Sexual assault, depression and attempted suicide might not be what tourists to Japan and even Japanese people themselves associate with the world-famous geishas, traditional entertainers in kimonos with elaborate hair and make-up who are trained in traditional Japanese performing arts.
But viral tweets by a former maiko – an apprentice geisha – have highlighted that there is criminal and sexist treatment amid the centuries-old and secretive culture.
Kiyoha Kiritaka, 23, sparked debate when her posts lifted the lid on her time as a maiko in Kyoto’s traditional district of Pontocho.
Maikos , usually aged around 15-20, learn to sing and dance and play traditional instruments during parties and banquets.
But Kiritaka’s brave revelations, based on her experiences at 16, have shown there can be a real dark side to “what people see as traditional culture”.
She said she faced sexual harassment, where customers would “reach under my kimono and touch my breasts and crotch”, but when she told the head of the Geisha house, known as okasan, “she got angry at me and said it was my fault”.
In her tweets, which were shared or ‘liked’ around half a million times, Kiritaka also said she had been “forced to drink so much alcohol” and pressured into bathing with clients but managed to flee. The legal age for drinking in Japan is 20.
She wrote that she had virtually no protection from her okasan at the okiya (teahouse) she worked at for eight months. She even said she might “get killed for tweeting about this but if nobody speaks up, nothing will change”.
She claimed her okasan even proposed selling her virginity for 50 million yen (S$494,400), although “I would have received nothing”.
The allegation, among Kiritaka’s wave of comments online in June, shocked many in Japan, reaching Japanese and English media, especially since sex work was made illegal by the Anti-Prostitution Act of 1956.
But Kiritaka said she could deal with online anger and wanted to raise awareness. “I wanted people to discuss this topic and
Kiritaka is not the first to denounce abuse within the industry. Mineko Iwasaki, a famous geisha, talks about rape in her autobiography, Geisha of Gion .
Tamas said the geisha culture “mixes men with alcohol, money and women. The type of work they
Macintosh said okiyas were enforcing stricterrules, including requiring that younger maikos be home by 10pm. He also said the industry was trying to attract more female customers, who currently make up around 20 per cent of his tour clients.
Mental health and well-being is in greater focus too, according to Tamas, with more conversations on the subject taking place. She also sees tea-houses helping employees develop new skills to help them reintegrate into society, like English and driving lessons. Many young women stop being a geisha when they get married or because the schedule is too intense, while some become okasans .
“There’s this belief that, since they didn’t finish high school, geishas can only become hostesses if they leave the tea-houses,” said Tamas. “But they [the tea-houses] want to change this perception and prove being a geisha can be an asset for any career.”
Meanwhile, Kiritaka still receives messages from former maikos who have had similar experiences and wants to continue to advocate for their voices to be heard.
Now, the young mother-of-one has a new career. “I want to tell many stories through writing and videos and make sure smaller voices can be heard by others as well. This includes raising awareness of maikos .”
An October tourism meeting in Kyoto showed Kiritaka’s testimony is still making waves, with the discussion acknowledging that much must change if maikos are to combine tradition with well-being.
“We’ll have to wait and see if there are other maikos who will come out and say, ‘me too’,” Tamas said.
This article was first published in Asia One . All contents and images are copyright to their respective owners and sources.