THE WALL STREET JOURNAL – Sayuki, Geisha With a Difference

By Rosie Kusunoki Jones
Jul 27, 2010 4:15 pm JST

With naturally russet brown hair and blue eyes,
Dr. Fiona Graham is not your average geisha, should such a thing
exist. In fact, Sayuki, to use the name she goes by, meaning
“Transparent Happiness” is anything but typical.

Courtesy of Sayuki of Asakusa
Japan’s first
foreign geisha, Sayuki, kneels in front of an ikebana flower arrangement
in white makeup, wig and full geisha garb.

As the first foreigner to have been officially accepted into the
geisha world, what originally began as an anthropological study for the
Oxford scholar became a year of intense training in traditional
Japanese arts, leading to securing official recognition and making her
professional geisha debut in December 2007. And the training can be
arduous: many young Japanese novices falling by the wayside well before
reaching professional ranks.

The world of the geisha has remained broadly impenetrable to
foreigners, generating a slew of misconceptions, chief among which is
that their role is one premised on sex. Instead, geisha are paid
entertainers of traditional Japanese arts and music. Training
throughout their lives, a number of more senior geisha have even been
classified as “living national treasures”, the highest status an artist can attain in Japan.

Renowned also for their wit and conversational skills, they have for centuries been called out to entertain at tea houses, events and parties: Sayuki’s role is no different, made possible by her fluent Japanese. The fact that most of her clients are Japanese is testimony to this — geisha first,  foreigner second. However unlike many geisha who will not meet prospective clients without a third party introduction, tech-savvy Sayuki does make some concessions to Western-style innovation: she has a Twitter account, where she ‘follows’ CBS News and singer Justin Timberlake, among others, and is also happy to be contacted directly via her website and booked for banquets.