko Cinderella”, in which a real apprentice talks about challenges such as learning the Kyoto dialect each month.

Fukuha, a 64-year-old geiko and teahouse owner, said she was grateful for efforts to get people interested in geiko, but was not ready to welcome just anyone into the establishment that his great-grandmother founded a century ago. from.

“There are so many unspoken rules and restrictions that have been steadily passed down from generation to generation,” she said. “It takes time to become a follower of the geiko world, and that’s how it should be.”

During the Christmas dinner show, the women circled the tables to greet customers as they dined, handed out business cards and posed for photos. The scene was reminiscent of a famous singer’s dinner show, a popular form of entertainment in Japan. Guests left with a local treat and an autographed towel as a gift.

The foundation says it plans to make the dinner show a regular event.

“Popularization might attract more people,” said Ms. Takeyoshi, the former geisha, “but I hope it won’t come cheap.”

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