Turning Japanese: the first foreign geisha

She comes from Australia and her real name is Fiona Graham, but to her customers she is Sayuki and her aim is to educate the world in a unique national tradition. David McNeill met her

If you want to make Sayuki angry, mention the 2005 movie Memoirs of a Geisha, or worse, the bestseller on which it was based. "It is a ludicrous, totally fictional book that came out of a white, middle-aged American male's imagination. I hope you're not going to write about that!"

Unfortunately for Sayuki, who claims she is Japan's first-ever foreign geisha, contemporary Western perceptions of the so-called flower and willow world have been deeply shaped by Arthur Golden's four-million-selling kimono-fest, and the exquisitely packaged but trite Zhang Ziyi movie it spawned.

So, with apologies for mentioning the unmentionable, and right at the start of this story, what was it she disliked so much about the movie? "The dance in the middle for one thing," she replies. "I mean, geisha don't dance like that! And the whole movie revolves around sex. The world of geisha is very different."

In fairness, Sayuki – her professional name, meaning transparent happiness – is not the only person to have sat squirming through the Steven Spielberg-produced fantasy about the rise of the beautiful geisha Sayuri. One critic, particularly offended by her Mills & Boon romance with the mysterious Chairman, called it a "blast of bullshit Orientalism".

The book, meanwhile, famously so infuriated the woman on whom it was superficially based, the legendary Kyoto geisha Mineko Iwasaki, that she penned her own to set the record straight. In an interview, Iwasaki demanded that I sign an agreement not to mention the book at all. "Everything about it is wrong," she spat. "Maiko (apprentice geisha) are not beaten with coat hangers and we do not sell our virginity to the highest bidder." She sued Golden (the case settled out of court) over the book, which was essentially written through Western eyes for a Western audience.

Sayuki, who hails from Australia and bears the less exotic sounding Fiona Graham on her birth certificate, believes she can do better. A documentary film-maker and academic with a doctorate in anthropology from Oxford University, she has just become what she says is the first non-Japanese in 400 years to debut as a geisha. She is now recording her life on film as she trains in a geisha house.

Sometime soon, she says, the world will see the results: a rare, scholarly inside look into one of the most closed societies in Japan. "It will be unique," she insists. "Most Westerners who have tried to write about the traditions have failed because they never really lived the life. I'm going to represent the society that I'm living in now, as it is."

Memoirs – a work of fiction, she points out – is not the only book to earn her ire, though she is reluctant to criticise other authors. "One said she lived so long with geisha that she almost became one, which is absolutely laughable. Does she have any idea how difficult it is to become a geisha?"

How difficult? The training involves learning how to walk, talk and dress, and master several skills, such as the tea ceremony and the three-stringed shamisen, and her own speciality, the Japanese bamboo flute, which she practises every day. Then there are the rules of being in an okiya, or geisha house, tough enough for young Japanese apprentices, let alone a Western woman rapidly approaching middle-age. Although, true to geisha tradition, she does not reveal her age.

"Every girl in the community is my older sister until the next one comes in, so I have to drop to my knees and bow every time they come into the room, including my 18-year-old elder sisters," she explains. "It's a very strict, old-fashioned hierarchical world and it doesn't make the slightest difference that I'm older than them. If I get anything wrong, my geisha mother will be told about it and I'll get a scolding. It is difficult to deal with, but that's the way it is."

Hardest of all, though, is sitting for hours in the seiza position, with the legs tucked up underneath her bottom. "I thought I could do it but I was in excruciating pain for a very long time, day in day out," she recalls. "They don't use cushions, sometimes [we sit] on bare wooden floors."

So who is this woman who thinks she can succeed where others have failed? Ms Graham first came to Japan on an exchange programme from Melbourne aged 15, and graduated from a Japanese secondary school, then from the prestigious Keio University. Fluent in Japanese, she has spent time working in Japanese companies and as a journalist. She has written several books on Japanese culture and on the ideology and strategy of Japanese companies, as well as a 2005 work entitled Playing at politics: the ethnography of the Oxford Union.

It was watching Memoirs, she says, that convinced her to try training as a geisha, the first Western woman to attempt it since the American scholar Liza Dalby in the mid-1970s. But Ms Graham says that Ms Dalby never became a full geisha, despite taking part in the life. Other journalists and anthropologists have written about the geisha life from the inside, but without going to the lengths of the rigorous training.

"If you actually become a geisha, you have to slot into the hierarchy at the bottom. Even for me going through a Japanese school, it has been very difficult. Being accepted into the geisha house is just the start. I can't imagine many Westerners doing it." She denies that she has received preferential treatment as a foreigner.

Ms Graham began training last April and debuted in December. The video of her debut, which she carries in her laptop, shows her in an open carriage being ferried around Asakusa, one of the oldest of Tokyo's six remaining geisha districts, watched by sometimes goggle-eyed spectators. Tall, wrapped in a kimono and face pancaked in thick geisha make-up, she cuts quite a figure as she introduces herself to about 100 tea houses and restaurants – her future clients.

She wore a powder-blue kimono with a white fringe belonging to her supervisor, which is worth about two million yen (£9,300).

Her duties will include attending parties at these venues, pouring drinks and entertaining guests. "Everything is carefully rehearsed," she explains. "When I open a sliding door I have to be on my knees, and stand up. Then close the door again on my knees. Learning what kimono to wear and when ... there are many, many little customs like that." Despite a year of training, she says she is still "not confident" about choosing the appropriate kimono to wear.

It sounds a long way from her previous life as a professional academic and writer, but she insists that those who see geisha as weak or subservient miss an important point. "They are strong, independent businesswomen who control their own lives. They were among the first independent women."

Her website, www.sayuki.net, shows her performing her geisha duties. So is this a life-calling? No, she says. "I haven't worked out what I'm going to do yet, but I don't expect to do this my whole life.

"I'm going to try to depict the truth. We're living in a world where reality and fiction is blurred. So please, just don't compare me to 'that' book. That would be like comparing apples and oranges."

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