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 geisha!
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 geisha.”
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 geisha.”
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 about.”
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 Patreon.com, 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 day.”
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.”