An Australian who became Japan’s first Western geisha is determined to continue in her role despite being told she cannot operate independently as she is a foreigner, a report said on Monday. Fiona Graham, known in Japan as Sayuki, said she had asked Tokyo’s Asakusa Geisha Association if she could become independent after the “mother” of her geisha house became too ill to continue in that role. “I asked the geisha association, given the circumstances of my mother, if they would allow me to become independent in December,” she told The Australian newspaper. “I was told very directly that the reason I couldn’t have tenure was because I was a foreigner.”
She denied reports that she had split with the professional association but admitted her current status was unclear. Britain’s Sunday Telegraph reported that Graham had quit the body after being accused of breaking the customs of the geisha world by failing to attend music and dance classes and focussing too heavily on self-promotion. “She was in the association for more than three years, but she did not take part in lessons and she did not follow our rules,” an unnamed geisha told the paper. Graham said she had the strong support of some geisha sisters from both Asakusa and other districts and would continue in her chosen profession. “I have had enormous support from Japanese customers and I certainly plan to continue being a geisha,” she said.
But Graham, who joined the ancient and secretive world of the geisha in 2007, said the rejection stung. “Being the first white geisha was the hardest thing I have had to do,” said Graham, who went to Japan as a 15-year-old exchange student and attended high school and university there before completing a doctorate at Oxford in England. “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.”
Geishas are the artist-entertainers of Japan’s pleasure quarters and for centuries have fawned over wealthy guests in the cosy confines of teahouses and restaurants. Known for their flowing kimonos, sculptured hair and immaculate make-up, the geishas’ role is to sing, dance and chat with their clients to help them forget about day-to-day concerns.