Obituary: Tsutakiyokomatsu Asaji

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My first encounter with a geisha took place nearly 40 years ago. The late Fifties in Japan was a time of unprecedented change brought about by the national restructuring of the economy that was to lead to the "economic miracle". Cultural life was gradually becoming stereotyped and its skills had diminished. The art and craft of the way of a geisha were already on the wane.

Today, the numbers of these elegant and accomplished entertainers are decreasing as girls refuse to submit themselves to the arduous training required. Tsutakiyokomatsu Asaji was one of the rare last representatives of a bygone glory, and a centenarian witness to a lost paradise.

I had just arrived in Japan, but I had done my homework and knew that the geisha is not a prostitute, still a common misconception. The money to pay for the geisha party had been extorted from the university's administration which had a special fund for such entertainments. The expense of hiring a geisha was always beyond my means, and it was only at publishers' celebrations that I was that I was able to enjoy their company. In fact, it is mainly successful businessmen and high-ranking policitians who can afford to keep a geisha, and even so she is often shared with two or three other privileged beings.

Apart from the pure pleasure of their dancing and singing, I must admit that I found geisha rather tedious companions with their little parlour games in which one had to participate, otherwise they were a little cross. As a foreigner, I usually ended up by providing my own kind of entertainment for the geisha. But their skill, charm and acute insight into human character were undeniable, though some of them were decidedly long in the tooth.

I never had the good fortune to be served by Asaji. She was a person of quite exceptional talents as a dancer and a singer, to her own shamisen accompaniment, of tokiwazu-bushi ballads. The beauty of her fine hands with their almost translucent skin was especially admired, as was the nape of her neck, slim, graceful and curiously expressive: it is said to be the part of a woman's body most admired by Japanese men. Asaji's dancing showed off these exquisite assets to intoxicating effect, particularly after a few flasks of hot sake had been served by her own slender hands.

Yanagibashi Asaji as she was known to her clients - a name derived from the "willow bridge" district of geisha houses in downtown Tokyo - was a true Edokko geisha (that is, born and bred in Edo, the former name of Tokyo), and the last of her line. She began the acquisition of all the essential geisha skills - dance, music, flower arrangement, kimono management, story-telling, the serving of sake, the playing of games, the art of conversation - at a very early age, and completed a formal education more gruelling than any exam-orientated modern school.

She first appeared in public at the age of 16, and from that day on, without stopping, she performed for many important men including the wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo and the founder of the Honda empire, Soichiro Honda. During her long career, she sometimes entertained three generations of influential men from the same family - grandfather, father and son. This, too, was in the time-honoured tradition of geisha service.

Some also had distinguished foreign associations, beginning with Okichi, who was unwillingly pressed into the service of Townsend Harris on his arrival from America with the "black ships". The nephew of the financier J.P. Morgan, George Dennison Morgan, married a geisha, O-yuki, from the celebrated Gion district in Kyoto. The first modern stage actress was a geisha, Sadayakko, wife of the theatre director Otojiro Kawakami, who played in both traditional and western dramas and toured Europe and the United States from 1899 to 1902, creating a sensation wherever she appeared.

After 87 years "active service" Asaji retired but still kept up her artistic and social life, declaring that she wanted to improve her shamisen technique. At the age of 100 she appeared in a fashion show for ladies of advanced age and published her autobiography, Onna wa kiri-kiri shan ("A Woman should be Pretty and Proper") in 1994.

Her advice to would-be maiko (apprentice geisha) and geisha was to be neat and pleasant and above all to keep their mouths shut: they often heard business and state secrets from their clients. One geisha who had blabbed because her "sponsor", the former prime minister Sosuke Uno, paid her only 200,000 yen a month (about pounds 1,250) was forever after shunned by her sisters in the profession, and her indiscretions caused a resounding scandal which brought down Uno, who was forced to resign in 1989.

Asaji disapproved of such immoral behaviour, partly because after Uno's downfall politicians became scared of being betrayed by their geisha mistresses, and so brought the profession in disrepute at a time when it was on its last legs.

At the end of her life, Asaji, too, complained of being on her last legs, but still continued to entertain occasionally at high-class restaurants for powerful politicians and fashion designers. She was an avid mah-jong player, and would complain that all her old partners has died out, leaving her no one to scalp. And she enjoyed drinking sake to the end of her days.

Tsutakiyokomatsu Asaji was in every sense one of the old school, the sort of classic, refined, mysterious geisha one finds in the novels of Nagai Kafu, Yasunari Kawabata and Aya Koda, or in the great films of Kenji Mizoguchi.

James Kirkup

Haru Kato (Tsutakiyokomatsu Asaji), geisha: born Tokyo 28 February 1894; died Tokyo 19 August 1996.