Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sayonara Sayuki: First Western Geisha Bids Farewell to the Sisterhood of Getas & Kimonos

READ UPDATE BELOW (6th of June, 8:03 am)

SAYUKI, meaning "Transparent Happiness" in Nihongo and the Japanese geisha identity assumed by the Oxford-educated Anthropologist Dr. Fiona Graham when she became the first Westerner admitted to the prestigious sisterhood of geishas since 400 years ago in December 2007, is gone. After being stripped off of her geisha recognition on charges of bringing disrepute to the geishas and for not living up to its centuries-old traditions, Fiona left angry and in tears. She's back to being an outsider and the love affair with her adopted country Japan and its geishas has turned sour and disappointing. 

Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Fiona first fell in love with Japan when she went there as a cultural exchange student at the age of 15. She then bravely and determinedly enrolled herself in a high school in Japan before pursuing her undergraduate studies at Tokyo's Keio University. She then went straight to Oxford University for a doctorate in Anthropology and what originally started as an integral part of her formal studies and community/cultural immersion eventually led to years of rigorous geisha training that resulted in her remarkable induction to the geisha organization. 

The Asakusa Geisha Association, the official geisha house where Graham used to be affiliated with, claimed that she repeatedly missed compulsory classes and gatherings. There was no official word as to the manner she was booted out except for reports that she was "politely asked to leave." However, Keiji Chiba, a spokesman for the Asakusa Geisha Association, had one thing to say about Fiona: “She tried.” I'm not sure also if Sayuki's or Fiona's chief trainer or geisha mother, "Yukiko" had a hand on her ouster.  

She did try. And Fiona's efforts in fully assimilating with and immersing in the long and still revered tradition of the geishas should be applauded in a sense that she was able to live and be recognized even for a short period as a full-fledged geisha. However, based on the reported claims of Fiona's co-geishas, being a geisha is not a creative or perhaps scholastic enterprise but a life to live that is bound by strict rules, traditions, and one-of-a-kind discipline and most importantly a life purpose in accordance with exclusive kinship among geisha "sisters" and "mothers" that must be fully embraced.      

After debuting in 2007 as a geisha, Fiona lectured in schools about the geisha traditions and continued her pursuit of a scholarly life. Her case was not just a costume play (or Cosplay) because she had to live a real geisha life for years. Conservative and seniority-oriented geisha rules dictate that newcomers like Fiona must seek official approval first from her elders or senior geisha "sisters" before she can perform in front of the public or customers. According to reports, her "sister" geishas accused her that she performed even without permission. A fellow geisha alleged that “She says she is a flute player but she does not go to lessons and said she was already good enough."

In fact, another of her co-geisha claimed that “No-one would give her permission because she was not good enough – so she became hysterical, yelling at everyone. That is not our style. We have a traditional way of thinking and we have to obey our older ‘sisters’." This in turn, according to their allegations, made Fiona to arrange her own "unofficial" and "unauthorized" performances in front of paying customers outside the geisha district. Sad. Really sad. Simply put, Fiona or the Dr. Fiona Graham was just not yet ripe for public performances. Or perhaps, she must have stepped (both literally and figuratively) on some senior geishas' toes and ultimately earned their white-faced ire.

Sayuki (Dr. Fiona Graham) during her first appearances as a newly-inducted geisha in Tokyo.
I am very familiar with the old Tokyo geisha and entertainment district of Asakusa because I lived there as an exchange student too not long ago, albeit briefly and under the harsh circumstances of a Tokyo dry winter (AND, definitely not as a geisha apprentice). Geishas of all ages and stature would normally roam around the area after lunch near the many capsule hotels and within the Asakusa Temple grounds and the bazaars for a regular and very chore-like parade to meet and mingle with people. I tried having a picture with a group of geishas but they commanded a price too hefty for a student like me that time. I ended up having a stolen snapshot with a beautiful view of the backs of a group of geishas underneath the very large fit-for-Maskman-Galaxy-Robo woven straw slipper. What baffled me more than anything was when I tried to engage a couple of geishas for a conversation, they put on a shy smile, as if on cue, and covered half of their faces from below their eyes down with a fancy folding fan. Their movements lacking of sophisticated grace and appeared almost learned by rote. I'm guessing I chanced upon the failing ones or the ones lagging in progress in the geisha school. 

Now, I'm quite certain that Dr. Graham will come up with a creative non-fiction book or perhaps a more straightforward scholarly book on the geisha life based on her own experience. "Memoirs of a Real Geisha" is a fitting title for her would-be tell-all book. After all, Arthur Golden's critically-acclaimed 1997 novel, "Memoirs of a Geisha" inspired her after she read it. "Geishacked"? "Geishocked"? What do you think?

UPDATE (6th of June, 8:03 am):

Dr. Fiona Graham a.k.a Sayuki denies she has officially split with the Asakusa Geisha Association. She explains VIA the following:
"I asked the geisha association, given the circumstances of my mother, if they would allow me to become independent in December."

"I was told very directly that the reason I couldn't have tenure was because I was a foreigner.”

"Being the first white geisha was the hardest thing I have had to do.”

"I have worked very, very hard, so it's a very hard thing when the geisha association would not allow me to become independent solely because I am a foreigner."
FOR MORE ABOUT the clarification, READ THIS...