Careers in Language Interview with Sayuki the Geisha

Geisha are one of the most powerful symbols of Japan, full of beauty, grace, and
mystery. It’s almost as mysterious to native Japanese as it is to foreigners and
catching a glimpse of a Geisha is quite exciting no matter who you are. We chatted
with Sayuki , who was born in Melbourne, about how she became the first Caucasian
She first went to Japan at the age of 15 on a private exchange. “ I was accepted to a
three month exchange program between city children and remote areas in Australia.
When I saw there was an exchange to Japan that was longer and even more
different an environment I leapt at the chance.” She decided to stay, and completed
high school, learned Japanese, and was the first Caucasian female to pass the exam
for the prestigious Keio University in Tokyo.
“ I wasn’t at all sure I was going to get in, so it was a bit of a surprise, and that set the
scene for the next four years. I got into the general B.A. program and then
specialised in Social Psychology. I might have studied English Literature or Creative
Writing had I not been in Japan, but studying English in Japan would not have made
a lot of sense. I also did the 25% more credits required to take the Diploma of
Education which allows me to teach junior high school and high school and Japan
and other countries. That degree has come in use every now and again.
“Later, after working for a while, I went to Oxford to do the M.B.A. and then after
working again for some time returned to Oxford to the Doctorate in Social
Anthropology. I have side stepped through several degrees to find the subject that
suited me most.”
With a solid understanding of Japan, Sayuki started her professional career. She
didn’t graduate with the goal of becoming a geisha, and it almost happened by
accident. “After getting my doctorate in Social Anthropology, I started lecturing in
Japanese Studies, and was also working on anthropological documentaries for
international broadcasters like NHK, BBC, National Geographic Channel and such. I
proposed a program about geisha before the movie Memoirs of a Geisha came out,
and the proposal ended up with myself as the key figure training to be a geisha. After
a number of research trips to Japan, the Asakusa Geisha Association formally
accepted me to train as a geisha.”
But the geisha world is quite private, and trainees live and breathe their training with
many strict rules. Things like not being allowed to have a mobile phone, a boyfriend,
or even completing their high school education are common. This didn’t mix so well
with the filming process as a lot of the training was off limits to the camera crew,
“they didn’t really understand what is involved in a television program and I was
treated as any other trainee, making it virtually impossible to make the program at
all. Trainees are under very strict discipline, and it was not really possible to ask
anything of my older sisters, let alone do all the things I would have needed to do to
make a program. I had to put the program on hold and concentrate on becoming a
Determined, Sayuki undertook the training still with the intention of using it for the TV
show but “after the first year, I had hardly scratched the surface of becoming a

With permission, Sayuki completed her geisha training and there never ended up
being a tv show.
“The training process was extremely difficult. Asakusa is a very conservative district
and very old-fashioned. I was probably one of the last apprentices in Tokyo trained in
the old system where geisha have to go heavily into debt for everything they need,
including buying the extremely expensive kimonos, and pay those debts off over
many years. I was $50,000 in debt before my first day of work.
“And even for someone brought up partly in Japan, as I was, it is very difficult to deal
with a very hierarchical archaic society like a geisha district. For someone with an
M.B.A. who had worked in international investment, it was very frustrating to not be
able to obvious things that could have been beneficial for the geisha world. Most of
these things are now common in the geisha world, but have taken years to come
There are so many details when it comes to geisha and everything they do from the
colour of the decorations in their hair to the way they do their makeup has a
meaning. We asked Sayuki how she picked her geisha name.
“My geisha name borrows the character ‘happiness’ from my geisha mother’s name
‘Yukiko’ or ‘child of happiness, and I added ‘transparent’ to that to make ‘transparent
happiness’. The trainees in my geisha house all take the character ‘transparent’ and
combine it with another character for their names.”
For a quick 漢字 ( kanji ) lesson, Sayuki’s geisha mother’s name is 幸子 (Yukiko) and
Sayuki took the first character 幸 which you might know as 幸せ ( shiawase) or
‘happiness’ and added the character 紗 meaning ‘transparent’ to make 紗幸
( Sayuki ). Now, all of Sayuki’s trainees use 紗 as part of their stage names.
After Sayuki’s geisha mother retired, Sayuki became an independent geisha and
moved out of Asakusa. At this point, a lot of her previous education and work
experience came in handy. “Currently, I am the only geisha house in Japan that is
allowing trainees to continue with high school while they train, and it has been helpful
that I am qualified as a teacher myself. Ironically, everything I have done has been
useful in being a geisha: my social psychology and anthropological background, my
MBA skills in running a geisha house, my Dip Ed, and even my compulsory Chinese
language credits and study abroad at the University of Beijing.”
“I moved to the famous Fukagawa Geisha District, which lost its geisha office two
decades ago, but still had senior geisha living there. This was really an amazing
coincidence. Without knowing it at all I moved into a house that I fell in love with, and
realised afterwards that it was a former geisha house, in the very main street of the
Fukagawa Geisha District. I started working with Fukagawa geisha and then started
to help them with their new trainees. It is a wonderful thing to imagine that the oldest
town geisha district in Japan, where town geisha actually originated, might still
continue into the future.”

Her business mindset also means that her geisha house, in Fukagawa , is quite
unique in how they do things. “Social media has amazing possibilities for the geisha
world. We have just listed the little Fukagawa trainee on, and have fans
in Europe and America putting funds in to help support her training. Later this year
we will visit Italy to thank our sponsors.”
Even though Sayuki has been able to achieve so much, the journey hasn’t been
without its challenges. “ Possibly being a geisha in the world of media and social
media has been one of the most difficult things I have had to face. I do get hate mail,
and ironically most of them are [non-Japanese].”
Sayuki says while the geisha community has welcomed and accepted her, Japan
makes it difficult for foreigners to stay in Japan for long. “Japan has probably over a
million foreigners but they are mostly short-term, and not permanent residents. So
Japan welcomes tourists and students and cheap labour, but does not necessarily
welcome them staying on as members of Japanese society. In the geisha world,
there is no visa to be a geisha, so one must have permanent residency in order to
become a geisha, something that usually takes a single woman ten years to get. In
my case I got it much earlier through proving to the Japanese Government that I
fulfilled their criteria as an asset to Japan, which was not an easy matter. So I have
not opened up any doors in the geisha world.”
Being a geisha requires a high level of Japanese language ability and cultural
knowledge. Sayuki had to learn traditional Japanese instruments and dance, plus tea
ceremony practices and many more bits and pieces of cultural knowledge that even
most regular Japanese people wouldn’t have. “Being a geisha is a talking job – a
geisha must be confidante, entertainer, comedian, sympathiser, consultant,
everything to all customers, and of course it is impossible to do that properly with a
year or two of language skills.”
Becoming a geisha might not be achievable for most people – Japanese or not – but
it’s still possible to learn elements of what geishas do, like instruments and dancing,
as a hobby. Sayuki’s trainees have it a bit easier than previous generations which is
helping to open up the world of geisha and preserve it. “This is a very beautiful and
endangered world. I wanted very much to continue and to help try to halt the decline
of geisha culture in Japan, and so have continued to make efforts towards that to this
Sayuki has this to say about learning the language:
“For language, just go and do it. I took a year off after high school and travelled all
over Japan doing seasonal jobs. I told everyone I was French and couldn’t speak a
word of English. And thus I spoke nothing but Japanese for a year. You need to
immerse yourself totally to understand the language and the culture. And read lots of
books…if you can only read children’s books, buy lots and lots and keep on
ploughing through them. Study has to be fun.
“Be sure that you know what you want to study before embarking upon a long
degree. Get out in the world, work and experience life, and get to know yourself
really well – both what you are good at, and what your passion is, as you need both
to really fulfil yourself in life and succeed – and then specialise.”
If you’d like to visit Sayuki or her geisha house, you can book online! She also has a
Facebook page.