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Uno Affair Underscores New Decline : Japan’s Geisha: Height of Culture, Object of Scorn

Times Staff Writer

At 76, Kiharu Nakamura, a resident of New York City for 33 years, lectures on Oriental philosophy and poetry, serves as an opera adviser and has written seven books, one of which has been made into a movie and a stage play.

But the wives of Japanese businessmen she meets from time to time still speak in gossipy disdain of her.

“ ‘Oh, she’s a geisha,’ they say,” Nakamura, a former geisha, complained during a visit here.

Nakamura’s dual status--a symbol to Japanese of the traditional and exquisite pinnacle of their culture while simultaneously an object of contempt in polite society--has been a hallmark since the 8th Century.

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Ever since the forebears of geisha, called shirabyoshi , charmed legendary warriors in the Heian Era (794-1185), artists have glorified their beauty in woodblock prints. Countless writers, such as the late Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, have added to their mystique in novels.

Geisha--literally “art person"--perpetuate ancient songs sung in a cracked, wavering voice to the accompaniment of the three-stringed, twangy shamisen . Without geisha, few public performances of traditional dance would be seen. Poetry, traditional etiquette and even the kimono owe much to the continued existence of geisha.

Along with Mt. Fuji, cherry blossoms and, more recently, the bullet train, they are a symbol of Japan, proudly promoted in tourist brochures and frequently trotted out by the government for foreign guests. Gerald R. Ford, for example, was photographed with geisha on both sides at a dinner when he became the first incumbent American President to visit Japan in 1975.

Yet geisha also remain a symbol of illicit sex.

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In each layer of geisha society--from Tokyo’s and Kyoto’s hanamachi (flower towns) down to onsen (hot springs) geisha, “an irreducible element of high and low, prestige and ill repute, persists,” wrote Liza Dalby, an American anthropologist, in a book entitled “Geisha.”

At the moment, it’s the low life of geisha that is attracting attention in Japan.

Revealed Affair With Uno

A former geisha who appeared on TV and identified herself as Mitsuko Nakanishi, 40, exploded a bombshell in June when she said she received $21,000 to engage in a four-month affair with Prime Minister Sosuke Uno in 1985.

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Subsequent reports of other sex-for-money escapades by Uno fueled the anger among many Japanese women who were already enraged by an influence-buying scandal and implementation of a consumption tax that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party promised three years ago it would not impose.

For Uno, the sex charges could not have come at a worse time. He and the ruling party face a crucial election for the upper house of Parliament on July 23.

For the “flower and willow world,” as the geisha world is known, the flap underscored the hard times into which at least part of the business has fallen.

Code of Honor

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Protecting clients and their secrets has always been at the top of a geisha’s code of honor, and Nakanishi’s public charges, to which Uno has refused to comment directly, cast a pall of shame upon the geisha world.

“That woman is nothing but a prostitute,” an enraged Nakamura said, noting that the divorcee had met Uno only four months after leaving a job in a lawyer’s office to become a geisha at age 36.

Before the end of World War II in 1945, girls as young as 12 or 13 started preparing to become apprentice geisha or geisha. Some sold into the profession by impoverished parents began as housemaids at even younger ages.

Long years of training in traditional Japanese songs, poetry, the shamisen , drums, posture, etiquette and conversation were a prerequisite.

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Careful attention to personal appearance dominated their life. Uniquely smooth, youthful skin--produced by cleansing the face with a bag filled with powder ground from raw rice instead of soap--set a geisha apart from other women, even at Nakamura’s age.

Experts at Social Arts

Some geisha also became experts at go (Japanese chess), flower arrangement, tea ceremony and calligraphy.

(In autographing one of her books, Nakamura, for example, selected Japanese characters pronounced with the sounds of an American reporter’s name, creating both a work of art in calligraphy and a poem as her brush swept down the cover page without a pause.)

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Teahouses, where geisha parties are held, prospered even in World War II until Japan’s military authorities in 1944 ordered them closed and geisha conscripted to work in factories in a last-gasp mobilization effort.

But the teahouses reopened quickly after the war ended--with the approval of American occupation authorities.

Government figures show that the golden days of geisha occurred in the 1930s, when 74,200 plied the trade. In 1985, the latest year for which statistics are available, their ranks had dwindled to 13,000, according to the Cabinet’s Management and Coordination Agency.

Average Age Was 40

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Dalby, the American anthropologist, estimated that the average age of geisha was about 40 more than a decade ago.

That they continue to exist at all, however, is the wonder.

Japanese do not consider the refined geisha a prostitute. Indeed, when Japan implemented an anti-prostitution law in 1958, geisha were exempted.

Yet the spiritual “purple heart” that geisha win for their struggle to uphold tradition is accompanied by a “scarlet letter.”

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Few Japanese imagine that many virgins remain in the ranks of geisha. Indeed, in the old days, “a virgin geisha would have been as odd as a virgin wife,” wrote Dalby.

To enter the world of flowers and willows, therefore, requires resignation to a life in which marriage is but a remote hope--a path “socially and culturally the opposite of the one followed by 98% of Japanese women,” Dalby wrote.

Costly ‘Uniform’

In addition, just to buy the seasonal wardrobe of 10 or more kimonos, which, along with a traditional wig and a white-powdered face, constitute a geisha’s “uniform,” costs more than $10,000, which the woman herself must finance. At least three years are needed to pay back initial debts, Dalby said.

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Already, the willow world has priced itself out of reach of all but business executives on expense accounts and the very rich.

Drinks and meals at teahouses or restaurants cost as much as $500 a guest.

If geisha are called in, wages are added to the tab. The average is $33 an hour--any part of an hour--but “much higher” in top-class “flower towns,” said Tsunenori Ono, a writer who has made a study of the willow world. And, on top of that, the host is expected to tip each geisha. Tips run from $35 to $350 apiece.

One businessman, who said he has attended many geisha parties but never paid for one, said that “face determines the price.”

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The better known and the more frequent the customer, the lower the price. But the bottom line, he added, is that “if you’ve got to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.”

$700 a Guest

A construction company executive estimated that the cost for an “average” geisha party, including drinks and dinner, ranges around $700 a guest if only one geisha is invited for every two guests.

The geisha party itself ranges from the sublime to the salacious.

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Dinners at which each course is presented as a work of art, served on individual lacquer tables in a tatami room, can be followed by subtle dance and shamisen music and end on an exquisite note. Others, even in the same teahouse, begin with lewd conversation and racy jokes and proceed to drunken debauchery. At hot springs resorts, the parties are inevitably licentious.

Customers range from sophisticated connoisseurs of the arts to hosts who want to impress their guests with a show of wealth.

“Boring parties and obnoxious guests,” Dalby wrote, are part of the job. But then, too, there is the excitement of meeting movie stars, Kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, leading businessmen, famous foreign guests and, of course, prominent politicians.

‘Breaks Down Men’s Reserve’

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“Geisha break down men’s reserve” and “help men speak,” said a geisha in Tokyo’s Akasaka district, where much of Japan’s drawing-room politics is carried out before submitting decisions for a rubber-stamping on the floor of Parliament.

The basic reason for the existence of the geisha--and their modern-day competitors, the 108,000 hostesses in bars and nightclubs--remains unchanged.

Cramped housing makes entertaining at home difficult. And despite new opportunities for women to work, the average wife possesses few social graces, both Dalby and Nakamura said.

“Japanese women are brought up to be retiring and modest. Girls in school are taught not to talk with boys,” Nakamura said. “A well-bred Japanese girl never learns how to converse with men--the most important thing a geisha studies.”

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“Geisha embody precisely those aspects of femininity that are absent from, or only incidental to, the role of wife,” Dalby wrote. “Where a wife is modest, a geisha is risque. A wife is socially reticent; a geisha is witty and talkative. If a wife lacks romantic or sensuous appeal, a geisha, whether she sleeps with a man or not, has a certain sexual allure and can be an object of fantasy. The wife is devoted to home and family. A geisha has no such ties.”

Jealousy Cited

Nakamura attributed her own troubles with wives of Japanese business executives in New York to “jealousy” on their part.

“The knowledge they have is just that of a woman who has been through a university. They are very shallow,” she said.

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When average Japanese women think about geisha in the abstract, they often express praise.

“I think geisha constitute one of the professions. They are professional entertainers,” said an unmarried female office clerk, 24.

A 54-year-old wife of a travel agency executive said “real geisha who are well-trained shamisen players, dancers and singers must be proud of themselves. I think they are doing what they really want to do. They are different from high-class prostitutes, who are only interested in making good money.”

Geisha also are renowned for the loyalty and sense of obligation they show to customers.

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During the summer ancestor-worship period and the New Year’s season, for example, geisha visit the homes of their customers with gifts for wives, thanking them for their husband’s business.

‘Symbolizes Pitiful Condition’

One 49-year-old wife, however, said “that such a profession exists symbolizes the pitiful condition of Japanese women.”

“There are ways to do (Japanese) dancing and shamisen without maintaining such a lascivious, separated society of people,” she said. Japanese men, she complained, are the ones who lack sociability and rely too much upon women to produce it for them.

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When asked if they would allow a daughter to become a geisha, or a son to marry one, Japanese parents give a quick “no” in response.

During the Meiji Era of 1868-1912, many respected leaders of Japan did marry geisha. Committed to “Westernizing” the form, if not the substance, of Japan as it emerged from 250 years of isolation, the Meiji leaders traveled abroad frequently and wanted wives who could socialize, Nakamura said.

In more recent times, some Japanese diplomats also married geisha, partly for the same reason.

For geisha who don’t marry, there is always the hope of finding a danna (patron) who will pay off any debts and put her up in an apartment as part of a formal agreement with the house in which she works. Even with a danna, most geisha continue working, however.

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It was that kind of arrangement that Nakanishi said she had with Prime Minister Uno.

Sense of Accomplishment

Then, too, there is the sisterhood of the geisha world and a sense of self-accomplishment and independence that some wives fail to find at home.

But the future of geisha “is very dark,” Nakamura said. Young women today, she complained, have “no obedience, no patience.”

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“They can get a job at a nightclub or a cabaret and make a pile of money the next night. Why bother with training?

“Geisha will change. Many will not be real geisha. Japan has become rich, but the people’s minds are getting poorer,” Nakamura said.

But she did not foresee the disappearance of geisha. Neither do traditionalists or cynics.

The traditionalists believe that geisha will survive as long as there are tatami rooms in Japan. The cynics, despite Uno’s troubles, predict they will be around as long as there are politicians in Japan.

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RELATED STORIES: Pages 13 and 15.


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