I Dream of Geisha

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I wrote in an article a while back that there were no more Geisha in Japan. I was wrong, there are. My friend’s mom is a Geisha — a real one. No kidding.

Contrary to what you might have heard, Geisha are not prostitutes. They are high-class entertainers. A real Geisha is hired to entertain guests at a party. They can sing, dance, are skilled in a variety of traditional musical instruments; they are excellent speakers and conversationalists; some can speak foreign languages quite well and some of them even do stand-up comedy.

Geisha have all sorts of mysterious rules that have been passed down through the generations. One of those rules is never revealing their true identities. Geisha are like movie stars in that they always use stage names. No one outside of their small circle or company knows their identities. Of course their customers do not know what their real names are. Geisha do not carry identification cards. They don’t need a card. Nobody would dress and wear makeup like a Geisha without a good reason. For example: being a Geisha.

Geisha will always use stage names like, "Matsu-chiyo" (One thousand year-old pine), or "Sakura-yakko" (Cherry blossom person). Although names with the "yakko" affixed at the end have become old-fashioned.

Many would argue with me and say that Geisha are prostitutes. But that would allow for a very wide interpretation of that word’s meaning. I won’t dwell on this point except to say that Geisha are not prostitutes in the western sense of the word and that everyone in the world — regardless of various considerations — has their price.

I meet foreigners all the time who like to brag to other foreigners that they are experts on all things Japanese. They claim to be Japanophiles. The foreigners that they brag to believe them because they know no different and the self-proclaimed Japanophile can usually speak some Japanese, has read many books on Japan, or has been here or lived here for a while. Even though I must admit now that there are indeed real Geisha in Japan, I will also add that I’ve never met a foreigner who I would consider a real expert on Japan. I guess I must include myself. The reason I don’t consider any of these foreigners real experts is that they do not play pachinko.

Pachinko is the game of choice for the average Japanese. It dwarfs all other forms of recreation in this country in terms of money spent. The Pachinko Industry claims 110 million Japanese play pachinko per year. That’s almost the entire population of Japan. I think those numbers are wrong. I would guess it to be closer to 200 million per year. When I go to pachinko I always see the same people as well as new faces.

How can any foreigner claim to be an expert on Japan if they don’t play pachinko with any regularity? I don’t think they can. Unfortunately, even though I don’t believe that there could ever be an expert on all things Japanese — myself included — I do play pachinko regularly. I say unfortunately because, as is true with any form of gambling, I usually lose when I play pachinko — just like everybody else.

I suppose the ultimate understanding of pachinko for a foreigner would be to have played it so much and lost so much money that they have come to have a love/hate relationship to the game. I can see that. I can also see where you’d get so frustrated playing pachinko, and in turn losing so much money, that you’d swear the game off forever. I can see that too.

Matsu-chiyo at 16 years old. In her pre-Geisha days as a u201CMaikou201D (Geisha in training).

My friend who has a Geisha for a mom is named Ken. Ken has been telling me that his mom is a Geisha since I first met him. I never believed him. I always thought he was pulling my leg. But I believe him now. And if you’ll just bear with me, I’ll prove it to you too.

Many years ago, when there was a Soviet Embassy in Tokyo, it was a place that was always surrounded by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of riot police and guards. There are still police booths every 30 yards or so that ring the entire perimeter of the building. I had walked in front of the embassy a few times and always felt uneasy at that place. Inside the always-locked wrought iron gates, the Soviet world seemed desolate, lifeless, cold, and black and white. In many years of walking down that street, I never saw, even once, anyone going in or out of that place.

Up until a few years ago, the U.S. Embassy was the entire opposite side of the coin. It was a bright place, with trees and flowers, smiling guards, and an always-open gate. There used to be one or two guard-men standing at a guard-post in front of the embassy and that was it. Not anymore. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo today is now what the old Soviet Embassy used to be like. Now there are dozens and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of police in riot gear there. Huge police riot buses are parked everywhere. It has become a very dark and foreboding place. Demonstrations are no longer allowed — and I’m not talking about on the embassy grounds. The U.S. government has strong-armed the Japanese into forbidding any sort of public gathering anywhere near the embassy. Now you cannot walk near the U.S. Embassy without someone asking you what you are doing.

No more posing in front of the embassy for souvenir photos either.

I supposed that there used to be so many riot police around the old Soviet embassy because of the bad stuff the Soviet empire was doing with killing people and just-in-general screwing up people’s lives in other countries. The Japanese government was probably worried that some sort of protests might get out of control. They placed tons of police there to make sure that it didn’t happen.

I also suppose it would follow reason that since the U.S. Embassy is now a well-guarded fortress — just as dark and dank as the Soviet one used to be — this situation came about because of the bad stuff the U.S. government is doing with killing people and just-in-general screwing up people’s lives in other countries.

Oh, what a difference a day makes.

The Russian Embassy has now replaced the Soviet one in the same building. Strange, but there aren’t one-tenth as many police roaming around there as there used to be. Maybe they were all transferred to the U.S. embassy? I even walked in front of the Russian Embassy about two weeks ago and the gates were wide open for the first time I’ve ever seen them open. And when I passed by, two young, pretty, blonde women walked out of the gates speaking Russian and laughing. What a bright and sunny place it seemed.

For the first time in my life, I thought the Russian Embassy seemed a charming European home. Today, the U.S. Embassy has become a frightening place that you do not want to visit unless you absolutely have to. I hear also that the British Embassy has become almost as bad as the U.S. one. Almost.

What does all of this have to do with proving the existence of Geisha in Japan in this modern age?

Well, on February 15, 2005 at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon, the Queen Elizabeth Society held a party at the British Embassy for the British Ambassador and his wife and guests. All snooty high-class types were invited. Inexplicably, my name was not on the list of guests. I believe the sign at the door said something like, "No Riff-Raff Allowed."

I hear it was a grand affair. They served their hors d’oeuvre (called King of Norway canned sardines on saltine crackers for the rest of us); had their Mot et Chandon and Dom Perignon champagne; schmoozed with kings and queens; and were entertained by a real Geisha. The real Geisha was — you guessed it — Ken’s mom. Now this, in itself, doesn’t prove that Ken’s mom is a Geisha. But this next part does:

If you or I were to go to the British Embassy today, we’d get thoroughly searched — like I mentioned, the U.S. Embassy is even worse. It’s because the terrorists are everywhere, you know. If you or I tried to enter the embassy, the guards would ask us our business, search all our bags, empty our pockets, check our identification; we’d have to walk through a metal detector, the entire nine yards. And, even at that, they might not let us in.

But when Ken’s mom walks up to the gate in her complete Geisha wardrobe and make-up, do they ask questions or require any sort of identification? No. They just let her go on in. Why? Because everyone here knows that Geisha carry no identification. If they did carry an identification card, then they just wouldn’t be Geisha, would they? So, there’s no point in even asking. Who else could pull that off? No one, except a Geisha, that’s who. You or I wouldn’t get within 200 yards of the place without any identification. You just know that if somebody with their entire face covered in make-up — even a super famous person — like Ronald McDonald tried that, they’d bust his red pants, cuff him, and throw him in irons and chains. He’d never see the light of day again. But Geisha get top security clearance!? No problem. Come on in! Unbelievable! This could only happen in Japan.

That proves it for me. Undeniable proof positive evidence of the existence of Geisha in modern Japan… Well, the existence of at least one.

And not only does this Geisha exist, she can just bow and go right through tight high-security areas, like the British Embassy, without anyone even blinking an eye. It blows my mind.

Now if I find out that there are still Ninja running around in Japan (legend has it that Ninja can fly, make themselves invisible, and walk through walls) you’ll know that security at the embassies is in for some really big trouble.

Not to mention the problems to be had if Osama Bin Laden learns to play the Koto, sing and dance a few snappy numbers, tell a joke or two in Japanese, and wears a lady’s dress.

Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has worked as an independent writer, producer, and personality in the mass media for nearly 30 years.

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