• Social Series

Kyoto Geiko Quarters / 91-Year-Old Geiko Mentor Draws on Long, Rich Career; Returned to Teach Young Generation 40 Years after Retiring

Courtesy of Tae
Tae around 1954, when she worked as a geiko in the Soemoncho district of Osaka

This is the second installment in a series that follows two women in Miyagawacho, one of the five “kagai” geiko quarters in Kyoto — a 91-year-old veteran and a 26-year-old who became a geiko a year ago.

***

Much has happened in the life of Tae, a 91-year-old entertainer called geiko, Kyoto’s term for a geisha.

The oldest “big sister” in the Miyagawacho district of Kyoto, Tae was brought up by her mother, who was a master of the Fujima school of traditional Japanese dance. As a result, Tae has studied dance from a very young age.

In March 1945, her house burned down in an air raid on Osaka. Tae evacuated to another location in the city, but in June it too came under threat and she moved to Takamatsu for safety, where she saw out the rest of the war.

Even amid these dark times, Tae aspired to become a geiko or maiko female entertainer, a profession in which she could use her artistic skills. In 1953, she made her debut as a geiko called Fukuemi in the Soemoncho district, one of the five geiko quarters in Osaka’s Minami area.

As the 1970 Osaka expo approached, entertaining foreign guests at high-end ryotei restaurants became an important task. Tae therefore started to learn English at a language school. She translated her geiko stage name Fukuemi and made foreign guests smile when she introduced herself as “Happy Smile.”

As the economy slowed down after the Osaka expo, Tae was asked by her shamisen teacher, “Why don’t you start to teach younger people?” In 1975, she retired as a geiko at the age of 42.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tae goes on the stage in Kyoto in October.

A turning point came around 2016, over 40 years after her retirement, when Tae visited the Koma-ya teahouse and okiya live-in establishment in Kyoto’s Miyagawacho district as a guest. While there, she was asked to instruct younger people by proprietress Fumie Komai, 79, who knew Tae had a rich career and experience.

Tae had thought she would never work as a geiko again. However, she said, “If I teach, I will perform myself.” So, she made a fresh start as a geiko of Miyagawacho in the spring of 2017, at age 84.

With experience abroad

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tae, right, accompanies Taeno as she makes her debut as a geiko on Nov. 22, 2022, in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto. They made a pledge of sisterhood on the day.

Taeno found a job at a company, but she started to be concerned about her future while working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She wanted to live a life in which she dedicated herself to mastering one thing, and the idea of becoming a maiko or geiko emerged in her mind. Taeno learned the tea ceremony and traditional Japanese dance and made a presentation about kagai entertainment districts to foreign students studying in Japan during her school days. For these reasons, she adored the world of geiko.

Taeno contacted Koma-ya, which recruited geiko and maiko entertainers on its website, knowing that she might be rejected. She told the proprietress Komai about her enthusiasm, saying, “I want to be able to carry on the tradition and convey its appeal to foreign people.”

Komai replied, “The hurdles will be high.” Compared to girls who become maiko between the ages of 15 to 19, Taeno was seven or eight years late.

However, Komai accepted Taeno for her positive attitude. “We will have more opportunities to welcome and entertain guests from overseas countries. We would like you to help us,” she said.

For one year before their debut, trainees learn the Kyoto dialect and etiquette and take lessons in dancing and musical instruments while helping their senior geiko and maiko. Tae, who also belongs to Koma-ya, saw Taeno organize shoes in the entrance hall and load a car with shamisen and thought that Taeno was attentive and organized.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Taeno, third from right in the front row, and other maiko and geiko greet Fumie Komai, the proprietress of Koma-ya, a teahouse and okiya live-in establishment, in Kyoto in October.

For her part, Taeno respected Tae for her thorough knowledge of the skills required to be a geiko.

Komai subsequently picked Tae to be Taeno’s “big sister,” which means her mentor in the world of geiko. Usually, geiko make their debut after completing a trainee period as a maiko when they are 15 to 19.

A geiko around 30 years old often becomes a mentor for a maiko. However, Taeno was 25 years old when she made her debut. Since she started as a geiko without working as a maiko, Komai thought it would be easier for Taeno if her “big sister” was much older than her.

Komai said to Tae, “I want you to carefully watch Taeno grow and help her.”

Two sisters were born 65 years apart.