By Ma Zheng, Fang Yixiao
Wearing thick white powder, red lips and a stunning kimono, every twinkle, smile and glance back by Eitaro, Japan’s only male geisha, is like a gentle wisp of spring breeze that warms the heart.
In the female-dominated profession, Eitaro is trying his best to revitalize this centuries-old tradition of geisha and is winning the recognition of both Japanese and international audiences. With the expansion of his popularity and uniqueness, he has been invited to perform in many private geisha parties, public relations events and TV programs.
During an interview with Xinhua at his apartment in Tokyo’s Shinagawa area, he told his stories beneath the heavy make-up and behind the red-lipped smile.
Born into a family of geisha with his great-grandmother and mother being charismatic geishas, Eitaro began studying dance, singing, playing instruments and etiquette when he was only 10 years old.
Among all the skills that a geisha is supposed to learn, Eitaro said the most difficult for him is how to put himself into a female role. Because of this, he once received lots of criticism and had a tough time, doubting whether it’s right for a man to take a woman’s job. But after years of training and practice, the grace, charm and tenderness revealed in his performance could not be told apart from that of his female counterparts.
When his mother died of cancer, Eitaro, then at the age of 23, and his sister had to take over the family business of running an okiya house which was built up by his mother. There were 10 geishas under the house, but half of them left because of declining orders from restaurants and teahouses.
“In order to complete my mother’s wishes and revive geisha culture, I have to overcome all the difficulties and stick to it,” said Eitaro.
Geishas started to emerge in the 17th century in Japan. Though geisha nowadays is women-centered, the first geishas were men, entertaining customers with traditional drums, singing and comical dialogues. Women gradually become dominant as they are considered flawlessly beautiful, elegant and highly skilled due to their rigorous training and constant learning up until their retirement. It’s no exaggeration to say that geishas are the epitome of traditional Japanese culture.
With the invasion of western culture and the popping up of bars and clubs, the streets of geisha districts are quiet in Japan’s neon-light cities, leaving many geishas unemployed. The number of geisha is decreasing dramatically with only about 1,000 performers now. During the glory era, however, there were 80,000 geishas across Japan.
Eitaro remained persistent despite the decline of the culture. “Geisha won’t vanish from society even though its influence is becoming weaker. We must work very hard to provide excellent services to our customers and let more people appreciate this culture,” he said.
In a Japanese restaurant located in Tokyo’s Ginza area where Eitaro frequently performs, he offered to dance specially for the journalists. Wearing the distinctive geisha make-up and holding a folding fan, slowly and gracefully, he seemed to walk out of an ancient Japanese painting accompanied by the music of the three- stringed shamisen and the singing of a classical song.
One of Eitaro’s regular customers, an old man pointed out that geisha inherited many traditional Japanese cultural legacies such as wadaiko, a Japanese drum, singing and dancing. “These need to be protected,” he said.
Eitaro is now training young geishas to pass on this time- honored culture. He hopes through his effort, geisha can be revitalized so more Japanese and people from other countries can appreciate the beauty of this endangered art. Enditem