“I think I went native very quickly because I was so young, at fifteen you just want to be like everyone else”. Meeting Sayuki, the first white geisha, one imagines that this desire to be included that she experienced as the young Fiona Graham on a school exchange from Melbourne must now seem wistfully simple. Sayuki, whose name means “transparent happiness”, has since been defined by the contrasts of a western childhood and subsequent Japanese immersion. Even at fifteen, she was experiencing a pull in two directions: “I went back to Australia for nearly a year, and I think if I’d been there a little bit longer, I would have settled back, but it wasn’t quite long enough. I came back to Japan… and that kind of set the scene for the next ten years”.
Speaking in English, Sayuki retains the faint accent of her home country, but even in speaking there are hints of the “flower and willow world” in which she moves. The female geisha voice is typically high and tinny but, mixed with the antipodean, Sayuki comes across as softly-spoken and with a controlled intelligence. This is no wonder, given that Sayuki not only attended Tokyo’s prestigious Keio University as an undergraduate, but also received an MBA and PhD in Social Anthropology from Oxford. She gives me the facts, but in typical geisha fashion modestly downplays their importance: “I’m the first geisha with an MBA, which the Nikkei newspaper loves to report on”. Sayuki’s modesty seems to spring from a Western sense of the ironic, as she remarks, “I may be the first geisha who has lectured on geisha at university”.
Yet this academic background is not such an advantage, says Sayuki, if one is aware of the variety within the geisha world. “Every geisha has a different skill set. Geisha are entertainers, so you have incredible artists, or you have geisha who are very funny, or geisha who are very smart and able to debate with customers. You have every kind of geisha and that’s why banquets are so fascinating and geisha are fascinating people”. However, she doesn’t feel that a similar variety in the nationality of clients affects their initial experience of a banquet. “First timers to the geisha world see things a little bit differently from very regular customers, who might be au fait with the whole cultural side of it. The one thing about being a foreigner and a geisha is that having me at a banquet is a very different experience from having Japanese geisha and a translator. It’s been really wonderful for me to be able to let foreigners have the real banquet experience that first-time Japanese will be getting as well”. Aside from catering for the usual customers, she delivers educational banquets for visiting students and their teachers, attends ex-pat cocktail parties, and even works with other geisha at trade shows. “A geisha has to be able to entertain in any situation. You have to be flexible and be able to perform a piece at very short notice with new people, which takes some co-ordination. Going to a banquet is like going on stage”. As with any performer, there is heavy practice involved: “geisha means artist, and geisha train their whole lives long”. Sayuki’s stories of her tea-house training, having to sit cross-legged before serving from the tray in her hands, would put a silver-service waiter to shame. Moreover, Sayuki was given permission by her flute teacher in Asakusa to study separately from the other geisha under a teacher at Tokyo’s top music university – Geidai – so she could prepare for their entrance exam.
Despite the rigour still required at home, Sayuki endeavours to adapt her profession abroad. “I try to get called as a geisha to as many countries as possible, and especially want to welcome invitations for myself and my geisha sisters. The first geisha to travel overseas [Sadayakko, ex-geisha and actress in a touring theatre group, went to the 1900 Exposition Universelle] was an incredible hit. Geisha haven’t travelled as much after World War II, but I really very much enjoy being able to play a role as a cultural ambassador”. Nevertheless, her planned appearance at the Oxford Union might be a slightly nostalgic ambassadorial appearance from Sayuki, especially when a mention of the Oxford “brand” in Japan generates instant recognition and an enthusiastic response. “After spending ten years consecutively in Japan as a teenager I was in dire need of re-socialization into the Anglo-Saxon world, and Oxford was wonderful for me; it was the perfect place to go. It’s not like the geisha world, but it’s a very aesthetic beautiful world, and you can have a very beautiful lifestyle in Oxford as well”.
The prospect of geisha travel has more serious consequences for the sustainability of the profession. It signifies increased visibility, and increased communication, something which Sayuki started to fully understand the necessity of after travelling to most of the geisha districts around Japan. Of these districts, she believes, “probably around a third will have disappeared forever within the next ten to fifteen years”. Perhaps here, most of all, Sayuki’s academia can be put to use, “The crucial question for any traditional culture is to survive in the modern age. It’s because you modernise your business methods that you are able to retain the traditional content (without altering or cheapening it). The geisha heyday was in the 1920s, when they were the face of Shiseido cosmetics or the face of Asahi beer, and if a junior high school student had a picture in his wallet of a girl, it was likely to be a famous geisha. I think it’s unfortunate; post-war, the geisha world became lower profile in many ways. Geisha are appearing in commercials sometimes, and as long as it’s good for the geisha image, it’s an example of keeping up with the modern world.”
“I haven’t really done anything radical…I haven’t really done anything that no other geisha has ever done before. Other geisha have been in the media, other geisha have used social media, and had their own businesses, together with being a geisha. When I began a new project, in retail or media, it was never without the prior permission of my geisha mother and the geisha office. One precedent that I would like to set is to be involved in commercial sponsorship, and the reason for that is that I think that is one way ahead for geisha in the future. This year has seen Kabuki actors appearing in McDonalds adverts.” She warns against the government funding that has been granted to some geisha in the past, labelling it as unsustainable and offering a false security, liable to come crashing down with a change of government agenda. It is this belief in the value of personal potential, and the individual’s own right to control it, that can be seen in Sayuki’s current project to run an internship program to help aspiring geisha manage financially in the costly early years upon entering the profession, which will run through the kimono shop that Sayuki has recently opened.
Clearly for Sayuki, she remains very much an interested party in the current and future fortunes of the geisha world. This sort of personal investment has gone a long way further than just making a documentary, which was the original reason she became involved with geisha, thanks to the contact granted her by fellow alumni at Keio. Sayuki was affiliated to the Asakusa district until March this year, when she applied to have her own geisha house. This is normally allowed after four years of being a geisha, but the Asakusa Assocation decided that they would not allow a foreigner to do this. Sayuki is now working as a geisha independently. She may carry the label of “first western geisha”, and court the publicity which it brings, but the increased need for adaption which it requires is simply an extension of pure tradition. “If I have the ability to do anything to positively contribute towards retaining this beautiful culture, I would certainly like to do so”, says Sayuki, and though conceivably she might first have said this as an aspiring filmmaker, upon starting the documentary, it rings much truer now.