Aoi Saito has three names.
The first: Aoi. This is the name she asked me to call her by when we met on a cold April morning outside Sterling Memorial Library. She stood out with her shimmery magenta eyeshadow, pale skin and dancer’s perfect posture. In Japanese, “Aoi” is a near homonym of the word for blue. Sometimes, when Westerners cannot pronounce her name, she asks them to call her Blue.
The second: Saito-sensei, which is what her students call her. When Yalies file in for their morning Japanese class, they greet her with “Good morning, Saito-sensei!”
The third: Ichimiyo, her geisha name. She took the first part, “ichi,” from her geisha sister, her mentor. The last two parts — “miyo” — were given by a fortune teller at a Kyoto shrine.
Saito was a geisha in Gion, Japan. Gion is renowned for the geisha who live and work there, performing for and entertaining customers in the many teahouses scattered throughout the town.
To be a geisha or apprentice geisha, known as a maiko, is more than an occupation; it is a way of life. Only 15 when she arrived in Gion, Saito trained to be a maiko, a role typically filled by younger girls. She lived in a geisha house with other maiko. The oka-san, the proprietress of the lodging house, took care of their daily needs. Saito studied traditional Japanese arts. She practiced calligraphy. She played the flute. Each day, she went to various teahouses in Gion to serve and entertain customers, dancing to the classic song of Gion, the “Gion Kouta.” She was not supposed to smile or show her personality; the song was not about her. She was stepping into the persona of the maiko in the song. In the hills of Higashiyama, under a clouded moon, the singer pines for the maiko — her long-sleeved kimono, her vivid red lips, her face painted white. For generations, maiko have danced to this very song with exactly the same routine.
Every April, Saito would perform the traditional dance with dozens of other girls at the renowned Miyako Dori spring festival. Dressed in identical blue kimonos, flourishing beautiful fans, the geisha move in perfect unison. “This is a very Japanese thing,” she said. “We create one thing. It is not about the individual. It is not about me.”
Maiko were expected to speak elegantly and slowly, to obey everything the oka-san said. Above all, they had to be graceful and demure. Saito struggled especially with learning the Western dialect, which differs from the Eastern dialect she grew up speaking in her native Yokohama. On one occasion when she was entertaining in a teahouse, the customers offered her some alcohol. She was underage and not supposed to drink. But she didn’t care. Tipsy, she slipped into her natural accent, shedding the Western Kyoto dialect she usually put on to please the oka-san. Later, the teahouse owner admonished her. “Your speech, it’s very harsh,” she told Saito.
“Why do we have to be dolls all the time?” she asked.
Geisha society is highly stratified. What the oka-san says is law. “The first thing I learned was that if the head of the agency or a senior geisha told you white is black, you have to believe that white is black,” she told me. But Saito did not want to mindlessly obey. She would speak up if she thought her seniors were wrong. “Because of my personality and how I look, I was not popular at all,” Saito told me.
At age 15, Saito’s parents were going through a divorce and there was a lot of fighting in the house. “I was just tired of listening to them,” she said. Saito decided not to go to high school; instead, she wanted to start working as a geisha in Kyoto, even though she had never been to a teahouse or seen a geisha at work in real life.
“Since I was a child, I have always dreamed of living in the traditional Japanese way. I liked samurais and Japanese history,” she said.
Saito’s first year of training was difficult. Girls in training, known as shikomi-san, have to do chores and learn the customs of the town, including the local dialect. The oka-san was in charge of booking jobs for the geisha at local teahouses. She was strict and emphasised discipline in the house. Because Saito was outspoken, the oka-san did not like her. As a result, Saito struggled to find teahouses to perform and serve at. The oka-san would sometimes reassign jobs that Saito found for herself to a younger, prettier and more obedient counterpart.
During Saito’s second year in Gion, the oka-san passed away, and her daughter took over. Her daughter was harsher and more unsympathetic to the maiko than her mother because she had never gone through maiko training. In addition to the required maiko training, she assigned Saito to do most of the housework while the younger maiko rested.
“I would wake up, go to school, go back the house, cook meals, take care of the house,” Saito said. “At the time, I was thinking, I don’t know what I am doing anymore.”
The oka-san once scolded Saito for half an hour for calling underwear “pants” instead of “panties.” Another time, the oka-san asked Saito to record her favourite television show for her on Channel 4. When the oka-san realized the show aired on Channel 8 instead of Channel 4, she was furious with Saito.
But the scoldings were not always about trivial matters. The oka-san would often criticize Saito’s behaviour and appearance. “Now, I think maybe what she meant was that my attitude was ugly. But I was told, ‘You’re ugly, you’re ugly.’ And that’s what you’ll believe,” she told me. “I still don’t have any confidence in my appearance.”
She was miserable. When she told a friend about the situation in confidence, the oka-san got wind of her complaints and confronted her. “If you complain that much, leave,” the oka-san said. But Saito refused to leave. She blamed herself, thinking she had to be more patient to make the oka-san like her. “Based on their terms, leaving the town was a failure,” she said. She had also signed a five-year contract, required of all maiko, with the geisha agency. In exchange for receiving accommodation, food and geisha training, Saito agreed to work for the geisha agency for five years. If she left before completing the five years of work, she would have to pay the remainder of the money out of her pocket to the oka-san. Furthermore, she had nowhere to go; her parents had started new families.
During that grueling first year, while training to be a maiko, Saito had fallen down the stairs in the geisha house and dislocated her knee. She recovered, but three years later, the injury was further aggravated. Her doctor said she would not be able to dance professionally again. At 18, having been a maiko for three years, she had to leave the profession. She hadn’t previously realized that leaving was an option.
Despite feeling some relief, Saito was still determined to pursue her ambitions as a geisha. She wanted to train to play the shamisen, a kind of Japanese guitar. By being a shamisen player, she could still perform as a geisha, as shamisen music often accompanies geisha performances.
But her mother pleaded with her to return to school to get a high school and university degree. So she obliged. She passed the academic qualification examination that is equivalent to a high school diploma in Japan. Then, she went to Kanagawa University.
After graduating, she decided to come to America to study in a graduate program in applied linguistics at Texas Tech University. In 2013, she began teaching Japanese at Yale University. “I always tell my students, when I finished college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But without choosing this career, I’m here,” she said.
Last year, Saito finally went back to Gion for the first time since she left at 18.
“I felt like I couldn’t go back until I was an independent adult,” she said. “But I think now I achieved at some point [independence]. So I think I am not ashamed to see them again.”
She saw the owner of the teahouse Tondaya where she used to serve and perform. She saw the hairdressers who styled her hair before each performance and listened to her complaints. She saw her oka-san, to whom she feels grateful, in retrospect, for raising her during her formative years. When she first saw them again, she cried. It was like a homecoming.
Now, Saito goes to New York every weekend to learn the kabuki style of Japanese dance. It will be at least eight years before she gets a licence and earns a new geisha name from this school. Because being a geisha involves such commitment, Saito does not consider geisha dance to be just a performance.
“Geisha are not characters,” Saito said. “They are called by their stage name in the town; they have that personality. You are creating Japanese culture, you are preserving it, just in everyday dance. Maybe you don’t have much of your own personality in it, but you are keeping the tradition.”