A usual, sugar-coated image of a maiko stands in the opposite of Tatsuko Takaoka’s story. Tatsuko’s—later named Chiyoha, Teruha, and, eventually, Chisho—fate was heavy with tragic circumstances tied in a clichéd metaphor of blood, sweat, and tears. These three eras of her life were stained with fame, jealousy, depression, suicidal thoughts, faith, hope, and unfulfilled love.
Nara-native Tatsuko was born in 1896, as an illegitimate child. This fact made Tatsuko an easy target of the abusive custom of selling out “excess” children from the families. She ended up, during her early years, in a geisha house located in Minami district of Osaka. It was decided that Tatsuko will be trained to become a geisha, due to her striking beauty, glary personality, and obtained art skills. Thusly, Tatsuko transitioned into maiko Chiyoha of Osaka at the age of 13. Dressed in a heavy brocade kimono, with her face painted white, and under a glimmery stage name of “Eternal Leaf” (千代葉), she was pushed into a grim world of romance, fear, shame, and rivalry. She first discovered, abruptly, the bond of body liquids with a chairman of Osaka stock exchange, Kameshichi Umehara. The first guest in her bedroom was way too old, way too mature, yet way too rich to decline his offer.
“In such a situation, I just learned to give up without resisting. I couldn’t get angry, nor feel regret. I was not what I had been anymore. Unconsciously, I branded myself with an impurity that could never be washed away.”
It was only a month after her debut as a maiko. Chiyoha completely indulged in her new reality and a creeping hunger for unconditional love. But she wasn’t blessed with a wild heart only. Her face was stunning – round, symmetrical, adorned with big almond eyes, rosy cheeks, and melancholy-sealed lips. She was adored by many, yet truly loved by the minority of them.
An actor from the Ichikawa clan was the first man who conquered her fluttering heart. The erotic tension between them started to be unbearable, especially after Chiyoha’s engagement with Sobe Otomine, a wealthy businessman from Osaka. Her primary lover, however, decided to head back to Kyoto. Here came despair. Her fragile heart could not accept this loss. They started secretly dating again, with a helping hand of a teahouse owner. For the success of this mystification, Chiyoha promised to marry yet another businessman, this time from Nara. Shortly, the relationship with Ichikawa darling happened to disenchant the 13-years-old maiko. Handsome, caring, rich, and devoted Otomine was precisely the one she has been searching for.
“Though I harbored ill feelings about the world I was sold into, I found myself climbing to the peak of popularity as a Maiko. But, as my popularity grew, my humanity was being corrupted.”
Soon, the fate took out a cruel card for Chiyoha again.
Due to the injury of Otomine, the bride- and groom-to-be settled in Beppu sanatorium. Naive Chiyoha took there, carelessly, a mirror case with Ichikawa’s photo tucked inside, as she believed that a fading memory of him was somewhat worthy to be cherished. The day Otomine opened the mirror case was the last day of their engagement. Although divorced, Otomine couldn’t consider anyone with an “impure” heart to be his future wife. He, allegedly, chose Chiyoha just because he thought that she’s never been in love before.
Back in Osaka, it was getting cold outside, and Chiyoha’s heart was filling up with cold, too. She was obsessed with a particular scene (yubitsume), derived from a theatre play she has seen earlier—to prove her innocent love, a maiko cut off her finger and offered this morbid gift to her lover. Chiyoha felt the time running out. Her mind was stuffed with paranoiac thoughts. She couldn’t wait any longer. It was the moment of truth. With a sharped razor in one hand and a shamisen string wrapped around a little finger on the other one, she looked in the mirror one last time and rushed to the table in her dressing room.
“I held the razor the other way around using the four fingers of my left hand and turned the cutting edge to the little finger. I then covered my left hand with a handkerchief, and brought it down hard on the table—again, and again, and again”
The bloody tip got chopped off. Chiyoha finally obtained the proof of her innocence, long lost in the darkness of the brutal world. She shoved her slaughtered body part into Otomine’s hands.
“It’s me! I give this to you!”—Chiyoha cried.
The incident hasn’t brought back the love of her life, nor any consolation. She gained lots of fame instead. Some believed the teen was a witch; others considered her a freak. “9-fingered maiko” quickly became to float around as the hottest name in town. Osaka tore her tormented soul for half. Her reputation was in shambles, as well as her mental health. After her 15th birthday, Chiyoha moved to Tokyo to seek a better life. The year was 1911. Teruha, “the shining leaf”, was born.
The name (照葉) originated from a traditional theatre play “Teruha Kyogen” by Izumi Kyoka, which genuinely impressed Motaro Goto, an owner of the Seika geisha house where Chiyoha sheltered.
Her peaceful career in Shinbashi was, once again, disturbed by Otomine. Seeing him, Chiyoha’s heart fleeted. The short pinky finger has always been reminding her of this tragic affair. How could she ever want to live without him by her side? This incident led to a dreadful conclusion for both—a suicide pact. Strongly convinced about the idea in the beginning, they backed off in the end. The romance, once in flames, was already dead.
“However, after that, my emotions did flare up for the men of my choosing, and many sad and tragic love affairs followed—some overlapping, and some without love. There were also times when a sense of duty or situation caused me to become the mistress or passing lover of many men.”
Teruha eventually started dating numerous notorious men. She became the top geisha again and gradually accepted her own soft spot for scandals and liaisons. She was sweating out her old-timed sorrows in a boudoir with lovers’ bodies pressed against hers sinuously.
It was until she reached the age of 22 years old, when she decided, one more time, to marry. But all of her three marriages failed. She was already a famous sweetheart all around the country, and even overseas—due to the popularity of the postcards she modeled for.
Teruha was a hard-working woman not only at the photography studios and teahouses, but she also excelled as a writer. She has learned all by herself how to read and write (women’s education wasn’t even popular this time). Since then, she maintained a diary, full of short stories, poems, and essays. Later on, she published an autobiography.
Her troubled mind, the mind of an artist, was infected with depression and suicidal thoughts, however. She has always kept the idea of self-destruction back in her head. Teruha attempted to annihilate herself few times, with no success anyhow.
One of her marriages, with New York’s stock exchange member, was particularly remarkable. She went all the way to the United States and dismissed her own geisha career, just to find out that her husband was actually an amateur of alcohol and adultery.
In return, she flared into vivid affairs and wild parties with big names of Broadway and Hollywood. Teruha, although, took good care of her mental agility as well. She attended science school, dorming in the suburbs of New York. During her scholarship, Teruha fell for Hildegard, who happened to be a girl. She has become her literal English rose.
Time passed and the botched married couple headed back to Japan. Teruha’s husband—who in fact didn’t care about the same-sex liaison—found out her reprisal affairs with other men. He has started abusing her to the point that she escaped to Europe. Travelled to London and Paris, she ended up giving birth to a daughter at the age of 28. Her daughter’s fate remains unknown.
“Every time I look back over my past, I’m seized with a sense of hatred and disgust. There were so many times when I gave myself over to sexual desire, was drunk with liqueur, and led a wild and arrogant life.”
It was 1934. Teruha was 38 years old, full of regrets, remorse, and weeping grief. Her smitten soul, so hungry for love and acceptance, strived for an asylum. She was a nerve wreck, balancing on the thin edge between life and death. Men were a constant disappointment, sleep could not bring rest, drinking could not bring forgetfulness, nor forgiveness and dying was not an option. The Shining Leaf progressively withered, yet it was decayed from the moment it was born. She turned into a ghost, cloaking somewhere in between the careless happiness of oblivious surroundings.
All of this threw her into religion and, ultimately, scandalous Teruha became a Buddhist monk. She tended to blame her long, gleaming black hair for her bad choices and lack of love luck. Teruha was a fashion girl—she liked to style the hair in sokuhatsu hairstyle, choosing it over greasy traditional shimada. Living in a temple meant giving up on all of the glamour luxuries linked with the previous life. That included the hair.
After she shaved her head, Teruha kept the jet black hair in a box, as a reminder of her sufferings and lifestyle she wanted to get rid of. As a symbol of purification, she has also changed her name to the final Chisho. The temple she chose as a refuge was Kyoto’s Gio-ji, a famous destination of broken-hearted women. The temple itself was founded by sisters, Gio and Ginyo, who trapped themselves into a miserable triangle with Kiyomori Taira. Eventually, Gio-ji established as a shelter for devoted ladies who seek consolation for their spirits; later managed by Chisho.
“I cannot die without meditating over my life in silence”
But Chisho didn’t remain silent for all of the 60 years of her priesthood. She actively and openly talked about her troubled life, her mental health, and poor choices. It was her duty to educate people and break the seal of stigma off depression, neurosis, and constant fear. As a dedicated writer, Chisho published two books: “Bird Eating Flowers” and “The Long Life of a Leaf”. Finally, her guilt washed away.
“Now, I really feel I am only a dewdrop”—Chisho’s last haiku, written on her deathbed
Chisho passed away on 22nd October 1994, reaching the age of 98. She wrote in her diary, just before her death: “I want to fly in the sky with my dad, even if it’s only a dream. Every child has a dream”. She was buried with her hair in the box that she used to hide in her modest room. She rests in the soil of Gio-ji temple, covered in rich green moss and ferns. The unfortunate doom, eventually, did not win.
Photos by Rob Oechsle and Blue_Ruin1