Ikuko: My life as a geisha girl

The mysteries of the profession run deep. Even the Japanese are not quite sure what they do. One of a dying breed tells Demetrios Matheou exactly what it is we're missing in the West
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"Geisha is not the right word," says Ikuko, my charming but firm host, whom I have spent the past 10 minutes addressing in all sincerity as a geisha. "Anyone can dress up in a kimono and call themselves a geisha," she continues. "But people have only one perception of a 'geisha girl'. We are geiko. Geiko sell their talent, they don't sell their bodies."

One is tempted to wonder whether it's too late for the director Rob Marshall to rename his new film Memoirs of a Geiko. But just as Arthur Golden's original bestselling book was fiercely criticised more than a decade ago by its subject, former geisha Mineko Iwasaki, the movie (premiered in Tokyo last week) has raised concerns in Japan over Hollywood's ability to depict accurately one of its most famous traditions - not least because of the casting of two Chinese actresses, Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li, and the Malaysian Michelle Yeoh, in the leads. While no one bats an eyelid when, say, British actors play Germans or Americans, in Asia this is a very sore point. But there is a deeper irony in this row over cultural authenticity. For genuine geisha - henceforth I shall use the proper term, geiko - are a mystery even to the Japanese.

Unlike the samurai and the sumo, geiko have always been elusive creatures, their painted faces the last word in Asian "inscrutability", their practice hidden from all but the wealthy few who hire them. Moreover, having existed in Japan for centuries, for the past 50 years they have been dwindling in numbers, from thousands to just a few hundred. My Tokyo guides, Yuki and Yoshi, who are both in their twenties, are not the only young Japanese who have never even seen one.

All of which makes this little house-call rather special. At 65, Ikuko is a doyenne of Tokyo's 200 or so surviving geiko. We've come to meet her at her okiya, the traditional focal point of this insular, exclusively female world, which acts as home and agency to the women under its roof; in this case, five young geiko and Ikuko, their onesan, or "big sister". After seeing Marshall's painstakingly detailed recreation of Kyoto in the 1930s, with its wooden, courtyard dwellings, paper screens and lanterns, it's a bit of a shock to be led into a medium-rise modern apartment block in central Tokyo, and into a lift.

Having been greeted with a flutter of courtesy from a trio of her impossibly exotic colleagues, who have dressed in full regalia for us, I am kneeling on a mat opposite Ikuko, herself soberly dressed in a dark brown kimono and, without make-up, looking incredibly fresh-faced. She is elegant, polite and surprisingly animated - even feisty whenever she feels the need to protect her profession; which seems to be often.

"In order to be a geiko, you have to play the shamisen and the flute," she says, "you have to know how to dance, to sing, you learn the arts of conversation and flower arranging. When I started we also learned the tea ceremony - but we don't do that any more. The training is very rigorous and you continue throughout your years as a geiko. And if you can't do everything, then forget it. The idea is that a very beautiful person enters a room, and underneath all this beauty is all this talent."

And under the chalk mask, she insists, is plenty of personality. "I have never thought of our make-up as a mask. It is a tool that I use. It does not change my personality - it is still me, but now I am geiko. How each customer perceives me, of course, can be entirely different. Obviously, there is an aura about geiko that promotes mystery, the mystery of what lies below the surface."

In contrast, the so-called geisha who work at the Japanese hot springs, are "pretenders", she says. "They don't get the training, they don't have the full repertoire of skills; maybe they can dance a bit, but they're not real. And they are a little bit looser."

It's not difficult to guess what she means by that last comment. That said, you can't assume too much when speaking to a geiko. Not only does my interpreter tell me that my questions are not easily translated into Japanese, Ikuko admits that for geiko, "it is more important what not to say". Language certainly plays a part in the perennial battle for their reputation: while geisha means "arts person" and geiko "arts child", geisha have often tended towards a carnal interpretation of the word "art".

Geiko work in very specific and controlled environments - Kyoto's famous teahouses, for example, or the traditional Japanese restaurants of Tokyo - where they are hired for an evening or part of an evening, to entertain businessmen and dignitaries. Commonly, the onesan will play the three-stringed shamisen, while the maiko, the apprentice, dances. And it is the dancing, the highlight of an evening, that can make a young geiko's reputation.

"I still can't think of a better job to have," says Ikuko, "than to entertain the most important people in the country - in the world, really, because I have entertained dignitaries from other countries; making them happy, having them applaud me when I have danced for them."

She recalls her first, and formative, glimpse of a geiko when she was still known by her real name, Murozono Kikuko. "I was born in Kumamoto, near Nagasaki. One day when I was 16 these two ladies were walking through the town, wearing beautiful kimono. They were very glamorous for Kumamoto and I felt an instant longing. The very next day I went to the okiya, to become a geiko myself."

In his novel, Golden refers to parents selling their children to the okiya, but Ikuko describes it as a selfless act on the part of the child. "It used to be that if there was not enough to eat, girls might enter the okiya, for one's parents, for one's siblings, for one's household." In any case, "by the time I went into it, it was for oneself", and in fact she had to ask her parents' permission.

Soon after her training she moved to Tokyo, where she seems to have prospered - even without the danna, or patron, that many geiko seem to crave. Indeed, Ikuko has a sassiness that is in stark contrast to the characters of Memoirs of a Geisha, who are hopelessly dependent on a danna for their livelihoods.

"There were times when a man wanted to become my danna, and would pay for a lot of performances every month. If that point in my life had been hard, then I might have accepted. But since I did not really need the money, I would rather be free, be independent, than to be tied down to someone. I've been lucky not to have one."

She has a similar attitude to boyfriends and husbands, both of which have been permitted in her time as a geiko. "I've had many boyfriends, but I've never wanted to get too distracted from my job. I didn't want to be too dependent on a man." I wonder, though, whether those men were jealous of her many admirers. "Why would they be jealous? Geiko are people you can take anywhere and present to anyone. Geiko are designed, almost, to be the ideal woman. No man would be ashamed of having a geiko as a girlfriend."

The key moment in Ikuko's career was in 1980, when Onoue Kikugoro, one of Japan's most famous Kabuki actors, invited her to dance with him at Tokyo's National Theatre. She points to a picture on the wall of her much younger self, posing head to head with the actor, both in full make-up, she as beautiful as the young geiko in the room who have been gazing at her respectfully behind her back. "That was the moment in my life when I realised, 'this is why I became a geiko'."

A bell rings and the other geiko jump to their feet. My time is up. But Ikuko, swayed perhaps by nostalgia, waves her charges away.

Times have changed, she admits, and not just in the effect on business of Japan's lost decade. "Clients don't respect the art as much as they used to. Before, the customers would really watch and really care ... They had an eye for what we were doing. Now it's not even close to that. Talking to the customers is the hardest aspect today. They are not as intelligent. We are the ones who have to drive the conversation."

However, she has no plans to retire just yet. "I want to promote the geiko lifestyle, to keep it alive in Japanese culture; because it's one of the few things that has stayed in the culture through thick and thin. In order to be a geiko, you have to know the same things that you knew 100 years ago. That's why I am the onesan to these girls. I had an onesan who taught me how to be an excellent geiko and I want to do the same. If I can do that, I will have done my part."

And will they be seeing the film? "Oh yes, we are very keen. But it's not going to be easy to watch. The lead roles are played by Chinese women. Even their hairline is different, and we will notice things like that.

"This a double-edged sword for us. The film can push the right image of geiko around the world, or it could portray incorrect things. Being a geiko is not something you can just pick up in a few days. It's not just wearing a kimono, it's how you carry yourself in a kimono. And that takes years of practice."