Beneath spotlights, the graceful 32-year-old geisha performs a traditional dance, moving like a butterfly and artfully unfolding and fluttering her fan. The audience would usually be a group of older, wealthy men, watching appreciatively inside a traditional parlour lined with woven tatami mats.
But today, Chacha’s audience is looking back at her from a computer screen, and ranges from a young woman with a glass of wine in her hand to a family with several curious children. “How have you been at home?” asks Chacha, addressing her audience. “I was playing ‘Animal Crossing’ all the time during the state of emergency!” she added.
While Japan has been spared the worst of the coronavirus outbreak, a state of emergency was declared during a spike in cases and the pandemic has nixed most forms of nightlife, including geisha parties. Despite Western misconceptions, geishas are not prostitutes, but rather entertainers and raconteurs highly skilled in traditional Japanese dance, musical instruments and games.
Almost everything in the repertoire of these performers – from singing and dancing in small enclosed spaces, to entertaining customers with witty conversation and delicately pouring sake in a customer’s cup – is at odds with the social distancing rules of the coronavirus pandemic.
This picture taken on June 13, 2020 shows geisha “Chacha”, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, in Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture, rehearsing for an online drinking party with clients. The Zoom session is organised by “Meet Geisha”. (Photo: Philip FONG / AFP)
That has been devastating for geisha like Chacha, who has seen her salary evaporate and is eagerly awaiting the arrival of government stimulus funds. “Usually we are very busy in April, May and June,” she told AFP. “But this year, we have no parties, zero.”
That’s where the online service has come in. It grew from a project called “Meet Geisha” – initially conceived as a way to bring groups of tourists to see geisha perform on stage in a more relaxed and less intimidating environment. Launched last year by an IT firm, it was supposed to capitalise on an influx of tourists, including those coming for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
But with the coronavirus pandemic forcing the postponement of the Games and shutting down international travel, the firm looked at other options. They approached the geisha community in Hakone, around 80km southwest of Tokyo, about an online option, said project manager Tamaki Nishimura.
“They are up for new challenges, not necessarily bound by traditional styles,” she told AFP.
While geisha culture is strongly associated with the city of Kyoto, communities exist throughout Japan, with about 150 active geisha in Hakone. “If it weren’t for the geisha in Hakone, I wouldn’t probably have got a yes for the online service,” Nishimura added.
Chacha admits she was initially confused by the idea. She doesn’t own a computer, just an iPad, and says she has no idea how to even switch one on. “I had a big question mark in my head,” she said with a laugh.
But with Nishimura’s help to organise the technical side, Chacha and a handful of other geisha are now able to offer their traditional arts in the most modern of formats: Zoom calls.
The online sessions offer income, but also a way to broaden the audience for geisha. “One objective of this service is to reach out to new, younger customer groups because the price is set at the cheaper end,” Nishimura said.
“Once we had a group of eight young people in South Korea who bought this service as a birthday present for one of them. That was a way of enjoying this that went beyond what we had expected.”
Michiko Maeda, 65, one of Chacha’s online female guests, said the new format had encouraged her to experience the traditional entertainment. “I think many people feel that geisha entertainment is not really for women,” she said.
“But once you know women can also enjoy it, initially online, I think more of us will go and visit Hakone geisha parlours. Right, everyone?” she said, as other female guests nodded in agreement on the split screen.
Chacha acknowledges the new technology “allows people overseas and those who cannot physically visit Hakone to meet me”. But she is hoping for a return to tradition when the rules allow. “Someday I want them to come here, see our performance live and interact with us for real. That is what I truly wish for.”
To participate in the geisha culture sessions, click here.
Photo: Han Min T/Unsplash