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November 9, 2009

Meet Japan's First Western Geisha

She's got a Ph.D. from Oxford, but Fiona Graham spent a year learning how to pour tea. Oh, and she has to greet her senior geisha sisters on bended knee. In a Marie Claire exclusive, she describes how she became the only foreign geisha in town.



Sayuki applies black eyeliner.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Magazine

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IT'S THE DAY BEFORE A LAVISH teahouse banquet that Sayuki — who rarely uses her Western name except on her passport and credit cards — is hosting for some of her clients. In the hot autumn sunshine, she's running errands at the tiny shops that serve Asakusa's geisha community by selling everything from ornate paper fans to dainty drawstring bags. There are 45 working geisha in this Tokyo district and an estimated 2000 throughout Japan. Their ranks have shrunk dramatically from 80,000 in the 1920s heyday, but they're far from a dying breed. "Modern geisha are strong, resilient businesswomen," insists Sayuki.

So how did this tawny-haired foreigner gain access to possibly the world's most secretive profession? Geisha customs are so arcane, Sayuki says, that even Japanese women are told to imagine they're "entering an alien country" when they start training. "I spent almost 10 years in Japan from age 15, first as an exchange student, then attending a Japanese university," says Sayuki, who is fluent in the local language. Later, she specialized in Japanese culture while completing her doctorate in anthropology at Oxford University. Without this grounding, becoming a geisha would have been impossible. "I get many e-mails from American women who want to be geisha. I explain that it's like trying to be a Japanese politician — nobody could arrive in Japan and become a politician overnight," she says. "You need advanced verbal and social skills."

American author and anthropologist Liza Dalby, the leading Western authority on geisha culture, agrees. "For Japanese, geisha are a repository of essential Japanese-ness. A foreigner in this role is almost a contradiction in terms," she says. Sayuki is the exception to the rule, and she has become so immersed in her geisha persona that she loathes discussing the fact that she's a gaijin — literally, "an outside person." Says Sayuki, "My Western background is irrelevant in my daily working life. I have to adhere strictly to the rules and customs just like everyone else." For instance, as the second most junior geisha in Asakusa — in terms of when she made her debut rather than her age, which no geisha reveals (although she looks to be in her mid-30s) — Sayuki must greet each of her 44 geisha sisters in order of seniority when they hold a meeting, and do so on her knees. "If I get the order wrong," she says, "I am severely reprimanded."

Most geisha wannabes yearn to join the profession because of its legendary beauty and mystique. Sayuki's initial reason was indignation. "It started as a project to make a documentary film, not long after the movie Memoirs of a Geisha was released," she says. She felt that the movie, based on Arthur Golden's novel of the same name, was an over-the-top fictional portrayal that misrepresented the refined geisha realm. "The book is a racy airport read, and many things in the movie weren't authentic," she says.

Her greatest objection was that Memoirs revolved so much around sex. "It's the white male fantasy," she says. "The geisha world is not all about sex; that's ludicrous." Sayuki admits that geisha do have a sexual allure, but claims it stems from their fabled unavailability — the fact they use their art, not their bodies, to survive. The famous Kyoto geisha on whom Memoirs was loosely based, Mineko Iwasaki, felt the same way. Iwasaki sued Golden over the book's story line that she sold her virginity to the highest bidder. The case was settled out of court.

STILL, A QUESTION about the role of sex arose in the 19th century, when it became common for top geisha to have a rich male patron known as a danna. Often a married client, the man paid for his favorite geisha's kimonos, wigs, and other expenses. In return, after a long courtship, the geisha would often agree to become the man's mistress. Male patrons still exist today, says Sayuki, adding that she doesn't have a danna herself. "Even if I did, there'd be no obligation to sleep with him," she says. "Geisha do get romantically involved with clients, but it's a private matter, just like romances that start in any other workplace."

Galvanized to render an accurate portrait of modern-day geisha, Sayuki held six months of meetings with local officials in Asakusa. Seniority is so respected within the geisha community that once she had the backing of a powerful geisha "mother" (geisha mothers are older women, usually retired geisha, who run their own okiya, or geisha houses, to supervise new recruits), nobody spoke out against the unprecedented acceptance of a foreign trainee.

Sayuki's geisha mother, Yukiko, a statuesque former geisha in her 60s, agreed to back her because she was impressed by Sayuki's mastery of the Japanese language and her determination to put herself through the rigorous training. Still, Sayuki had no idea how it would take over her existence, noting, "It occupied every moment of my waking life." Trainee geisha in their teens undergo four- or five-year apprenticeships, but women who join after the age of 20 are expected to learn the basics in just 12 months. Yukiko gave her the name Sayuki, meaning "transparent happiness," and corrected her every move for the next year. Sayuki's schedule was an exhausting round of studying tea ceremony and kimono-wearing, and mastering her chosen instrument, the bamboo flute. "The teachers don't believe in modern inventions like the photocopier," she says. "They don't give you written music; you have to learn complex ancient tunes by ear."

She was also required to work as a maid at teahouse banquets, to watch how qualified geisha charm Tokyo's male power brokers. "The hardest thing was learning to sit on my legs in the kneeling seiza position for hours holding heavy trays of food," Sayuki says. "It was agonizing." An older geisha told her that losing a few pounds could help to ease the pain, advice she rapidly followed.


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