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A hidden world: Among the sophisticated geisha of Tokyo

Friday, 17 November, 2017· Last Updated on: Friday, 17 November, 2017

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When Atsu was a child her father had many geisha concubines and there were always geisha around the house. She called them all indiscriminately ‘Auntie.’
Her favourite was Wife Number Two, an earthy woman with a loud laugh and big personality, competent and unshakeable, very different from Atsu’s refined mother, Wife Number One. Wife Number Two knew an infinite number of dirty stories. No matter how elegantly she dressed, when she opened her mouth everyone knew straight away she was a carpenter’s daughter.
‘Men are little boys,’ she’d tell Atsu. ‘They need mothering. That’s the best way to their hearts – mother them.’ Then she taught her an old geisha trick for dealing with unruly guests …

The Shogun’s Queen

Geisha dancing with geisha accompaniment

Geisha dancing with geisha accompaniment

Kiyoha in geisha mode around 2000

Kiyoha in geisha mode around 2000

When I first met Kiyoha, she was an ethereally beautiful woman with long flowing hair. Sitting with her in the hotel where we met it was hard to believe she was a geisha. She was just back from Paris. She had friends there and often went to shop for clothes. She was dressed in filmy French couture which she had bought on her latest trip.

Then she began to tell me about her life as a geisha. Geisha are custodians of classical Japanese culture, she said. Some young women become geisha because they want to train as dancers – the training is every bit as tough as joining the Bolshoi. In Kiyoha’s case she loved classical singing. For her it was a bit like becoming an opera singer.

The one thing she missed was a lover. Her job was to entertain men, to chat, to flirt – and then send them home to their wives. That’s the poignancy of the geisha life. And it’s that bittersweet poignancy, that underlying sadness that makes men love the company of geisha.

In old Japan everyone knew their duty, everyone had a role. Men expected to have different sorts of women in their lives – a wife at home, a concubine if the man was wealthy enough, or a geisha who was a long time lover; and he might also go and buy sex if he felt like it. There were lots of choices for men. Women conversely kept to their roles and couldn’t leave them.

One of the dichotomies in Japan is between honne and tatemae – your true feelings and how you have to behave, your desires and wants and what society demands of you. Many kabuki dramas are about people torn between what they want and what they have to do. In the modern west we no longer care about duty but in old Japan duty was all important.

As we were talking Kiyoha said, ‘Would you like to see me at work?’ I hadn’t dared ask. Then she took her mobile out of her expensive handbag and called one of her customers. He too loved classical singing and over the years they had become friends. Without a moment’s hesitation he agreed to host a party for me. It would, Kiyoha said with a smile, cost him about £5000.

Kiyoha (on the left) is now a highly acclaimed professional singer

Kiyoha (on the left) is now a highly acclaimed professional singer

Me with Kiyoha

Me with Kiyoha

A few days later I made my way to an intimidatingly grand Japanese building with wooden walls flecked with gold, rice straw tatami mats and low lighting. The prime minister was entertaining in another room there, I was told, which explained the limos and bodyguards at the entrance.

Kiyoha was in a kimono with her hair up and wearing pale make up. She introduced me to our host, a middle-aged businessman. There was food and sake and five geisha to entertain us. Two of the geisha were dancers. First they danced very beautifully while other geisha played music. Then Kiyoha sang and the customer sang too. His wife, she said, often came with him but tonight she had been busy.

Ten years later I was back in Tokyo and called Kiyoha. She was excited to hear from me. She was singing at the National Theatre, the equivalent of the Royal Opera House, she said, and asked me to come and watch her perform.

It was a splendid performance, a succession of geisha dances with Kiyoha’s singing as the highlight. She’d risen in the world, she was a star now. Later we chatted. She had her own bar now where she entertained, she told me. But, she added wistfully, she still had no lover.

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