As Japanese ex-maiko spills the tea on sexual assault, will other geishas say #MeToo?
- Kiyoha Kiritaka, who was a maiko – a trainee geisha – when she was 16, has lifted the lid on the secretive culture surrounding the youngsters
- The now 23-year-old details cases of sexual assault, depression and attempted suicide, although experts say harassment is not the norm
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 (US$338,000), 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.
Fast forward to 2017 and the would-be pimping was the last straw for Kiritaka, who decided to leave the geisha world.
She told This Week In Asia she was depressed and found life difficult for a while following her time as a maiko, but knew of others worse off. She tweeted that she could not “watch girls in my industry continue to attempt suicide and develop depression”. While Kiritaya did not mention rape, there have been others working in the sector who have.
Kiritaya, who has more than 69,000 Twitter followers, said she could not understand in “our age of diversity” why the industry was thriving, saying maikos were still admired by many people, including women.
‘Nobody talks about it’
But silence seemed to reign in Kyoto. “Everybody heard about it,” said Canadian Peter Macintosh, a geisha event organiser who has worked in the sector for 30 years, “but nobody talks about it”.
The selling point of the culture “is privacy. You don’t talk about your experience with clients”, good or bad. “Once you break the code of silence, you’re on your own.”
Carmen Tamas, an academic at the University of Kobe who heads a Japanese language and culture programme, spoke to some of Kiritaka’s colleagues who implied the young woman was a “troublemaker” who “tarnished their reputation”.
Tamas said geishas see themselves as preserving Japanese culture and are “a really tight community”, so Kiritaka’s outburst was very unwelcome.
She has been accused by netizens and the industry of being after revenge, attention or money. Such accusations are not uncommon for survivors of sexual assault testifying publicly in Japan, with the issue taboo to many.
But Kiritaka said she could deal with online anger and wanted to raise awareness. “I wanted people to discuss this topic and [disagreeing] is a normal thing.”
Public testimonies are rare in a country where just 4 per cent of rape victims report the crime, according to government data. In addition to limited support given to sexual assault survivors, geishas being a “sacred symbol of Japan” polarised opinions against her, Kiritaka said.
But as dozens of former maikos have contacted her over the years to share their experiences, even before the tweets – the maiko world is small – knowing she was speaking out on behalf of others helped her to continue.
“Geishas and maikos are cut off from the general public which makes it difficult or impossible to call for help,” Kiritaka explained.
Maikos usually start their training at 15 with most leaving their family and friends to live in a teahouse. Their schedule leaves them little time to rest as they practice traditional arts during the day and meet clients at night, often not sleeping before 3am.
Personal mobile phones and computers are banned, so the youngsters communicate with the outside world through landlines or handwritten letters. Furthermore, they only receive a small amount of the money they earn, as most of it goes to the teahouse.
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 [geisha] do is not exactly conducive to protection against sexual harassment”.
However, Tamas and Macintosh said sexual harassment was not usual in the industry. Tamas noted that most tea-houses were strict about safety measures to protect geishas and there was training on deflecting unwanted advances. In 2014, it was reported that some tea-houses were organising self-defence classes.
“Generally speaking, people don’t go to geishas to have a sexual experience, especially when the hostess business is so developed,” Tamas said. “They want to enjoy a traditional experience.”
But she said that poorer establishments, a minority, “do not necessarily share the same ethics” and might be less inclined to protect maikos when trying to make money.
Overall, though, she said the geisha community was willing to evolve and improve, knowing it does not attract nearly as many women as it did. There are around 600 geishas in Japan now, compared to 80,000 in the 1920s.
“Okiyas are going to be even more protective and more careful of the well-being of the maiko [now],” Tamas said. “They want to keep this Japanese tradition linked to purity and joy; they don’t want to taint this image. And if [Kiritaka’s] thread is true, and if it happens on a regular basis, it’s not possible to keep this image.”
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.