Bebe Taian: Maiko in Time/Life Magazine, Sept. 11 1964

November 10, 2013

Maiko in Time/Life Magazine, Sept. 11 1964

National Treasures, Demure and Chic - The Girls
by Tom Prideaux
TIME/LIFE Magazine - September 11, 1964 (Showa)
Special Issue: Japan

LIFE's Entertainment Editor has for background in this report 20 years of girl watching as a respected Broadway critic.

Whether, as the old song says, she is poor butterfly 'neath the blossoms waiting for her lover, or happy butterfly waiting to welcome you onto your hotel elevator, the Japanese woman is a national treasure. At her best, she is a living art form and a living doll, and much too good to be true. But she is true, at least wherever I saw her.

I am talking here about the kind of Japanese women you see readily in any city, the ones who are sprinkled through business and pleasure to make life easier and livelier and prettier. Japan put armies of young women to work in factories and offices, but it also employs thousands more like lilies of the field, neither to toil nor spin, but mainly to gladden the heart and beautify the scene.
In Tokyo's elegant new Hotel Okura, for example, the elevators are all automatic, but each one, as excess cargo, carries a pretty kimono-clad girl whose sole duty is to press buttons and coo good morning or good night like a lovesick nightingale.

The use of girls to cheer the public on floor-to-floor flights is further demonstrated in most Tokyo department stores. The famed Takashimaya store employs 16 escalator attendants or E-girls, who stand like angelic sentinels by each escalator and bow every customer onto the moving stairway. Every gesture has to be just so. If a customer asks where something is located, the E-girl may point, but never with her finger. Her hand, according to strict rules, must be turned palm upward, and then extended gracefully in the direction of the desired merchandise. And that isn't all. She must execute an additional 30-degree bow, topped off with a modestly seductive smile. By this time, who cares for the merchandise?

Tokyo offers many opportunities for girl-watching not always connected with business or progress. If you want to watch just two or three girls, including one you bring with you, go in the late afternoon to the Yeh Lai Shan tearoom, a three-story cafe on the Ginza. In this dimly lit hideaway you will behold a beautiful apparition named Kazuko Hamada rising in filmy white and silver like a goddess on an elevator stage. From her floating platform, which carries a small orchestra and stops at each of the three floors every few minutes, Kazuko sings Ramona, Ave Maria and other Western tranquilizers. I found this a pleasant switch; instead of watching E-girls watch me go up and down, I simply watched Kazuko go up and down.

More strenuous girl-watching takes place at the Albion, a basement cafe which looks like a mad scientist's laboratory. Its low ceiling and walls are studded with red light bulbs which throb in unison with the recorded music. The whole room seems to pulsate in the throes of an electronic peristalsis. The girls, too, appear to be controlled from a switchboard. They stands - about 20 of them - among the tables, wearing tight white shorts and shirts treated to glow with a ghostly light. When the music and lights begin to vibrate, they clap their hands, twist their hips and sing squeakily some rouser like Fujiyama Mama. They are not allowed to sit with customers, make dates or enter into lengthy conversations.

Girl-watchers who demand more - well, slightly more - reality in their girls can find it a few floors above the Albion. There in a bright little rooftop revue the girls did one remarkable number inspired by the Ascot Gavotte in My Fair Lady. Almost nude, except for their plumed hats, they proceeded briskly to cover and uncover various areas of themselves with big muffs, all according to a master plan which I did not understand. To urge them on, a Japanese tenor in a pearl-gray top hat sang in ragged English On the Street Where You Live. It must have been quite a street.

But whereas cabaret and show girls are common to many lands, Japan has a unique specialty: the club hostess. A second cousin to the traditional geisha, these up-to-date sirens dress either in smart Western fashion or in colorful kimonos. Their habitat is Tokyo's 10,000 bars and cabarets, and they are the main feature of the city's famed good-time zone which is poetically called "The Floating World."

Chieko, 22
Golden Akasuka Club
The Japanese have a gift for ambiguity, and when you try to define the status of the club hostess you run up against Japanese ambiguity in all its glory. But instead of letting yourself be irritated by apparent contradictions, I recommend that you rejoice in them.

Is the hostess a prostitute? Certainly not. Does she sell her favors? Yes. Is she easy to know? Yes and no. Is she a hustler, what we call a B-girl? No. Not quite.

To nail down one simple fact, the club hostess is regularly affiliated with one bar where all she is required to do is egg on a customer to buy as many drinks as possible - for himself and her, and sometimes for her girl friends. She is paid according to many varied and complicated systems. In modest bars she may get 100 yen (28 cents)* for every drink you take, and two thirds of the price of every one you buy her. In more pretentious bars she may get a flat rate per night (1,500 to 3,000 yen) plus tips. At big clubs like the Golden Akasaka 1,000 to 1,500 yen an hour is added to your bill for the pleasure of having her sit beside you. She expects no tip.

This kind of arrangement, of course, is practiced with variations the world over. But a Japanese hostess carries it off with a minimum of wear and tear on herself. By sheer force of character, and with a venerable tradition to back her up, she hangs on to her integrity, her ladylike manners and sometimes even her romantic illusions.

A lone man going to a bar may be met at the door by the mama-san, who will show him to a private table where he is joined by a hostess. If he prefers, he can perch at the bar, survey the unemployed hostesses sitting at the back, and tell the bartender which one he'd like to meet. Then he will be shown to a table where she will join him, and the amenities begin.

Since most Japanese assume it is only natural for human beings to sleep together, a hostess expects to be invited to spend the night. But she does not feel at all obliged - and this point is of crucial importance - to accept the invitation.

She is mistress of her own decisions. She can pick whoever appeals to her. And since she gets her rake-off on the sale of liquor, she is not so hard-pressed financially that she has to just grab anybody. A hostess seldom goes with a man the first night they meet. She likes to be pursued and wooed. The chase and the flirtation are more important than the kill. She expects, as all Japanese women do, to be considerate of a man in certain respects, like lighting his cigarets, holding his coat and seeing him served first at the table. But she still enjoys being complimented, not so much on her beauty, but on her clothes or hairdo. In short, with the wisdom that Japanese women bring to their relationships with men, she creates an atmosphere that is warm and unmistakeably feminine. It helps her. It helps the man. It helps love. It helps business.

Tokyo Girl Show at Nichigeki Theatre Performer
Most hostesses are unmarried. A few have husbands, or are divorced or widowed. They live better
than most factory or shop girls, and many settle down to become good wives and mothers. They often save up a nest egg, and a few have lent considerable sums to their patrons to tide them over a financial crisis.

The hostess has a reputation for honesty. Many a foreign visitor has awakened in his room to find his companion has dressed and flown the coop. In panic he imagines she has rifled his luggage and raided his wallet, only to find the dear girl hasn't snitched a Kleenex, and may even have put out his clothing in neat little piles.

My acquaintance with a girl named Yumi was limited to a drink at the bar. Yumi had spent seven years (she said) in Thailand as secretary to an engineer, and that experience had sharpened her perspective on conditions at home. "Young Tokyo girls are getting Americanized," she said. "But we must realize that we are Japanese, and keep old-fashioned things."

Then Yumi began counting primly on her fingers: "Keep polite, keep sincere, keep honest." I had the feeling that she was giving me the Japanese hostess's equivalent of the Girl Scout oath; and I politely said goodby.

All this is not to imply that the hostess is a saint. On the job she will ply her victim with sweet talk and liquor in order to boost her percentage of the bar tab, and she will juggle her boy friends to reap the maximum monetary rewards from them all. But she has her ethics, her hopes, and in true Japanese style she manages to have her rice cake and eat it too.

To visitors and native Japanese alike the club hostess is a wonderful invention combining the advantages of both "nice girl" and courtesan. But in big cities her influence on Japanese home life is not necessarily salutary. Almost every Tokyo worker makes a habit of indulging himself with one of these girls for an hour or so after work. Going to bars is considered part of every man's business, and a great deal of Japanese business and the entertaining of clients is carried on here. Some husbands find it so easy to make alliances with these not too costly and handy girls that they neglect their wives. The wives, in turn, feel stuck on the shelf and don't bother to beautify themselves - which only compounds the trouble.

The more stable relation that a Japanese man establishes with a geisha is less disruptive to his family life and, despite the encroachments of the club hostess, the geisha is still in business. To see her shrouded ricksha, which looks like a telephone booth on wheels, being drawn between screeching trucks and taxis at the evening rush hour, is to feel a link with the past. And to see a geisha step out of her preposterous conveyance, her face painted like an archaic statue, her body wrapped in brocade and her lacquered hair twinkling with trinkets and flowers as she scurries into a private club, is to catch a whiff of glamor compared to which a diamond-studded star stepping out of her Cadillac at a Hollywood premiere is just kid stuff.

In reduced numbers the geisha still reigns in most Japanese cities, but she seems most at home in Kyoto, which up until 1868 was Japan's capital. When evening falls over Kyoto's ancient amusement quarter - called the Gion - and the big paper lanterns begin to glow above the narrow streets, the geisha descent like birds of paradise from their apartments and clatter off on foot to their parties and banquets. Most geisha, like royalty, are escorted by a woman in black who guides the geisha's steps and helps her arrange her hair and kimono when she arrives.

The geisha, according to the encyclopedia, is a "person of pleasing accomplishments." She dances (slow swoops), sings (shrill ululations), plays a small drum and a stringed instrument called a samisen, and does puzzles and match tricks, some of which she learned from visiting GIs. Her magnificent costumes may cost up to $12,000.**

The question most often asked by male visitors is, "Will she spend the night with me?" The answer is generally no. By any definition the geisha is not a prostitute. And by her own definition - she insists on this - she is an artist. A geisha goes through a period of training almost as rigorous as the education of a ballet dancer.

I visited Kyoto's famous geisha school one morning, which like most Kyoto buildings has to be entered through a small courtyard. School was not in session. But we were met there by two or three household servants - little old bowing women - who led us into the head mistress and dean of geisha teachers, Yachiyo Inoue. The school is also her home. She is a tiny, austere lady about 65, with neat black hair drawn up tight into a bun, black eyes and a plain gray and white kimono. She has a reputation for being a tyrant. But I liked her.

Madame Inoue told us that Gion girls used to start training at the age of 6, and became maiko (a sort of junior geisha, traditionally a virgin) at 12 or 13. But now the labor laws require that a girl must finish junior high school, usually at 16, before she can become a maiko. Madame said her own curriculum includes dancing, singing, and the art of hairdos. Her exams are given to a few girls every month, and about 20 girls pass every year. The total maiko population of Kyoto is about 55.

Children decide to become maiko, and then geisha, because their parents are too poor to support them, or because their friends have done it, or because the tradition runs in the family. Their services are usually contracted for in advance by a woman - often an ex-geisha - who keeps a stable of maiko and geisha, invests heavily in their education and costumes, provides room and board and books them for parties and other occasions. A maiko slips into geishahood around 20, and then may acquire a patron. He must pay for both the girl and her costumes, which are included like a dowry.

When a woman gets a patron, it is a major event in her life, not unlike a wedding. If the patron can afford her only on a part-time basis, she delivers to her close girl friends a bowl of rice dyed red, meaning that they will still see her at parties. But if she delivers a bowl of white rice, it means her gadabout days are really over, and she will be a stay-at-home.

A visitor to Japan can arrange for a geisha party through his hotel or inn, or through business friends. Girls are usually booked days ahead. I interviewed two maiko and a geisha in a large Gion building consisting of several private dining rooms with restaurant service. We knelt around a low table, with a small jug of sake and a snack composed of a few green peas, codfish roe and a cold mash of sea urchins. Once again, I was struck by the ease with which Japanese girls sink to the floor, and then move around as if they had roller skates on their knees.

Senko (left) and Kanoju (right)
It surprised me that the two teen-age maiko, Kanaju and Senko, were the most elaborately adorned. They wore clown-white makeup, heavy eye shadow and trailing kimonos with long floppy sleeves. They looked like children at a fancy dress party, still living in a world of toys and games.

By contrast, the geisha Yuriko was far more conservatively dressed, with natural pinkish makeup. At 20, she seemed to have put aside childish things. Yuriko stayed for only a short time - she had other appointments - so I talked with Kanaju, who was full of little curves and laughs, had pink flowers nodding in her hair, and would have fitted ideally into Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado trio, "Three little maids from school are we."

When I asked Kanaju who was her favorite movie star, she giggled. Then she clapped her hand over her mouth as if to push the giggle back inside. Then she swallowed it and you could see it going down. On the way, it made her shoulders shake, then her breasts, and finally her stomach - which quivered like a pidgeon settling into its nest. At last she answered, "Tony Curtis."

The other maiko, Senko, was no beauty. But she had an impish, intelligent face, and spoke fairly good English which she had learned in school. She explained that she wore a cluster of butterflies in her hair not all year around, but just in "spling". She told me that she and Kanaju, along with many other Kyoto maiko, were dancing at a local theater in the annual cherry blossom festival. But Senko was generally discontented. She explained that it took 30 minutes to fix her hair, that she had to sleep on a wooden pillow in order not to disarrange it. "They let me wear beautiful garments and go to interesting places. But I can't find satisfaction. I go bowling twice a week. I go to swimming pools. But I have no real boyfriend." Her bitterest complaint was that she had no free time that she could count on, no set holidays, no Sundays off. She summed it up with suppressed outrage, "I am never certain."

Senko was silent for a few seconds, as she seemed to conjure up her favourite dream. "I want most to go to college," she said, "and then be a bride." She spoke the last word slowly, taking pains not to mispronounce it "blide" as she had "spling." It was too important a word not to say right.

In Senko you could see the strains and conflicts of a changing Japan. She wants to be a modern girl, but she is trapped in a traditional role. In one way or another, almost all the girls of Japan are caught in this same dichotomy.

As I left Kanaju and Senko and stepped outdoors among the lanterns of the Gion, it seemed as if I had wandered into an earlier age. There happened to be no cars in the street, and if any modern merchandise were being advertised by the Japanese signs, I didn't know; I couldn't read them. Suddenly around the corner swept a geisha under full sail, as if she had been blown lightly across the centuries without a hair out of place. And then the modern world roared up to the curb, in the form of a taxi. The geisha an her attendant went off - probably to a party in another quarter of Kyoto - and all at once I felt encouraged about the future of the girls and all they stand for. The geisha and the taxi were not only co-existing, they were cooperating. If this kind of thing can happen in Japan, it can happen anywhere.

*BT Note: 28 cents in 1964 was $2.08 in 2013 dollars.
** $12,000 in 1964 was $89,165.44 in 2013 dollars.

UPDATE:  Google Books has a copy of this magazine, but because it's in scans, I don't think it's T2T (Talk to Text) compatible with reader programs for the visually-impaired. Thus, the point of typing all this up. ^_^ Please thank IG user Ichiemi (Andrew) for finding it and correcting Kanaju's name. She is Kanoju, and she became a geiko for a long time!


  1. Replies
    1. Yes, TIME and LIFE were once owned by different people, and at the time were two different publications. However, LIFE later became published by TIME, so contemporary readers may not realize that they were once separate identities. This particular article came from LIFE.