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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sex, Power, Frailty: The Heart of Geisha

TOKYO -- Artist. Single woman. Flirt. Waitress. Slave. Prostitute. There can be more to the life of a geisha than many people think. Outside Japan, geisha are seen as fragile, white-faced, silk-clad courtesans, a glimpse of the sybaritic Orient. The geisha look provokes enough of a naughty shiver for Madonna to have adopted it into one of her recent incarnations. Here, they are considered precious and remote, clopping through Tokyo's concrete canyons on little wooden clogs, bearing the heavy weight of preserving Japan's cultural legacy on narrow, kimono-clad shoulders.

Geisha have been at the heart of Japan's nexus of sex, money and power for hundreds of years. Older, more senior men bring their proteges to the teahouses where they themselves have been coming for years. There was never a room available for anyone without an introduction. The teahouse is the place for the uptight man to really relax, to unwind and act like a child again. The geisha are the caretakers. They pour the sake and beer, and they lead the drinking games. They dance, sing, play, flirt, converse. The men do things they would never do at home, where husband and wife are more stern partners than jolly companions.

Geisha are concerned about the future of their trade, about finding a way to mix tradition with the need to broaden the audience if the they are to survive.

It was the one role a woman could take that permitted her to educate herself and to interact with men on an intellectual basis. At the same time, the geisha was essentially a slave, delivered by her own family as a child into a serfdom that provided her with a life far more luxurious than any she would have found in the home of her birth.

Yachoko, a bird-boned woman in a mauve kimono, with baby-smooth skin and active hands, has a traditional story to tell. Her mother placed her in a geisha house after World War II, when she was 13. They'd lost their home to fire, and her father was long dead. For two years Yachoko cleaned house, looked after the geishas' kimonos, did the laundry and studied. Then she became a geisha, too.

"It may sound like I had a really hard time," she says. "We are the last generation of those who had to do that sort of thing. People [geisha] nowadays commute from home."

There is a downside to the job, admits Yachoko, now 63. She didn't like the customers in the old days who would get drunk and act ungentlemanly. And though she doesn't have to stay up as late as she used to, she does have to drink with clients, even though alcohol makes her sick.

There's little trouble finding geisha wannabes. Some are attracted by the money, others are interested in wearing kimonos or, like Yachoko, performing Japanese dance. Some admire the freedom and glamour. A top geisha earns 400,000 yen to 500,000 yen ($3,500 to $4,300) a month, plus up to 200,000 yen in tips. A traditional geisha dinner party at the Bright Moon restaurant runs about $435 per person for a group of three.

But a decade-long slowing of the Japanese economy has hit the pleasure business especially hard, and the geisha business is a fading one. Geisha continue to play a crucial role in forging relationships at the highest levels of business and government.

Kneeling on a golden cushion at a low table, looking out through sliding paper doors onto her rainy garden of dripping green, Keiko Akiyama, proprietress of the Bright Moon restaurant (called Meigetsu Ryotei), speaks of her role in the world of geisha. "This place is the last bastion of culture: The garden, the flower arrangements, the architecture, the food. Too bad this is all lost in the global shuffle. We want to safeguard it."