Marie Claire – Brazil – Meet Japan’s First Western Geisha

She’s got a Ph.D. from Oxford, but Fiona Graham spent a year learning how to pour tea. Oh, and she has to greet her senior geisha sisters on bended knee. In a Marie Claire exclusive, she describes how she became the only foreign geisha in town. By Abigail Haworth Nov 9, 2009

Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

THE ELEGANT WOMAN in the pink silk kimono
attracts admiring glances from be-suited businessmen and elderly
Japanese women as she walks through the narrow, tourist-choked streets
leading to Tokyo’s Sensoji Temple. The locals here in the old district
of Asakusa know a real geisha when they spot one — even if she is a tall
Westerner with olive-green eyes. From her rounded bun hairstyle to her
pigeon-toed tabi socks, Sayuki, otherwise known as anthropologist Fiona
Graham, is decked out so immaculately in true geisha style that her
admirers utter the same compliment as she passes by: kirei desu ne —
she’s beautiful.

Sayuki denies she’s a flawless example of Japan’s
ancient flower and willow world. “Being a geisha takes a lifetime to
perfect,” she deflects, as she clacks along in lacquer sandals that she
wears slightly too small to make her size-8 feet look more petite.
Sayuki, who was born in Melbourne, Australia, became the first foreign
woman in the notoriously closed profession’s 400-year history to
formally debut as a geisha two years ago, in late 2007. “I’ve only just
begun,” she says. “To many of my geisha sisters, I’m still a walking

It’s all relative. Near Sensoji’s majestic red
gateway, gaggles of female Japanese tourists are clad in flowery kimonos
— a new retro fashion trend. Sacrilegiously, they’ve added lace and
frills to the fabric and wear garish costume jewelry. “Also, they don’t
wear underwear. The geisha elders are scandalized,” laughs Sayuki, with
only a faint Aussie twang in her girlish voice. “I’m wearing four layers
of lingerie under my kimono, so at least I’ve got that right.”
Flaunting womanly curves is considered vulgar in the refined geisha
realm; the layered undergarments, resembling silk bandages, ensure a
tubular, demure silhouette.

“Geisha are full-time working artists, not sex
objects,” says Sayuki, apparently eager to dispel the popular myth that
geisha are prostitutes or subservient, glorified waitresses. As highly
skilled practitioners of traditional Japanese music and dance, she says,
their role is to provide classical entertainment to rich and powerful
Japanese men. The profession originated in the 17th century in response
to male demand for cultured female company. According to Confucian
custom, most marriages were loveless affairs arranged purely to produce
heirs. While licensed courtesans existed to meet men’s sexual needs,
geisha carved out a separate niche as artists and erudite female
companions. Their clients today include politicians, businessmen, and
celebrities, who each pay an average of $400 per hour to attend private
banquets and relax in an atmosphere of nostalgic beauty. “An experienced
geisha can converse knowledgeably on any subject of interest to her
clients, from international trade relations to domestic political
intrigue, and she’ll never reveal what was said,” says Sayuki.

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Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

IT’S THE DAY BEFORE A LAVISH teahouse banquet that
Sayuki — who rarely uses her Western name except on her passport and
credit cards — is hosting for some of her clients. In the hot autumn
sunshine, she’s running errands at the tiny shops that serve Asakusa’s
geisha community by selling everything from ornate paper fans to dainty
drawstring bags. There are 45 working geisha in this Tokyo district and
an estimated 2000 throughout Japan. Their ranks have shrunk dramatically
from 80,000 in the 1920s heyday, but they’re far from a dying breed.
“Modern geisha are strong, resilient businesswomen,” insists Sayuki.

So how did this tawny-haired foreigner gain access
to possibly the world’s most secretive profession? Geisha customs are so
arcane, Sayuki says, that even Japanese women are told to imagine
they’re “entering an alien country” when they start training. “I spent
almost 10 years in Japan from age 15, first as an exchange student, then
attending a Japanese university,” says Sayuki, who is fluent in the
local language. Later, she specialized in Japanese culture while
completing her doctorate in anthropology at Oxford University. Without
this grounding, becoming a geisha would have been impossible. “I get
many e-mails from American women who want to be geisha. I explain that
it’s like trying to be a Japanese politician — nobody could arrive in
Japan and become a politician overnight,” she says. “You need advanced
verbal and social skills.”

American author and anthropologist Liza Dalby, the
leading Western authority on geisha culture, agrees. “For Japanese,
geisha are a repository of essential Japanese-ness. A foreigner in this
role is almost a contradiction in terms,” she says. Sayuki is the
exception to the rule, and she has become so immersed in her geisha
persona that she loathes discussing the fact that she’s a gaijin —
literally, “an outside person.” Says Sayuki, “My Western background is
irrelevant in my daily working life. I have to adhere strictly to the
rules and customs just like everyone else.” For instance, as the second
most junior geisha in Asakusa — in terms of when she made her debut
rather than her age, which no geisha reveals (although she looks to be
in her mid-30s) — Sayuki must greet each of her 44 geisha sisters in
order of seniority when they hold a meeting, and do so on her knees. “If
I get the order wrong,” she says, “I am severely reprimanded.”

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Most geisha wannabes yearn to join the
profession because of its legendary beauty and mystique. Sayuki’s
initial reason was indignation. “It started as a project to make a
documentary film, not long after the movie Memoirs of a Geisha was
released,” she says. She felt that the movie, based on Arthur Golden’s
novel of the same name, was an over-the-top fictional portrayal that
misrepresented the refined geisha realm. “The book is a racy airport
read, and many things in the movie weren’t authentic,” she says.

Her greatest objection was that Memoirs revolved so
much around sex. “It’s the white male fantasy,” she says. “The geisha
world is not all about sex; that’s ludicrous.” Sayuki admits that geisha
do have a sexual allure, but claims it stems from their fabled
unavailability — the fact they use their art, not their bodies, to
survive. The famous Kyoto geisha on whom Memoirs was loosely based,
Mineko Iwasaki, felt the same way. Iwasaki sued Golden over the book’s
story line that she sold her virginity to the highest bidder. The case
was settled out of court.

STILL, A QUESTION about the role of sex arose in
the 19th century, when it became common for top geisha to have a rich
male patron known as a danna. Often a married client, the man paid for
his favorite geisha’s kimonos, wigs, and other expenses. In return,
after a long courtship, the geisha would often agree to become the man’s
mistress. Male patrons still exist today, says Sayuki, adding that she
doesn’t have a danna herself. “Even if I did, there’d be no obligation
to sleep with him,” she says. “Geisha do get romantically involved with
clients, but it’s a private matter, just like romances that start in any
other workplace.”

Galvanized to render an accurate portrait of
modern-day geisha, Sayuki held six months of meetings with local
officials in Asakusa. Seniority is so respected within the geisha
community that once she had the backing of a powerful geisha “mother”
(geisha mothers are older women, usually retired geisha, who run their
own okiya, or geisha houses, to supervise new recruits), nobody spoke
out against the unprecedented acceptance of a foreign trainee.

Sayuki’s geisha mother, Yukiko, a statuesque former
geisha in her 60s, agreed to back her because she was impressed by
Sayuki’s mastery of the Japanese language and her determination to put
herself through the rigorous training. Still, Sayuki had no idea how it
would take over her existence, noting, “It occupied every moment of my
waking life.” Trainee geisha in their teens undergo four- or five-year
apprenticeships, but women who join after the age of 20 are expected to
learn the basics in just 12 months. Yukiko gave her the name Sayuki,
meaning “transparent happiness,” and corrected her every move for the
next year. Sayuki’s schedule was an exhausting round of studying tea
ceremony and kimono-wearing, and mastering her chosen instrument, the
bamboo flute. “The teachers don’t believe in modern inventions like the
photocopier,” she says. “They don’t give you written music; you have to
learn complex ancient tunes by ear.”

She was also required to work as a maid at teahouse
banquets, to watch how qualified geisha charm Tokyo’s male power
brokers. “The hardest thing was learning to sit on my legs in the
kneeling seiza position for hours holding heavy trays of food,” Sayuki
says. “It was agonizing.” An older geisha told her that losing a few
pounds could help to ease the pain, advice she rapidly followed.


Sayuki’s geisha mother told her she passed muster
just three weeks before her training was due to end. “I felt
overwhelming relief,” Sayuki says. Yukiko lent her an exquisite
powder-blue kimono and an obi, or sash, worth a total of $20,000, and
then Sayuki traveled around the geisha district by rickshaw to formally
introduce herself to teahouse owners, shopkeepers, and geisha
colleagues. A debut is a private geisha ritual, so Sayuki’s parents and
sister back in Melbourne were not invited. “But of course, they were
very proud,” she says.

It’s the afternoon of her big banquet, and Sayuki
is getting ready at the local Geisha Association office, a modern
building behind Sensoji Temple where geisha business is coordinated. In a
sparse back room with tatami-mat flooring, she transforms her more
natural daytime geisha appearance into the full-blown banquet look, with
thick white rice-powder paint over her face and neck, black eyeliner,
ruby-red lips, and a black wig — a look that replicates Japan’s original
17th-century fashions. The final touch is black-colored contact lenses
“to match the wig,” she says. She’s lucky, she adds, that her other
Western features are not prominent. At 5’6″, she’s not the tallest
geisha in her district, but her long arms mean the sleeves of her
hand-painted silk kimonos must be painstakingly lengthened. Tonight
she’s wearing a light-green kimono with a cream obi. The transformation
is stunning. With the mask of makeup and old-style wig, her appearance
finally matches the way she sees herself: as a geisha first, and a
foreigner second.

ON THE WAY to the banquet, Sayuki’s rickshaw passes
a bar where several businessmen are sitting outside. Thrilled to catch a
glimpse of a real geisha, they ask her to stop and chat. Sayuki is in a
hurry, but leans over to hand out calling cards bearing the address of
her website,
Today, many savvy geisha have their own personal websites to attract
new clients. Geisha work on an independent, freelance basis after they
debut and can earn up to $20,000 per month, or eight times the average
female office worker’s salary of $2,500 per month. Sayuki won’t say what
she earns, but the fact that she owns 20 kimonos costing around $5,000
each is a clue to her success.

The Ichimatsu Teahouse, the banquet’s venue, is an
exquisite old building with a carp pond in the garden. Sayuki’s 17
clients this evening are a group of businessmen and academics, and a
handful of career women. There’s an atmosphere of festive anticipation
as everyone sits at low tables and the sake begins to flow. There’s no
doubt that the clients tonight are keen to clap eyes on the country’s
only Western geisha. “I’m nervous and excited to meet a non-Japanese
geisha,” says one man. The verdict? “She’s cute. She has big eyes, and
she wears kimono well.”

As Sayuki’s clients enjoy their 12 courses of
Japanese delicacies, she plays her flute, and two of her geisha sisters,
Azuha and Kazumi, perform traditional dances. It’s the first time
Sayuki has worked with Kazumi, and she’s relieved it’s going well.
“Kazumi is very stern, and she has often criticized me,” says Sayuki.
“It took a while for me to realize that she was being generous by
pointing out my faults.”

Sayuki insists there is little female jealousy in
her district, but then, she could hardly admit otherwise, given her
junior status. She adds that she plans to remain a geisha indefinitely
so she can be at the forefront of a revitalized industry; after years of
so-called internationalization, Japan’s hottest trend now is a return
to traditional culture. “In the 1920s, geisha were pinup girls, and they
appeared in fashion shows and ads for things like Shiseido cosmetics.
That kind of popularity is returning, and I want to be part of it,” she

As for her personal life, the most she will reveal is that she enjoys hiking and chocolate and is currently single. It comes as no surprise when she finally discloses that she’s been too busy as a geisha to do much else. But sometimes, she admits, she likes to slip back into Western clothes for a brief spell of anonymity. While walking through Asakusa looking like a tourist, friendly Japanese occasionally stop her to point out an exotic passing geisha. “I just smile and look excited,” she says, “and keep my life as Sayuki to myself.”