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Legendary Japanese Geisha Retires at 81

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kyoko Asari, second from left, performs a dance at a year-end party at a hotel in Akita in December.

AKITA — Kyoko Asari, an 81-year-old geisha long active in Akita, is set to retire on Thursday.

Known by her stage name “Wakayu,” Asari began working as a geisha in the Kawabata district at the age of 20. “I continued to attract customers, which allowed me to continue performing,” she said ahead of her final performance for regular guests at a long-established ryotei restaurant. “I feel a deep sense of gratitude toward my patrons.”

The phrase “Kawabata geisha” is thought to be the inspiration for the Japanese term “Akita bijin” (Akita beauties).

Kawabata gradually evolved into a “hanamachi” entertainment quarter as more and more geisha houses and restaurants moved into the district following a massive fire in 1886. There were more than 150 geisha entertainers in the district during the early part of the Showa era (1926-1989).

Authors, including Junichiro Tanizaki, visited the district and helped introduce local geisha entertainers as “Akita beauties,” likely helping the spread of the term throughout the country.

Asari was born into a large family in Akita and became part of an “okiya” geisha house in the Kawabata district at the age of 10. The geisha house trained her in dancing and singing “kouta” songs, while she continued to attend school.

Courtesy of Kyoko Asari
Asari is seen as a maiko apprentice geisha in 1958.

Asari made her geisha debut at age 20. She was skilled in such dances as “Takedabushi” and “Hatsuyuki” and quickly became popular. At that time, Japan was enjoying a period of high economic growth and Asari was repeatedly called upon to entertain at private parties — sometimes as often as three times a day.

Performing for high-ranking politicians, professional baseball players and members of the Imperial Household, she would read newspapers every day so as to hold up-to-date conversations.

However, in the 1980s, private parties with geisha became less popular. In her mid-40s, Asari temporarily dropped out of the geisha world. Furthermore, agencies that once dispatched geisha to high-class ryotei restaurants had all but disappeared by 1992.

However, the declining Kawabata geisha culture received a number of fillips from 2014 including the establishment a company that dispatched of Akita maiko apprentice geisha, and the reinstatement of the Akita Kawabata Geigi-ren organization.

Asari subsequently taught young geisha the dance for “Sake no Akita” — a famed kouta song of the Kawabata district — and informed them about geisha culture, including etiquette for New Year ceremonies. She also returned to the stage. “I didn’t want the long-established Kawabata geisha culture to disappear,” she said.

Asari has long cherished the words “pride and dignity.” However, upon noticing her the muscles of her lower body weakening with age, she decided to retire. “If I can’t turn in perfect performances, there’s no point being a geisha anymore,” she explained. “I don’t want people to see me performing poorly.”

Geigi-ren comprises six performers, including Asari. One group member, Shino, said: “[Asari] is a small geisha but her dance seemed larger [than life] and her presence was extraordinarily strong. I’d love to take lessons from her and seek new ways for geisha to thrive in the future.”

Asari has schooled young maiko and geisha entertainers in various dances, as well as teaching them about related rules and etiquette.

“She’s a legendary Kawabata geigi [geisha],” said the chairperson of a group that supports Akita Kawabata geigi entertainers.