Dream weavers of a bygone era

by Rob Gilhooly

When made up for work, Norie is perhaps as close to the classic image of Japan as you could wish. Clad in a colorful yet demure kimono, wooden sandals and a jet-black wig that provides a striking contrast to the white makeup lavished on her fine features, she looks like a doll.

Her posture is like a ballerina’s. As we stroll along the streets of her Asakusa neighborhood, passersby look on wistfully. Two young elementary school girls stop dead in their tracks, transfixed by this walking work of art. “Would you like to become a geisha, too?” Norie quizzes, bringing grins and giggles that need no linguistic expansion.

The schoolchildren, it transpires, are pupils at the same school Norie attended as a child. Apart from a few years spent in the United States when her father was posted there on business, Asakusa has always been “home,” she says.

“There is a special atmosphere here — the temples, the geisha, the festivals. I long wanted to do some kind of work that was connected with Asakusa.”

I am intrigued. Norie will not reveal her age (“We geisha are ageless,” she says), but I know she can only be in her early 20s. I also know that she has a degree in politics and economics from Meiji University.

So why enter a profession with a somewhat less than spick-and-span reputation?

“You know,” she says with a slightly mocking smile, “sometimes a foreign customer will ask if I was sold by my parents. Maybe they have read that kind of stuff in books like [Arthur Golden's] ‘Memoirs of a Geisha.’ It may have happened in the past, but not these days.”

Norie has absolutely no hangups about her choice of profession. She speaks freely with her friends about her work, and for months battled her dissenting parents, who, she says, think she is wasting her education.

Although her parents’ home is nearby, Norie lives in one of Asakusa’s last remaining okiya, or geisha houses. It was to such places that young girls were once indentured by impoverished families.

Geisha first appeared during the mid-Edo Period, and by the early 1900s there were tens of thousands working in Tokyo’s shitamachi. Today, the number has dwindled to a few hundred.

Asakusa has been particularly hard hit. Norie says that when her grandmother started as an apprentice geisha in 1940, there were more than 1,200 geisha operating out of several hundred okiya in the area. Today, there are 60 geisha registered at the local kenban, or registry office, only 40 of whom are actually working as geisha.

In the bad old days, would-be geisha served an apprenticeship between the ages of around 12 to 16. Compulsory education has put an end to this practice, and in its place is a system of study by observation, whereby newly registered trainees spend several months studying the etiquette of their older “sisters” as they work in the establishments — mostly restaurants — that are also registered at the local kenban.

In addition to learning the geisha manner, Norie must also attend lessons in the shamisen, yokobue (bamboo flute) and narimono (percussion) as well as traditional Japanese dance.

“As I work at night, many friends think I have the daytime to myself,” Norie laughs. “I wish!” On a good day she starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends around 1 a.m. the following morning, after which she spends an hour removing her kimono and makeup and another hour keeping in touch with her friends over the Internet.

At her okiya, an old-style building whose wooden gates lead into a courtyard of bamboo reeds and bonsai trees, I am shown to a simple yet tastefully decorated tatami room.

I am just about to ask Norie if she is obliged to live in here, when an elderly lady enters bearing green tea and a broad smile. This stately woman is not only Norie’s okami-san (mentor), but also her great-aunt Harue.

There have been four generations of geisha in Norie’s family, Harue herself having worked as a geisha for 30 years before taking over the running of the okiya where Norie resides.

Much has changed in the geisha world, Harue says. In the past, geisha belonged to an okiya and painstakingly learned the trade. “It was a different world. Nowadays they are like regular office workers and the okiya is an office to which they commute from the suburbs.”

Okiya are located in districts traditionally known as hanamachi, or flower towns, that have the kenban at its center. When the kenban receives a request from a client, it contacts a geisha and dispatches her to the appropriate establishment.

Norie’s customers are mostly high-ranking businesspeople, with a smattering of actors and other “artistes.” Contrary to popular belief, she says, there are no Diet members or other “important” figures.

“I’m still learning from my sisters, but the golden rule is not to forget we are in a trade that sells dreams. It’s taboo to talk about everyday stuff.”

I ask, somewhat nervously, if Norie’s duties sometimes require more intimate communication.

“We are entertainers. The ‘gei’ in geisha means art or entertainment, and that’s what we are selling. That’s why I spend so much time and more than 100,000 yen of my monthly income studying dance and music.”

So you have never had sexual relations with your clients?

“If I thought that is what the work entailed, I would never have entered the geisha world.”

It seems I have become another foreigner guilty of stereotyping. But I can’t help wondering. . .

Harue says that until the implementation of the Prostitution Prevention Law in 1957, geisha in some parts of the shitamachi served such a “function,” but today it is unheard of. “Today’s women are much more independent. In the old days, geisha did as they were told, so the physical side existed.”

When it did, it was mostly with a geisha’s danna, or patron, themselves hardly known in today’s karyukai (the “flower and willow world” of the geisha).

“There are still a few wealthy clients who act as sponsors, but only in the sense that musicians or artists sometimes have sponsors,” Harue says. “But . . . if they request some kind of favor, there’s not a lot we can do.”

Norie is adamant, however, that most women who choose to become geisha today do so out of a sheer love for the geisha’s art.

“I used to go to Fuji Rock Festival and hang out with friends in Aoyama. These days I have no time,” she says. “I love what I do, but if you asked if there was anything I wanted, I’d say the same as anyone: Time.”