Memory of Geisha

I hadn’t seen the film ‘Memory of a Geisha’ until very recently. As a Japanese person it’s a subject that has a particular fascination for me, and the film itself is known to look at this strange world with a dark and detailed vision – not many girls would choose such a life these days.

Geisha culture existed quite extensively in a few areas of Japan – including in Kyoto and Tokyo – up until the Second World War, but has continued only in the Kyoto district since then. The name ‘Geisha’ literally means an ‘arts person’, and they are women who perform traditional Japanese dance, play special instruments, sing traditional songs, serve sake, and play the role of entertaining guests at parties. A young apprentice Geisha is called a Maiko.

They do not perform these roles in any normal place – a restaurant for example – but only present themselves in special party rooms, called ‘ochaya’. Although ochaya actually means ‘tea place’, the drink that is more usually served on these occasions is an expensive sake. The ochaya will comprise a number of party rooms, designed with traditional wooden Japanese architecture, but they do not have any professional kitchens and chefs. Instead, the ochaya will provide a bespoke party service, offering food and drinks to their customers.

This service obviously needs some management and a back office, to keep everything running smoothly etc, so there is another place where everything is based – the ‘okiya’ – which also acts as the boarding house for the Geishas. The landlady of the okiya is often a retired Geisha, who will have a good network to promote her team of Geishas. So, the combination of Geishas, okiya and ochaya works in unison, with the Geishas acting as celebrities, the okiya as the management company, and the ochaya as the party planner.

Some girls chose to be a Geisha at a very young age – sometimes as young as 15 – often in the past the choice was made for them by the sheer difficulty of finding any kind of employment. Previously it has been the case that girls tended to leave the home at 15, as Japan’s compulsory education finishes at 15. It was at this age that some girls first arrived at the Geisha Okiya in Kyoto to be trained there, as it takes quite long time to learn ‘arts’ – the traditional Japanese dance being famously difficult to master.

Out of this triangular community, the ‘party planner’ ochaya is the most powerful player. Firstly, the ochaya have the customers. Customers book a room for a party at the ochaya, then the party planner finds out what sort of event is desired, for example what kind of members are to be involved, what favourite food, drinks and Geishas, music, games etc., and works out how to get everything right for the customers. The ochaya does not necessarily accept first time customers, and will only accept new customers who have been recommended by existing customers (as with a members club in the UK), getting recommendations from three or so other members and so on.

Because most of the ochayas are traditionally not taking a deposit, or anything in advance, they have to order food and drinks – as well as booking the Geishas – all in advance. One of the reasons why they do not take first time customers without any recommendation. The landlady of the ochaya wears a kimono and looks very traditional, although is actually likely to be extremely business oriented, and will have a modern business plan well worked out. I have never been to an ochaya, as it is very expensive and it used to be very much a man’s world. Some big Japanese companies now invite their domestic and foreign clients to go these places, and entertain them, using this kind of environment to make a deal.

Actually, one of my women friends recently went to one with a group of ladies. She is a very successful business woman, and can afford such prices. Also she loves traditional kimonos, and wanted to see the best quality being worn. She was also curious to see what an ochaya was like, and to enjoy a good party there! Is this a healthy diversification of Japan’s society? It is a slightly strange forward development.

Japan is a famously male-oriented society, in which many Japanese women are fighting to get equal opportunities, and some new experience of a diverse society. Ironically, the Geisha tradition, with all its formalities, subjugation and servitude, may be providing an outlet for the modern Japanese woman for her to demonstrate her new-found go-anywhere power. After all, weren’t the Geishas always the ones in control anyway?