In modern times joining the fascinating yet cloistered world of a geisha — even for young Japanese girls — is rare indeed.
But if you weren’t born Japanese and still harbor aspirations of becoming one of the traditional teahouse entertainers, though it’s probably easier than in centuries past, it’s still no walk in the park.
That was what Kimicho, who declined to give her real name, endeavored to achieve when she arrived at the doors of Yoshinoya, a geisha house in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, for her very first “job interview” in March 2015. An American university student at the time, she had been in Japan less than a year.
Now, the 26-year-old performs traditional dance and plays the shamisen at parties for Japanese and non-Japanese customers alike, offering explanations on the background of geisha performances as well as their kimono and makeup.
“It’s a little bit inevitable that in a lot of places I am a novelty item,” Kimicho says. “But I also think it’s not all a bad thing because if me being strange draws people in and lets them see inside Japanese culture and gets them interesting experiences they may not have otherwise, then I think it’s good.”
An average day of her geisha training entails a lot of rigorous practice. Kimicho, who is employed as “a coordinator and translator,” often starts with dance, tea ceremonies or preparing her kimono. Even when she has a day off, she says she often goes over what she has learned in practice.
Calling it a “lifestyle that is dedicated to perfecting art,” Kimicho says, “We live in a modern time and differently from Kyoto — it’s not like Gion, where everything sets you in a mind frame of a traditional (geisha) lifestyle — (but) I still try hard to be dedicated to living that lifestyle.”
Growing up in a small town of about 2,000 in Missouri, her first encounter with the world of geisha was in the form of a picture of a maiko (a young girl in training to become a geisha) when she was in her final year of elementary school.
“I was captivated by maiko-san because she was a young girl and looked like a princess, so I wanted to learn more about why she looked that way and what she was doing,” Kimicho says, adding that reading books and learning about their lives soon led to a strong desire to come to Japan and become a geisha one day.
But with no Japanese people around or opportunities to experience the culture directly, she tucked away her childhood dream until she entered college.
“I guess I was being practical … I was studying for a while but I wasn’t really satisfied with what I was studying so I took a year off to think and re-evaluate.” It was during this time she discovered that her school had a Japanese language study abroad program in Nagasaki.
She decided to go to Japan with her focus on becoming a translator, but after arriving in August 2014, her teacher took her to an event where local geisha were performing.
“When I saw them I remembered how much I loved studying about them when I was a kid and (I thought to myself) ‘Maybe I should try to do it,’ ” she says.
But since the local geisha district was reluctant to accept her, she began an online search of geisha houses across Japan and started sending emails to them to ask if they would consider hiring her. Among those was Yoshinoya.
Noboru, the proprietress, has been in charge of employing and managing geisha because the local kenban, an organization that registers and assigns work for them, disappeared years ago in the Oi Kaigan district due to a decline in the number of geisha and restaurants, and a slump in the Japanese economy.
The 67-year-old, who herself became a geisha at the age of 17 and inherited an okiya, or trainee geisha house, from her mother, said she wasn’t hesitant to accept the American woman.
“I was surprised at how pretty she was the first time I met her, and she was fluent in Japanese, which is a necessity for our business,” Noboru says, adding she thought it would be “nice and unconventional” to employ a geisha of foreign descent.
Noboru said she chose the name Kimicho — “Kimi” after many geisha in the past in the same district who had become popular and successful and “Cho,” meaning butterfly, after the character in the opera “Madame Butterfly.”
Employing Kimicho has proved positive for her okiya as well, as it started to receive reservations from groups of overseas tourists almost weekly, which previously had happened only about once a month. Kimicho has been a “great help,” attending to them as the other geisha cannot speak English, Noboru says.
Noboru sympathizes with Kimicho, saying she must have wanted to ply her trade in the famed Gion district, but it would have been difficult, given that such geisha districts have “strict standards.”
It is unclear how many non-Japanese geisha exist today, but Oxford-educated Fiona Graham, considered “the first foreign geisha in 400 years,” parted company with her geisha association due to a clash over independence in 2011. Graham was later quoted in a major Australian publication as saying she was denied independence solely because she is a foreigner.
Kimicho says she ultimately hopes to have a true career as a geisha and possibly open a shop of her own one day.
“Kimicho has come to be known online and I think it would be a good way to (redeem herself) when she gets good customers who take her to those places that once rejected her,” Noboru says.