In the parlance of old Edo, it was called the Karyuukai (花柳界) – “the World of Flower and Willow.” The saying encompassed the ambiguous domain of both courtesan (the metaphorical Flower) and geisha (the Willow). Both were highly specialized and skilled entertainers. What separated a courtesan and geisha could be vague; as explained in Seidensticker’s seminal Low City, High City, “…the flower was the more carnal of the two, the willow or geisha the more artistic and spiritual.”
Flower and Willow were both integral parts of the high culture of Edo-era Japan, and while the courtesans disappeared following the Meiji Restoration and Edo’s transition to Tokyo, the geisha remained. The white face paint (oshiroi, employed to beautify geisha in the dim luminance of Edo candlelight) and elaborate kimono of the geisha became symbolic of Japan, even as the geisha industry itself became smaller over the decades. But as the modern geisha houses attempt to reestablish their place in Japanese society, the vague boundaries of the industry again rear their head – as expressed by a viral series of tweets by a former apprentice describing the abuse she suffered on her unfinished path to full geisha.
A Horror Story from a Cultured World
Kiritaka Kiyoha (桐貴清羽) is a 22-year-old former maiko – an apprentice geisha. Maiko learn traditional dance, musical arts, and how to entertain and socialize with guests in the cultured forms of past eras. In 2015, Kiyoha was based out of Kyoto, one of the four great centers of geisha culture. (While the geisha tradition first emerged in Tokyo, many associate them just as much with Kyoto – and both Osaka and Kanazawa have strong geisha histories.) The life of a maiko is not supposed to be an easy one, filled as it is with strict training.
For Kiyoha, however, her trials went far beyond what might be considered acceptable to hone a disciple into a cultured artist. In her own words, “to begin with, maiko live on-site for six years, with a salary of ¥0. The system allows us only a tiny bit of spending money. The only way to contact the outside world is through letters or public phones. Maiko aren’t allowed to have cell phones. Why, you might ask? Because when maiko learn about the outside world, they run away.”
Kiyoha has amassed a strong following on Twitter since leaving the World of the Willow. As of this date, she has nearly 50 thousand followers, many of whom helped spread her disturbing story of abuse in the geisha industry. Within ten hours of posting, her thread had gathered hundreds of thousands of likes, even trending on Japanese-language Twitter. Her tale went beyond the difficult stories of isolation and confinement one might expect from modern geisha apprenticeship; instead, they revealed an upsetting culture of sexualized pressures placed upon a then-underaged girl.
Threading the Needle of Abuse
Kiyoha’s thread began as such:
“This may result in my erasure from this world, but this is the reality of being a maiko. When I was 16, I was made to drink so much alcohol, you could take a shower in it. I was then coerced into mixed bathing – another name for taking a bath with a customer. (Although I tried with all my might to run away.) I would like you to consider if this is truly what one would call traditional culture. The photos are from when I won a drinking competition with a customer, seeing who could chug a bottle of Yamazaki 18-Year faster, as well as other instances of drinking.”
Kiyoha recounted other instances of sexual harassment and assault within the thread. “I had clients slip their hands through the side openings of my kimono to fondle my breasts, and when in private rooms they’d opened the hems of my kimono so as to touch my crotch. Maiko don’t generally wear underwear, you see. When I told the house mother about these incidents, she directed her anger at me, saying I was at fault.”
Sold to the Highest Bidder
The former maiko additionally explained the persistence of the danna (patron, 旦那) system. In times of old, when young girls were often sold into the geisha system by impoverished parents, the ultimate goal of a geisha would be to find a danna. The danna would be a wealthy man who would serve to fund the geisha’s entire livelihood in exchange for varying degrees of exclusivity; this would often entail sexual access. A lump sum might be paid to the geisha house the girl in question “belonged” to, marking a repayment for years of training and housing. Finding a danna was an escape from the rigors of the geisha house and represented economic security, but enacted its own form of control upon the woman in question.
These days, where becoming a geisha is seen more as an elective way of maintaining a cultural tradition than an act of financial desperation, it is generally hoped that the aspects of the former geisha culture involving sexual servitude had become a thing of the past – or at least something consensual between adults. Kiyoha, however, says this was not the case.
“Incidentally, the danna-san system is still around. Whenever anything comes up, a maiko or geiko will make use of that person’s surname. Those who spend time in the Hanamachi [geisha quarter] or who exist within it will recognize the name; it might be faster to call it a ‘Hanamachi marriage.’ I was close to having my virginity sold [to one such person] for ¥50,000,000 [around $370,000]. And that money doesn’t go to the maiko herself.”
Fear of Reprisal
Kiyoha explained that although revealing this information frightened her, she felt she needed to expose what was happening in her former industry. There were those in Kyoto whom she was sure would attempt to retaliate. Nonetheless, she felt she needed to say something. “If no one speaks up, nothing will change. I didn’t want to continue in silence when confronted with the annual suicide attempts of my junior maiko or their mental anguish.” (Note: the referenced tweet has since been deleted.)
“…This tweet will absolutely result in anger coming my way from Kyoto. Have to admit to being scared of them getting in contact. But you know, I won’t allow myself to be beaten anymore. Because I broke through the brainwashing of the Hanamachi. No matter what they try to say or do to me, it’s impossible for the Hanamachi to interfere in my life.”
Tens of Thousands of Conversations
The explosive nature of Kiyoha’s thread and its major virality has already spawned numerous responses – over eleven thousand quote tweets as of this moment. Most are supportive; many are shocked and disgusted. Others rushed to try to discredit Kiyoha, claiming her current presence in Tokyo and occupation somehow meant she couldn’t have been a Kyoto geisha in years past. In a standard tactic, others attempted to use leftist politicians who follow Kiyoshi’s popular account as proof of her being a Communist plant. (Exactly what the Communist Party, one of the largest political parties in Japan, would get out of this is something we can only guess at.)
Others, while stressing the importance of Kiyoha’s personal story and trauma, also pointed out questionable comments she had made regarding trans individuals in the past; this resulted in further debate.
The thousands and thousands of tweets and replies engendered by the thread have resulted in varied conversations about the current place of the traditional Geisha industry in Japan. Those who know women who have been maiko or geisha and had similar experiences spoke up; so did those who worked in other nightlife realms, such as bartenders of club workers who saw older men bring in underage maiko to drink with them.
”It’s common to hear stories of customers bringing underage maiko into hostess clubs as if to say, ‘hey, look at me.’ I’m praying with all my might that this indictment [of the industry] may lead it in a good direction.”
A Bad Look for a Recovering Industry
In truth, it’s a world few who live in the country really come in contact with; for many, geisha remain a traditional symbol, but one kept at a mysterious remove. For those who observe the geisha culture across its four main cities, there remains much to be admired. Geisha maintain some of the highest level traditional arts in Japan, providing a link to the high culture of the Edo era. The rare dinner at a ryotei (exclusive traditional restaurant) where geisha are performing is like slipping into a bygone world, but one that feels all the more vibrant because it never really disappeared. The decades have not been kind to the World of the Willow, nor to the Hanamachi; already declining, the COVID pandemic has dealt an additional blow. For many, this sort of negative publicity is highly unwelcome.
Yet it clearly demonstrates issues inherent in aspects of the maiko traineeship, as seen by modern standards. For example:
“There are those who have begun to say that the Maiko-san was lying. Personally, whether her story, in particular, is true or not is beyond the point. Currently, the age for a maiko is set at 15-20 years old. It’s unreasonable to say this world, in which such children drink alcohol alongside fully grown men, attempting to curry their favor, is just ‘traditional Japanese culture…'[cont.] But knowing that this is how the culture has been, I don’t want to negate the work done with so much enthusiasm by women in this industry… But I still feel something has to be done regarding age. 15 years old is just, well…”
Condemnation of an Entire Industry?
As her thread rounded the Twitterverse, Kiyoha chimed in, responding to claims that she wanted to watch the entire Geisha industry burn. Kiyoha added that not all geisha houses, or even all geisha houses in Kyoto, were as bad as what she experienced. However, as far as she knew, the Kyoto houses all had major issues. Nonetheless, she did not believe the essence of the geisha lifestyle needed to be done away with:
“I don’t want the geisha occupation to disappear. The industry should rebuild, oriented in a better direction. I want it to hone the art of those who love the arts, passing down our traditional culture. Until now, it’s been a closed occupation. I think it’s time for it to open. They can monetize their training sessions and the entertaining of guests via livestreams and video uploads. They can sell DVDs of the sort of events we’ve always put on, as well as spring and autumn performances. Geisha can appear on TV. I want the industry to live on through those sorts of clean methods that do something for society.”
Kiyoha has succeeded in starting a mass conversation about one of Japan’s most revered – and historically closed-off – traditional industries. In truth, the World of the Willow has consistently been changing and evolving; as early as the Meiji era, geisha were attempting to modernize and create educational structures for themselves. Remarkably, the age of 15 for initial apprenticeship is older than the 12 or 13 years expected in eras past. The average age of geisha overall is increasing; in the prewar era, the goal of a geisha was to find a danna by age 25. Now, many maintain their occupation well into their thirties. Geisha and maiko, like Kiyoha herself, have always used their agency in whatever ways were available for them. The oft-problematic structure of the industry, and society at large, however, has often failed them.
The old structure simply doesn’t work in modern Japan. As Kiyoha’s story and the stories of so many show, there is still a dark side to the industry, hidden behind the refined shamisen playing and elaborate layers of cloth. Now we must see how this discussion plays out.
What to Read Next:
Seidensticker, Edward. (1983). Low city, high city: Tokyo from Edo to the earthquake. New York: Knopf
Stanley, Amy. (2013). Enlightenment Geisha: The Sex Trade, Education, and Feminine Ideals in Early Meiji Japan. The Journal of Asian Studies, 72(3), 539–562.