Coronavirus shadow casts a pall of gloom across Tokyo's geisha districts
November 24, 2020

Coronavirus shadow casts a pall of gloom across Tokyo’s geisha districts

TOKYO (JAPAN) – Well known as “big sister” in Akasaka, Tokyo’s geisha district, Ikuko came to the city when it first hosted the Olympics in 1964. But now the pandemic has made her concerned about the prospects of her profession, which is centuries old.

Geisha are known for their beauty, witty repartee and skills in traditional arts across Japan. However, their numbers are coming down. For months at a stretch, Ikuko and her colleagues were jobless given the state of emergency. Now they have been permitted to work but with strict social distancing norms, which she and other geisha believe are a hindrance.

“There were more than 400 geisha in Akasaka when I came, so many I couldn’t remember their names. But times changed,” said the 80-year-old.

She said hardly 20 geisha remain in the district and getting new recruits is hard.

With the pandemic-induced austerity, people are not open to spending time with geisha in elegantly decorated closed spaces.

Business in geisha districts is down 95 percent in the wake of social distancing norms that prevent geisha from pouring beverages for guests, shaking hands and sitting less than two metres apart. To make matters worse, wearing a face masks is cumbersome for the geisha as they have to sport elaborate wigs.

Draped in a black silk kimono splashed with irises, Ikuko said: “When you sit close, you can talk with feeling, your passion comes through. When you’re two metres apart, conversation breaks down.”

Apart from the geisha, performers of “jiutamai,” an ancient dance performed by women, makeup professionals, wig makers, kimono sellers and tailors are hard hit by the coronavirus, worrying that the rise in cases could further put their professions in peril.

Wig maker Mitsunaga Kanda said: “Every single one of my events has been cancelled.”She specialises in supplying wigs for the geisha and dancers.

“We touch their skin and their face, all over, and while we don’t talk we’re very close – something we’re very aware of now,” said Kanda.

Despite the fact that the ancient city of Kyoto is celebrated for its geisha, the Japanese capital boasts six geisha districts. But fewer women are joining this profession because of the rigorous life riddled with artistic practice stretching for hours.

Three decades ago, Akasaka had 120 geisha. But now only 230 are left in the whole of Tokyo.

The pay depends on how popular the geisha is and it depends on the ability to entertain the guest with witty conversation, something which made Ikuko very famous. And that can be acquired only over the years. Another deterrent is the cost of lessons and kimonos.

“Our income has been down to zero,” Ikuko said. “I have a bit of wherewithal, but it’s been very hard for the younger ones. The geisha association has helped with rent.”

Members of the geisha fraternity are eligible to apply for 1 million yen in government subsidies and most of them did.

“I was just full of anxiety,” said fellow geisha Mayu, 47. “I went through my photos, sorted my kimonos..

“The thought of a second wave is terrifying.”

“We arrange things in the largest room possible,” said Shota Asada, who owns the luxurious restaurant where the geisha welcome guests. “Anything to keep this culture alive.”

(Photos syndicated via Reuters)
This story has been edited by BH staff and is published from a syndicated field

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