Tuesday, December 19, 2000

Masako Iijima
Reuters News Agency

The gentle art of the geisha, revisited

An enterprising group of women in Tokyo is reviving the memory of the kimono-clad entertainers — albeit in an altered form

TOKYO — Twice a week, young women come to a dance studio to learn the steps to classical Japanese dances, a must in the work of a geisha.

Had they undergone training three or four decades ago, they would have had a wealthy patron to pay for lessons and buy them their colourful kimonos. But times have changed and the customary role of geisha as female entertainers hired for an evening of song, dance and sometimes bed is no longer in high demand.

In fact, geisha are on the brink of extinction.

To bring back the memory of the kimono-clad entertainers, an enterprising group of women — all wives of shopkeepers in Tokyo's famed Asakusa district — started a business six years ago to revive the trade, albeit in an altered form.

The company, Furisode Gakuin, is at once a school and a business. Young women interested in becoming modern-day geisha send in résumés from all over the country and, if accepted, begin schooling in the art of dance and the tea ceremony.

They are called furisode-san for the kimono they wear with sleeves reaching down to the ankles. The bright silk garment is worn with a thick brocade belt, and only unmarried women have the social privilege of donning this attire.

"Actual geisha need a wealthy patron to support them … but in the case of furisode-san the company bears the training costs," said Risa Kawai, manager at Furisode Gakuin. "The girls work for a fixed salary, not for commissions."

The 12 furisode-san now employed at the firm are between 18 and 25 and can be hired for $325 an hour to entertain anywhere. Prostitution, outlawed in 1958, is of course not part of their work, but furisode-san can be hired to hand out fliers on the streets or attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Historical documents show geisha appeared in Edo, as Tokyo was called, in the early 17th century. At one time, Edo red-light districts were home to 2,500 prostitutes and geisha. During the feudal era, defined by rigid social classes, and even as recently as a few decades after the end of the Second World War, those women who became geisha had little choice but to rely on their good looks to support themselves.

Now there are no traces of geisha houses that once dotted entertainment districts like Yoshiwara. The few geisha in Tokyo are mostly elderly, but tradition still commands a high price for them; an evening meal and entertainment with one could cost well over $1,500.

"We see furisode-san as something entirely different from geisha," said a member of a shopping-mall association that hires furisode-san to hand out discount coupons at annual sales events. "They are young and very pretty and they attract crowds because people like to get their photographs taken with them."

Contrary to popular belief, not all geisha in the past were prostitutes. Many were professional dancers, singers or musicians, as well as trained conversationalists.

Modern furisode-san are not geisha, but Furisode Gakuin tries to instill some aspects of geishahood in its students. Retired geisha teach them how to put on kimonos, paint their faces and wear wigs made up in traditional hairstyles.

Women seeking a job at Furisode Gakuin do so for a wide range of reasons, from something as frivolous as wanting to wear expensive kimonos to a desire to delve into Japanese culture.

But the art of interacting with customers is learned through on-the-job training. "There is no manual on how to interact with customers. … You have to assess the personality of each customer and steer the conversation in a way that he would enjoy," said Aya, 23, who joined this spring. "It's not as easy as it seems."

Geisha normally carry a social stigma, but because of the corporate structure of Furisode Gakuin the women meet with little opposition from their parents when they join.

"My parents were surprised at first, but now when they know that I'll be performing somewhere they bring a camera and take lots of pictures," said Urara, 22, a furisode-san of two years.

The hard work seems to have paid off and furisode-san have become so popular that their appointment books fill up weeks in advance.

"The old system made it difficult for ordinary people to have access to geisha and now the trade is dying," said Kawai. "The only way to breathe new life into it is to create an environment where young women will want to carry on the tradition and ordinary people are able to afford their company."

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Created: December 19, 2000
Last modified: December 19, 2000
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