MORIOKA, IWATE PREF. – Morioka, the capital of Iwate Prefecture, is striving to preserve and revitalize the time-honored tradition of geisha entertainers for which the city was once famous.
From the late 19th century through much of the 20th century, Morioka was a hub for outstanding geigi — synonymous with geisha — drawing political and business heavyweights to the area’s high-end traditional Japanese restaurants, known as ryotei, where the geigi performed.
At the peak of their popularity, there were more than 90 geigi at dozens of ryotei in the region, but as the tradition faded and expense accounts were trimmed, the number of geigi declined and many ryotei were pushed out of business.
In 2010, there were only five professional geigi left in Morioka, all aged 60 or older, to entertain guests and host performances of song and dance.
Alarmed by prospects of the geigi tradition dying out, the city and businesses started working on measures to keep the geigi culture alive. They set up a support group at a local chamber of commerce and industry to nurture talent in classical Japanese song and dance as well as lute playing.
As a result of a recruitment drive by the group last summer and the offer of financial and other support, two new faces — Manatsu Shiratsuki, 24, and Kanako Sugishita, 20 — joined Morioka’s handful of geigi as apprentices and were unveiled at a stage performance in the city in early June.
“Geigi is the culture of the entire town,” said Kenichiro Murai, an 86-year-old adviser of the Morioka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the sponsor of the performance event for the two debutants. “I hope they will maintain and pass on the tradition.”
The two new apprentices followed in the footsteps of two other women who made professional debuts as Tomiyu and Tomochiyo in the fall of 2012, the first additions to the ranks of Morioka geigi in 19 years.
Neither Shiratsuki nor Sugishita had previous experience in traditional choreographed dance and when their practice sessions started last September, the pair were frequently scolded and their dance steps corrected.
They also had to learn how to serve guests by waiting on tables at Komaryu, a 60-year-old ryotei in Morioka. Sugishita, who had just turned 20, the legal drinking age in Japan, had never served liquor before. When spoken to by a much older client, she said she did not know what to talk about.
“You can’t concentrate on conversing with guests unless poise and manners become a part of you,” said Masaaki Iwadate, who runs Komaryu. “First you have to learn conventions and customs.”
Before stepping into the geigi world, Shiratsuki was a student at a national university. Like other students, she was struggling to find a job after graduation.
One day she saw an ad at a department store for apprentice geigi that reminded her of her childhood dream of becoming a geisha. After thinking it over, she decided to apply.
Sugishita, meanwhile, said she had always wanted to become a singer but had not had any success after graduating from high school. When she saw an ad for geigi while working part time, she decided to apply immediately.
While both were lucky enough to be selected as apprentices, they will likely face challenges. Unlike in Kyoto, the capital of the geisha world, where jobs at upscale restaurants are often assigned by agencies, geigi in Morioka are essentially self-employed. Even after they finish their apprenticeship, geigi are on their own when it comes to developing and maintaining clientele.
Senior geigi in Morioka welcome the newcomers and are ready to help. “We are really thankful to have young people take on the tradition,” said the pair’s dance teacher who goes by the stage name Yoko.
What counts as a geigi is “an aspiration to be a great dancer and keenness to offer hospitality,” she said.
Tomiyu, who is much closer in age to the debutants than some of her older colleagues, said: “It’s the responsibility of younger generations to inherit traditional entertainment in Morioka, although it might be tough sometimes. I’d like to work together with the two apprentices.”
Shiratsuki and Sugishita assumed the stage names of Kikumaru and Marika after their debut performance.
Marika said, “I hope to be better equipped than anyone else to communicate what Morioka has to offer.” Concurring with her, Kikumaru said, “There are things we can only do in this world. I will aim to be a geigi worthy of the name.”