Bebe Taian: Fiona Graham, AKA "Sayuki"

July 4, 2011

Fiona Graham, AKA "Sayuki"

Since finishing the series of geisha-related articles, I'd like to talk about a topic I brought up about a month ago. I was so angry at this woman's actions that I needed this long just to keep myself under control. I will try to be as organized and informative as possible, regarding my objections to her behaviour. 

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.

Fiona also previously had a problem with anyone knowing her real identity, stating that she wanted to keep her geisha life and her academic life separate. 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
Somehow, in the middle of her ten hours a day of classical geisha training, her actual geisha work hours, and her hours lecturing at Keio AND the time she would need to sleep AND answer virtually every e-mail she is sent at her website, she ALSO found hours to research what is required to start and run a business in Japan! That's right, she now owns a secondhand kimono shop, specializing in an ANCIENT GEISHA SECRET^tm, the TSUKE-OBI! Hers are special, of course! Except that women all over Japan have been using them for decades. Even I have at least a few, and can easily convert a normal obi to a tsuke-obi without having to cut it. AND, she's single-handedly saving Japanese women from the die-out of kimono culture by providing them! How on EARTH did the wearing of kimono last for a thousand years without Special Foreigners like Fiona Graham helping them put one on? The article talking about her business is filled with all kinds of other misinformation, but that's another post entirely. Firstly, I doubt that 80% of geisha wear tsuke-obi.

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
That's right. Discrimination because she's foreign. All those problems, and the "real" reason she got thrown out of the karyukai is that she's white. Funny, it didn't seem like they were ignorant of that fact when she was hired. Nor do they seem ignorant of the foreign status of the geisha Ibu, who is very clearly pale, tall, and blonde. Yet, she is never the subject of any scandal... How interesting.

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.


  1. I found this very insightful, interesting and above all shocking. I really enjoyed reading this... but yeah, this lady really needs to sort her attitude out!

  2. For someone so community driven Sala'il, I would have thought you would have been more engaged in helping promote Geisha by going all out to support them and help young geisha in Tokyo.
    The Asakusa geisha association never fired Sayuki and they have never said that anywhere. The only facts we know is that she wasn't allowed to open her own geisha house in Asakusa because she was a foreigner. Just like what happened with the first foreign Sumo wrestler.
    Perhaps you should look at her website and all the recent media surrounding her work. There are recent photos of Sayuki working with geisha from most the districts in Tokyo and many outside Tokyo too. They obviously agree to go to her banquets so they must have a higher opinion of her than you do on the basis of a lot more information. She has never said anything but praised for Liza Dalby’s achievements as an anthropologist and writer and her book is on her reading list at university. Liza Dalby was not a geisha because she did not debut. She was not regarded as competition by the other geisha because she was not one of them. That would be a very different perspective in Japanese society. Insider/outsider distinctions are extremely important here. If you are familiar with Liza Dalby and read her books, you would understand this. If you have not read her books, I suggest you do as they are quite fascinating.
    There is no national geisha association. There are only individual geisha districts, and quite a few individual geisha houses apart from Sayuki’s. Since you have been to Japan before you should have seen this in person hopefully.
    Singling her out for different treatment is unreasonable and obviously could cause her problems especially since you take this information from a news article that has been copied so many times that the information isn’t always correct. In the end she worked hard to get where she did.

  3. Yeah I can't take your criticism seriously when you say "the necessity of fire exits, or researching legal requirements of running a business in their country." Wakana is in New Zealand, and Graham is Australian. It's not her country, so it's not unreasonable to think she didn't know the requirements. Should she have done better? Yes. But you obviously missed this detail which kinda throws into question the rest of your article; obviously you are picking and choosing her most damning evidence to further your hatred of this woman.

    Look, I don't like Fiona Graham-- I found out about her because of looking up Liza Dalby, who's work I've read multiple times and I consider one of the first foreign Geisha. Her comments about Dalby are short sighted and ignorant and she is definitely a shameless self promoter. But despite this, the inherent bias in your blog is pretty off putting, especially when some of your comments are unfounded --she was dismissed from the Tokyo district, not the national Geisha association (because there isn't one) not because she was fighting but because she was refused independence as a Geisha when her okasan became ill and retired. She wanted to do it anyway, and did, and that probably upset them, and now she has been dismissed. She had to be dismissed to do it at all. I don't really begrudge her that honestly; independence was her only way to continue being a Geisha and in refusing her to act independently they killed that. As for the article, foreigners in Japan do face discrimination, hence signs like 'no foreigners' in certain establishments. It's rare, but it happens. Whether it's justified or not is moot, I'm just saying, it happens. Especially in traditional Japanese things, such as the flower-and-willow world. And I'm sure many people in the Geisha circles don't like her-- especially as she increased in skills. I'm sure the idea of a foreigner training/mentoring other maiko and geisha probably makes traditional Japanese aghast, but some gossip doesn't mean she was universally hated or disliked. I'm sure she has her share of lovers/haters in Japan.

    As for her comments about her wigs and looks... the size of her wigs? Really? I think she looks kinda odd, honestly, but also because I'm not used to a foreign face in geisha attire, but I don't think she looks bad, just different. In the picture you linked, there's no significant difference between the wig size of Graham and the lady next to her, nor is there in the presentation of kimono. I don't know what you are talking about.