Slowly and with a degree of grace that can only partly be learned, the geisha moves in time to the music. The notes of the three-stringed shamisen lute hang in the air and there is the faintest rustle from the elaborate, powder-blue kimono as it slips across the tatami-mat floor. Beneath the white powder make-up, the face is a second mask – one of concentration.
The trailing arm is raised with deliberation above shoulder height and remains poised as the geisha pivots on one foot. The chin dips lower, making the decorations set in jet-black hair shimmer as they catch the light. Holding position as the last note dies away and, amid a smattering of applause, the geisha gives a deep, demure bow.
At 26 years old, Eitaro is in the prime of a geisha’s career – although no geisha would ever be so gauche as to make such a claim herself. One of the first tenets of this uniquely Japanese tradition is that a geisha never stops learning and must take classes right up to her retirement.
Eitaro has had more to learn than most. The gracefulness exhibited in the dances, the feminine movements as drinks are poured, the coquettishness required when conversing with male patrons, the shy looks away at a compliment, the delicate hand covering a smile and the final wave as a customer is bidden farewell – none of this is likely to have come as second nature.
Eitaro is one of a kind: he is the only male geisha in Japan; indeed, the world.
“I started learning the skills that a geisha needs when I was 10 years old, although I didn’t really want to do it at the start,” Enosuke Hirose (Eitaro is his “stage” name) explains later, at a bar in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. “But my mother told me she would buy me a computer game if I did it the first time and it went on like that.”
Without the geisha’s clothing, make-up and carefully coiffed hair, the difference is remarkable. From being one of those almost fabled creatures of the “willow world”, as geisha reality is known, Eitaro has become a modern, urbane young man. On an evening off, he wears cargo trousers and trainers, coupled with a thin, tight jumper that shows off his slender frame. His hair is cut fashionably – short at the sides, longer on top, and hanging down in front of his eyes. He frequently flicks it away.
He carries a mobile phone and a brown leather portfolio with a notepad, on which he traces the history and timeline of the geisha. His fingers are long and elegant and his posture is erect; when he walks, it is with purpose. And when he speaks, he does so with the voice of a typical young man, although occasionally a mannerism or word that would be more characteristic of a woman slips out.
“The biggest clue when I am dressed as a geisha that I am not a woman is that I do not have the right shaped bottom,” Eitaro admits, with a ready smile. “Girls have different bottoms, more rounded, but mine is small and flat, so when I wear a kimono I guess some people can tell that I’m actually a man.”
Being male has never precluded a person from becoming a geisha – in the early days of the tradition, lots of men dressed as women to perform.
“I am the ‘mother’ of our okiya, or geisha house, so I must always introduce myself when patrons make a reservation for a party or come to meet me, so they know I am not a woman,” Hirose says. “And everyone in the neighbourhood knows I am a man, of course.
“But when I am in my geisha clothes and have make-up on, it is very difficult to tell the difference. And when we do performances on yakatabune party boats on the Sumida River or on Tokyo Bay, there are often foreigners taking part in the event and they have no idea.”
Hirose was not the first in his family to take the road less travelled.
He never met his great-grandmother, who was a geisha in Fukushima, north of Tokyo, before the war. Legend has it that she was wealthy, rode around in a rickshaw and had a good life, but due to the poverty and instability of post-war Japan, her daughter did not follow in her footsteps. Her granddaughter, Hirose’s mother, Mariko, did, however. Inspired by stories of the geisha world, she decided at the very late age of 25 to enter the profession. She joined an okiya in the Oi Bay district of Tokyo in the late 1980s.
Before the war, there were more than 300 geisha clipclopping on their wooden sandals between tea houses and restaurants in this particular hanamachi (literally “flower town”). By the 1980s, however, in a story that has been repeated throughout Japan – there were once an estimated 80,000 geisha, nationally, compared with just 2,000 today – the office that brought together geisha, patrons and venues had closed and the “willow world” had been replaced locally by bars and nightclubs. Today, there are only six recognised geisha districts and only the Asakusa neighbourhood bears any resemblance to the areas of their heyday.
Undeterred by inexperience or Oi Bay’s fading lustre, Mariko taught herself the basics, dressed as a geisha and started out as a “companion”.
“My mother wanted to make the geisha district bigger and make Oi as famous as it used to be,” Hirose says. “She could not do it all by herself, but no one else seemed interested. She left the okiya in 1990 and became independent, but the others in the business ostracised her and no one would follow her.
“That is when she decided her son would become a geisha. I was 10 and my sister, Maika, was 10 when she started studying, as well.”
Mariko Hirose would not fit anyone’s definition of a run-of-the-mill mother.
“My mother said I didn’t need to go to school if I didn’t want to, but as she had to pay for my school lunch I had to go there just for as long as it took me to eat,” Hirose says. “Then I would come home and study music and dance.”
He admits that wearing a kimono, a wig and the thick make-up of a geisha was embarrassing at first, but insists his friends never thought it odd.
“They were very supportive,” he says. “They said it was good that I was doing something different from playing baseball or football, and that I was good at things that no one else could do, so that encouraged me.”
Hirose – who says he enjoys jogging and dancing to Western music – worked in a restaurant in his late teens and admits he was not sure then about his career choice, in part because of the hard work involved. But when he was 20, his mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer and he moved back to her okiya, to help with the day-today running of the business she had built up.
Mariko died in 2009, and Hirose made his mind up then and there that he would continue what had become a family tradition.
As “mother” to the five other geisha – aged between 21 and 38, and including his sister – in the okiya, it is his job to make sure events are booked, his house mates keep up with their studies and their clothes are immaculate, among countless other duties.
A typical morning will see him practising dance, singing, the flute, the drum or the three-stringed shamisen for a couple of hours. His favourite performing art, he says, is traditional dance, but he admits he struggles to play note-perfect shamisen.
He prepares lunch for the other geisha and, when they have all eaten, they begin the laborious task of putting on their make-up and kimono.
Eitaro inherited his mother’s kimono collection and a pale blue one with delicate white details is his favourite. A new kimono would cost the okiya about 1.5 million yen (HK$140,000).
Hirose says he can get himself ready in just 40 minutes, if he needs to, but 90 minutes is the usual length of time it takes to perfect his appearance. Like all geisha, he has his own unique lipstick design: Eitaro favours a rounded shape in the centre of his pursed lips.
In the early evening, the geisha are dispatched to their assignments in venues across the neighbourhood, where they will serve guests food, pour drinks, engage in conversation and play simple games until it is time for them to demonstrate the skills for which they are named: two characters describe their profession, with gei meaning “art” and sha translating as “person”.
At the end of an evening, after the last revellers have taken their leave, the geisha return home and remove their make-up and kimono. By the time Eitaro has finished everything he must do, it is often 3am.
It is a routine that has changed little for the performers of the “willow world” for centuries.
The origins of the geisha can be traced back to the saburuko, or “serving girls”, of the late seventh century. Some sold sexual services, although those with a better education were able to earn a living by providing entertainment at high-class gatherings.
Their skills were increasingly appreciated in the Heian period (794-1185), when the arts, music and poetry flourished. By the early 1600s, “pleasure quarters” had emerged and the line between prostitution and entertainment had become blurred to outsiders. High-class courtesans provided dancing, singing and music as entertainment, but lower-class women had to sell sex to survive.
The term “geisha” only emerged at the turn of the 18th century, in the Yoshiwara entertainment district of Edo, modern-day Tokyo, and the first practitioners were men.
“There were three types of entertainer in Yoshiwara: the girls who served drinks, the prostitutes and the male geisha,” says Hirose. “Gradually, it was realised that the women made better entertainers, so some of the more skilled women took over those jobs and the men became the musicians to accompany them.”
The Japanese tradition of men dressing as women to perform can also be seen in kabuki theatre. The modernday equivalent appears daily on television in Japan and has become the chosen medium of men such as Akihiro Miwa, who has been a cross-dressing social commentator for decades, and many others.
Now in his 70s, Miwa is very much the grand dame of the onnagata tradition, the kabuki term for men who dress as women. Eitaro’s ambitions lie closer to home.
“My dream is to reopen the geisha office in Oi and rebuild the industry in our district,” he says.
What about his personal goals? He tilts his head to one side as he considers the question.
“There are six geisha in the okiya now, but I am not satisfied that I am able to give them everything they need,” he says. “When I have been able to give them enough skills and help them make enough money to live on, then I can think about myself.
“I would like to have a family and have children, but right now I consider the geisha to be my daughters. They are my No 1 priority and I have to do all that I can to take care of them.”