TOKYO — Unlike most mothers, Noriye’s was far from thrilled when her daughter started her first job after university. “She was shocked and was really worried about me,” the young woman said. “She told me it was a waste of education. She wanted me to become a public official in the local government because it’s a stable job.” But after 18 months of rigorous training, Noriye entertained her first customers as a geisha at a Tokyo ryotei restaurant — an upscale eatery specializing in traditional Japanese dishes.
Although she has forgotten much about that winter evening, she does remember the nervousness beforehand. That is hardly surprising. In the highly stylized environment of the ryotei, where every gesture is subject to strict rules of etiquette, there is little room for a false step.
That was more than six years ago. Now Noriye plies her trade in the nine remaining ryotei of the Asakusa district in eastern Tokyo, along with 45 other geisha, or “sisters” as she refers to them. Although she has completed her training, she insists she will never stop learning. “Even the older sisters who became geisha as teenagers, they are [now] over 80 but still train every day,” she said.
“You can never be perfect, and there is no retirement age.” Her mother’s concern, however, was not baseless. This exclusive corner of Japanese society has been in decline for many years. A sluggish economy and changing attitudes mean people are less inclined to pay the $400 charge per customer for an evening of geisha entertainment. “[My parents] knew that the number of geisha was declining and the ryotei were decreasing,” Noriye said.
Geisha numbered as many as 80,000 in Japan during the 1920s, and were still part of a thriving industry as recently as the 1950s and ‘60s. According to Keiji Chiba, 66, manager of the Asakusa geisha union, there were about 3,000 geisha in Tokyo when he started working at the union in 1962. That number has since fallen to around 650.
Noriye is a curious mix of old and new, East and West. Born in Los Angeles when her father was transferred there by his company, she moved back to Japan a year later, returning to the United States when she was 6 years old. The family lived in Maryland until she turned 11. She is fluent in English and can speak conversational Mandarin, thanks to a little over a year as a university exchange student in Taiwan.
Though her great-grandmother, grandmother and a great-aunt all were geisha (Noriye inherited her professional name from them), Noriye never gave much thought to becoming one until her junior year at college. At first, she just wanted to learn traditional manners and etiquette, so she approached her great-aunt who owned a ryotei.
“During my training, I was so moved by the sisters’ hospitality and artistic [skills],” she said. “Little by little, I was moved and felt that I wanted to try.” After months spent mastering the intricacies of how to wear a kimono, greet customers and serve a meal — skills required of any geisha — Noriye progressed to the artistic side of her training, which continues today. She takes regular lessons in traditional music, dance, tea ceremony and conversation.
Refusing to divulge her real name or age — “We are ageless” — Noriye represents a secret world that has long been the domain of the rich and powerful. Wrapped in an expensive silk kimono and disguised behind a white mask, she is an alluring enigma. “We have to make the guests happy and make sure the guests’ business goes smoothly,” she said.
“The older sisters know [instinctively] when they enter a room; they can sense the atmosphere of the guest and know whether they should talk, be quiet or drink.” Enamored by the exclusive and impenetrable nature of this pricey form of entertainment, the West has fixated on tales of titillation. But Noriye is quick to point out that the relationship between a geisha (gei means arts and sha is person in Japanese) and her customer is not about sex.
“I think the reason the misunderstandings about geisha continue is because we have no comparable group in Western society that people can [compare] them to,” said American anthropologist Liza Dalby, who spent a year researching geisha in Kyoto. “Also, of course, there is the ‘exotic’ factor that leads people to fantasize about geisha.”
Of particular fascination has been the role of the danna, or patron. Such a person was portrayed by Ken Watanabe in the film version of Arthur Golden’s book, “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Nowadays, however, few men have the financial means to support a geisha. “You really need a lot of money,” said Noriye, who dismissed “Memoirs” as “Hollywood fantasy.”
For a typical evening’s entertainment at a nearby ryotei, Noriye is paid around $100 for about two hours’ work. That’s after the union takes its 25 percent cut. “I wouldn’t recommend being a geisha if you want to earn [a lot of] money,” she said. “You can earn a little more than a salaryman, but there are so many expenses for classes and getting kimono cleaned.”
In addition, she is expected to regularly update her wardrobe of about 60 kimonos, which range in price from $2,500 to a staggering $35,000 each.
Makoto Sasayama, 77, who met his first geisha as a nervous, young company executive in the 1950s, says that some of Tokyo’s top geishas can make up to $250,000 a year.
Like Noriye, most girls don’t become geisha to get rich. Some are seduced by the glamour. Unfortunately, said Noriye, this often doesn’t prove to be enough of a motivating force for some young apprentices when the severe training starts. She has seen many drop out. Others have gotten married and left.
Mr. Chiba, the union boss, said that increased job opportunities for women means fewer young women seeking to become geisha. He is more concerned about the struggling ryotei, of which there were 75 in Asakusa when he started. “If the ryotei disappear, then we can’t continue,” he said.
Mr. Sasayama shows a similar sentiment about geisha numbers. “They hit the bottom a couple of years ago, but now more [university] students are interested in becoming geisha,” he said. The ryotei, he added, are aware that their survival depends on change. “I think the system of membership to ryotei will change and become not as strictly controlled,” he said.
In Asakusa, Mr. Chiba said, the union is already dealing with the crisis by bringing in tour groups for special introductory banquets with geisha.
Despite apocalyptic proclamations from some quarters, Miss Dalby, the anthropologist, thinks this pocket of Japanese culture is not in jeopardy because geisha numbers have fluctuated for decades, according to the economic health of the country. “I believe geisha have found their niche by preserving the traditional forms of the geisha arts,” she said.
“Their numbers will never grow much, but, on the other hand, I don’t think they will disappear.” Later, as Noriye clip-clops through the neighborhood in her wooden geta sandals, bowing to passers-by and friends on the street, she explains the attitude of her fellow geisha in the face of an industry on the wane: “We don’t think about that. We have to keep our traditions in Asakusa,” she said before heading off to get ready for her first appointment of the evening.