Fiona Graham is a woman who introduces herself as the first white/foreign geisha, formerly working in the Asakusa district. She is actually an anthropologist who works/ed at Keio University since 2009, and part-time TV producer. She claims to have produced various things for National Geographic, BBC, and NHK, but never says what or when... just before promoting her forthcoming documentary about herself. The only works that anyone has found are books about Japanese companies, not geisha culture, with the exception of a book about herself that is supposed to be published.
There is so much wrong with this that it's going to take some time to point out all the BS in her story and actions.
Firstly, she is NOT the first foreign geisha. Russian geisha were on the rosters as far back as the early 1900s. Currently, there is a Ukrainian woman named Eve/Ibu working in Japan as well. You know why you never hear about her in the news? Because 1) she doesn't make a big deal about being white, and 2) she isn't picking fights with the geisha community. The "other" first white geisha many people hear about is a woman named Liza Dalby, an anthropologist who grew up in Japan. During the 1970s, on a trip to document geisha culture, the geisha of Pontocho, Kyoto, suggested that the only way she learn about them is to become one. She dressed, acted, and lived as a geisha for some time, while expressly informing the women she worked with that she was doing it as a cultural study and had no intention of making the choice a lifetime career. She never went through the mizuage process, which is like a marriage ceremony into the geisha profession. Whether or not she truly qualifies as a "real working geisha" is debated because this was done for educational purposes, regardless of her experiences doing ozashiki parties with other geisha. But Fiona- she looooves telling everyone that she's the FIRST foreign geisha, when she most clearly isn't. One would think that someone who has studied geisha culture for years would know a little about their history.
Yet, she herself was the one who released her name and personal information about herself- and then got angry when it reached back to Japan, where she lived and worked. Her website is in English and Japanese. What did she expect? If her expectation was that the clients she met while acting as a geisha (ala Liza Dalby) would be disappointed that she was actually an anthropologist, why release that information to them? And if she DID have the expectation of working as a fly-by-night geisha for a year before releasing her book (in 2008) and later, a film documentary, then she has no right to call herself a geisha at all, regardless of the fact that the okiya officially accepted her (under the pretense that she would continue to work as a geisha). She is one or the other- she cannot be both. The roles are incompatible. Where is she getting time to give lectures at Keio when geisha training, even in Tokyo, can take ten hours a day before working all night? Clearly, she's missing some classes.
She also insults Liza Dalby by stating "The difference is like between participating in an army open day as opposed to going through boot camp," in regards to the fact that Liza never became officially licensed. Oh yes, the rigorous Kyoto training (the toughest, longest training in all of Japan) that Liza participated in was like 'army opening day', whereas Fiona's one-year Tokyo training was 'boot camp'. She doesn't mention that one of the many reasons that Liza was accepted into the ranks to begin with was her traditional Japanese musical and dance training from childhood, whereas Fiona was starting from scratch. If anything, the reason that Fiona could become a geisha at all is because Liza Dalby paved the way forty years ago! Fiona's lack of graciousness and thought in her words decidedly marks her as being unlike a geisha. She has also reportedly said some very nasty things to anyone who asks probing questions about her discrepancies, and sometimes to anyone who posts photos of her. She especially attacks anyone who holds a negative commentary of her actions, requesting that they edit themselves or remove their words altogether. Apparently, someone is not familiar with the concept of 'free speech', which we hold here in America. It isn't libel if there's evidence, Fiona!
|Fiona Graham, by Kawasaki Satoko|
She also apparently owned a business under "Wakana Gym", which she was fined something like $70K for hazardous building conditions, inaccessible fire escapes, etc. and was reportedly contemptuous and deceitful towards the courts. That was back in 2010. One might have thought that an author who had previously written about business would know something about, say, the necessity of fire exits, or researching legal requirements of running a business in their country. One would apparently be mistaken.
If she's working so hard at being a geisha, how is she finding the time to run TWO businesses AND act as a professor? The answer? She isn't!
Well, not anymore, at least.
She got fired in February of 2011. Do you have any idea what it would take to get fired from an industry where the house leaders are DESPERATE for recruits? Let me frame this concept for you: a national industry with not even a few thousand workers left, of every rank and skill level, many of whom are elderly and without current trainees, is desperate for workers- no matter where you come from, with little regard for beginning skills because they can always be brought up with the required five-ten hour a day training classes. And they fired her.
Why? Because she was throwing fits like a child, fighting with her elder geisha sisters, badmouthing other geisha to her clients, taking clients while illegally working independently, not attending training classes, attempting to recruit 'younger sisters' to train under her without permission of the geisha association, and saying some interesting things about people's husbands- public slander. All of the "geisha skills" she possessed, and the "super-hard training" she went through? Yeah, neither ever happened. All those loud, obnoxious "YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT I GO THROUGH TO TRAIN! IT'S REALLY HARD!!!" complaints, completely without basis.
Her take on the ordeal? "They're against me because I'm white! Waahhh! Why can't I just walk into a closed society with traditions, rules, and regulations as a foreigner and NOT become wildly popular despite not following ANY of those rules, just like Sayuri?!" Ah, self-entitlement and cultural appropriation. A double-whammy! AND she is still explicitly running her "geisha" business without being registered with the National Geisha Association.
|Fiona in Jan. 2011, from Daichuji|
Finally, I'm not even going to get into appearances in-depth, which is another pinnacle of a geishas' repertoire. Appearance is what, 40% of the deal? The rest is in classical training, proper behaviour, and timeliness. Basically, a geisha tries to appear very well manicured at every moment, as a matter of habit. For a woman making $300USD per HOUR in Japan, she doesn't seem to have any kimono that fit her properly. If she does, then she lacks the skill to wear them properly. I'll admit that my own kitsuke is not perfect, but I am wearing secondhand items, mostly from an era where the average woman was a foot shorter than me and had hips ten inches smaller- and even then, my kitsuke often seems to appear more put-together than hers does in photos. The collars are not quite smooth, and the front looks messy where it's tucked in the obi. All one has to do to correct it is tug smoothly at the front to under the arms, where the tucks of excess width should be made. I do it all the time because any kimono that fits my around hips will be roughly 15" too large for my bust- that's a BIG difference in size! I could also swear that I've seen that very kimono on Ebay recently- maybe it was hers? I thought I had seen it back in February, around my birthday... perhaps it was merely a substantially similar one.
The wig size in various photos, the makeup styles she's worn, previous kitsuke attempts over the years... I could go on for quite some time. In the beginning, she was a trainee, so I cut her some slack despite my doubts about her behaviour. She needed the opportunity to learn. Many geisha start off with secondhand items from other geisha, and they cannot be expected to always fit well, so I was lenient. However, with four years of "work" under her belt (2007-2011), I expected her to have become more proficient and invested.
How many of us would jump at the opportunities she had been presented with? How many of us would happily submit to whatever arduous training becoming a geisha requires, just for the chance at calling ourselves by that name? She had these opportunities and more, and wasted them all. I am disappointed. I am disappointed in her, and I am fearful for what her actions could mean for any future foreign applicants to the geisha association. Indeed, I am fearful for what example she could have set for foreigners in Japan in general.