The Geisha Who Jolted Japan’s Numero Uno

The Washington Post

The former geisha who has virtually wrecked the political career of Prime Minister Sosuke Uno smiles and bows demurely. “My name,” she says, “is Mitsuko Nakanishi.”

Nakanishi is wearing a white dress patterned with red flowers, clasped at the neck with a pearl pin. Forty years old, she possesses a delicate beauty, and it is not hard to imagine how Uno would have found her irresistibly alluring in the fall of 1985 when, by her account, they embarked on a five-month affair during which he paid her a total of about $21,000.

Now, thanks to her revelations about that relationship in a Japanese magazine, Nakanishi stands as the unlikely symbol of a budding feminist insurgency that is turning the political and social worlds here topsy-turvy.


The scandal, coming at a time when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is reeling from a series of other problems amid a national election campaign, has helped put the LDP in danger of losing its 34-year grip on Japanese politics. It has pushed the 66-year-old prime minister to the brink of resignation only six weeks after taking office. And the whole episode--much like that involving Gary Hart in the United States--has engendered a sort of gigantic national consciousness-raising, in which old norms of behavior are being questioned and broader issues about women’s rights brought to the fore.

Bundle of Contradictions

The woman who touched off this furor is, to say the least, a bundle of contradictions. On the one hand, Nakanishi manifests deep anger over what she says was Uno’s callous disrespect toward her, and she laments that the status of Japanese women lags far behind that of their Western sisters.

In a soft voice laced with indignation, Nakanishi says she “can’t understand” Japanese women who send their husbands off on sex tours of Korea and Southeast Asia, inwardly hating the situation while at the same time fulfilling a wifely obligation by “putting condoms in the husband’s luggage.” On the issue of women’s rights, she adds, “I wish foreign countries would bash Japan.”

Yet for all her feminist sentiments, Nakanishi concedes that the geisha world, which she joined in her mid-30s, epitomizes the subservient role that women tend to play in Japan’s male-dominated society. The fact that she took the geisha life style to its logical extreme, becoming the paid mistress of a powerful man, vitiates her legitimacy as a social critic, in the view of many Japanese.

Among her sterner detractors are women. Kazuko Komiri, a salty 79-year-old film critic and television personality, was quoted in a magazine saying of Nakanishi: “She sold her body for 300,000 yen a month, and then revealed it because her partner became famous. Such a woman is shameless.”

Partly because she is upset with the Japanese media for printing such attacks on her, and partly because she believes that image-conscious Japan will change only under pressure from abroad, Nakanishi granted a recent interview to the Washington Post and a separate interview to Britain’s Daily Telegraph. She spoke mostly in Japanese, occasionally interjecting an English sentence or two.


She had previously been interviewed only by Sunday Mainichi, a respected magazine that broke the story early last month, and by the Japanese network TBS, which broadcast two shows giving Japan its first real look at her.

The youngest of nine children, Nakanishi became a geisha in an unconventional way: She had first married, borne a child, divorced her husband, gotten an office job--and only then entered the exotic world of “flower and willow.”

Temptations Obvious

Geisha traditionally are trained from girlhood, so that they can be properly schooled in the art of pampering and entertaining male clients. They learn the samisen, a guitar-like instrument, and traditional Japanese singing (utai) and dance. Although a geisha’s relationship with a client doesn’t always lead to sex, the temptations are obvious.

“Geisha are supposed to be sexy where wives are sober, artistic where wives are humdrum, and witty where wives are serious,” according to the book, “Geisha,” by Liza Dalby, an American anthropologist who studied the geisha subculture by becoming one herself.

Nakanishi says her main reason for becoming a geisha was simply to make more money.

She figured she could rake in several times the $900 monthly she had been earning as an “office lady” in a law firm. “My ex-husband had remarried and he wanted to raise my child,” she says. “So I made up my mind to get up and do something.” Working as a geisha also appealed to her, she says, because she had studied the samisen and utai in her youth, and she liked the idea of deepening her appreciation of those traditional arts.

Asked whether it felt peculiar to adopt the servility required of a geisha, she replies, “Yes. But I made up my mind that this was business.” Whatever sense of contradiction she felt with her modern instincts, she says, “I made up my mind to just cut it from my thoughts.”


Only a month or so after she became a geisha in mid-1985, she says, Uno--then a prominent member of Parliament--noticed her and arranged to meet her a few days later at a ryotei, an exclusive Japanese restaurant where geisha typically provide their services.

Precisely what happened between Uno and Nakanishi is obviously subject to doubt, especially since her veracity has recently come under a bit of a cloud. A Tokyo mass-circulation magazine published allegations--based on anonymous sources, and vigorously denied by Nakanishi--that she has lied in the past about her educational and artistic attainments.

But the basic elements of her story are widely regarded as credible because of the corroboration of the okaasan, or mother, of her geisha house, who told Sunday Mainichi: “I understand a bit why she wanted to speak out. But a real geisha never talks.” (Uno has refused to discuss either her story or similar stories that have emerged recently about his relationships with other women.)

Nakanishi has recalled that when she and Uno sat together in a private tatami room at their first dinner in October, 1985, Uno sought to impress her by showing her the about-the-author page of a history book he had written, which said he had served in a variety of posts, including minister of international trade and industry. Uno sang a few songs to relax her, but he eventually got down to business rather crudely, she says, advancing his offer of 300,000 yen per month by grabbing three of her fingers and demanding gruffly, “How about this?”

She decided to accept his proposal to provide sex or social accompaniment whenever he called because, she told TBS, “in the geisha world it’s hard to say no,” and because “I had just gotten divorced and I was not confident of myself.” But when he commanded her to “lie down” right there on the straw tatami mat, she refused, she says.

They first had sex in late December, according to Nakanishi, who says Uno spoiled the occasion by harping on the fact that he was paying her, even though the sums he allegedly disbursed are widely regarded here as meager by geisha standards.

Sex With a Geisha

“Sleeping with a geisha is not to be undertaken lightly,” Dalby writes in her book. A man “will not be able to extricate himself easily if his passion cools. . . . (Men who avail themselves of geisha services) know that if the intimacy should sour, reproachful eyes will ruin relaxation at their favorite teahouses. Men who do take a geisha mistress must be prepared for everything that the relationship entails, and they are expected to show their patronage by continuous magnanimous gifts.”


In some respects, Nakanishi seems to have lost her perspective about what she should have expected from such an arrangement. For example, she recalls rushing to the bathroom in tears after receiving a phone call canceling an assignation with Uno because his wife had come to Tokyo from his parliamentary district.

But her descriptions of Uno, which she imparts with a certain emotional intensity, suggest that his behavior fell considerably short of the sensitive Alan Alda type. She recalls, for example, that at a small New Year’s occasion, Uno humiliated her by gesturing derisively when he was asked by an older geisha if it was true that he and Nakanishi were carrying on a special relationship. Later, when the okaasan of her geisha house sought to entertain Uno by performing a special dance for him, the future prime minister made little attempt to disguise his scorn for the old woman’s efforts.

According to Nakanishi, Uno would typically call her early in the morning--even though she worked late at night--to boast about his coverage in the newspapers and television. He promised her gifts, she says, but didn’t come through. He didn’t even provide a traditional parting gift when he broke off their affair in March, 1986, she says; he merely claimed that he was subject to a dokuta-stoppu (“doctor-stop,” or medical order) to refrain from sex.

Nakanishi has consistently maintained that it wasn’t her wounded pride that prompted her to go public with her accusations against Uno. She says she believes that a man who treats women so shabbily shouldn’t be allowed to lead a nation. Uno’s behavior “goes to the fundamental question of relations between human beings,” she declares.

When Uno was elevated from foreign minister to prime minister early last month, “everything which I had shut down inside myself suddenly burst,” she says. Although she says she dreaded the idea of becoming the center of a scandal, she felt compelled “to cut my flesh, and bleed myself”--figuratively speaking, of course--”and by doing so, cut his bones.”

Nakanishi’s tale has evoked a wide array of reactions. The Japanese public has long turned a blind eye toward the extramarital activities of politicians, and one oft-expressed opinion here is that Uno’s main sin was not having a mistress, but rather failing to bestow the proper kindnesses. Holders of this view like to cite the late Bukichi Miki, a founder of the Liberal Democratic Party, who reputedly rebuffed a heckler by acknowledging that, yes, he had several mistresses, “but I take good care of all of them.”

Among those taking a less-than-harsh view--at least in public--is Uno’s wife, Chiyo, who in true Lee Hart fashion was quoted in a magazine as saying that she continues to trust her husband, and “anyway this is a story of the past.” She also apologized on Uno’s behalf because “such trouble was caused” by the uproar. Some Japanese dismiss the whole subject as unfit for public discussion, asserting--as did one LDP politician in a television interview--that “what’s below the navel isn’t personal character.”


But others say it is high time that Japanese politicians were held to a higher ethical standard, particularly in the wake of an influence-peddling scandal that led to the resignations of Uno’s predecessor Noboru Takeshita and several Cabinet members earlier this year. Women’s groups have picketed Uno’s public appearances, demanding that he step down. And the prestigious Asahi Journal declared that the lesson to be learned is that Japan, having become an economic superpower, should adopt a more modern code of behavior. Asahi quoted the Confucian adage: “After satisfying the need for clothing and the need for food, one should behave according to morality and politeness.”

Notoriety Brings Misery

Nakanishi may try to cash in on the controversy by writing a book, but in the meantime her notoriety has brought her mostly misery. No longer a geisha--she quit well before the scandal broke and took an office job with a design firm--she has been unable to work because “the yellow papers (tabloids and mass-circulation magazines) are constantly chasing me.”

Accordingly, she has gone into seclusion, undergoing Buddhist purification rites and trying to figure out what to do with her life. Leaning forward and putting her hand on her bosom, she says touchingly in English, “My heart, broken.” Aha. Perhaps, then, this is really a story about unrequited love? “No, no, no, no,” she retorts, again in English; she wasn’t in love with Uno.

“There were so many things that happened, one after the other,” that angered her about Uno, she says, that she reached the point where she felt the urge to simply “give back the money and say goodby.”

But didn’t she want Uno to love her?

“Well,” she replies, “I am a woman. Such feelings are natural, I think.”