Geisha in the Age of Coronavirus

2020, a highly anticipated year, was expected to be groundbreaking, especially for Japan. The upcoming Olympics were exciting not only for the tourists but also for the business owners who invested a lot in one safe bet: the sports games would make the economy great again. The tourism industry, in particular, was thriving in 2019 indeed and 2020 would only accelerate the boom. Because of it, it might have been secure to assume that tourism is an endless gold mine of Japan. The increasing number of tourism-related services is overwhelming, especially in Kyoto and Gion, where even the famous school for geiko is being transformed into another hotel. But then, the most unexpected and terrifying thing has happened—the coronavirus pandemic, described by the Japanese prime minister as “the biggest crisis since the II World War”. What does it mean for the geisha business?

An antique store on my way back to the Sanjo station

I’m writing these words while a state of emergency is being declared in 7 of the 43 prefectures in Japan, including Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo, Fukuoka, Saitama, Kanagawa, and Chiba. It might be a bit surprising that Kyoto is not up for any precautions with its 133 confirmed cases and one death (as of 7/4/2020). Although these numbers might not be as spectacular as in Tokyo (over 100 confirmed infections daily), Kyoto seems to be especially vulnerable for the threat of a pandemic, as it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan. Obviously, with the international travel ban, there’s no possibility to visit Kyoto from abroad anymore, however, the ancient city is still a hub for the domestic sightseers. Kyoto’s citizens are already concerned about the busiest holidays of the year, Golden Week, coming in a month. But would the state of emergency change anything anyway? This might be a controversial question. In fact, the prefectural officials are not legally able to enforce a full lockdown of any city in Japan. While schools, universities, art venues, and other facilities remain closed, outdoor activities, shops, and public gatherings remain uncontrolled. Unlike in Europe or the US, a park or playground full of children, a lively izakaya, or café packed with customers is not a rare sight anywhere in Japan today. A social distancing behavior is only advisory, not mandatory. The temporary closing of a business is much up to personal choice. Therefore, even the highest-risk establishments can operate as usual—including food services, traditional art, and nighttime entertainment.

First snow in Gion Kitagawa (Northern part of Gion Kobu)

The atmosphere in Gion is tense. The business owners decided to “self-restraint” and close or change their opening hours due to the novel coronavirus spread. It’s not about protecting the customers anymore (who are almost extinct in Gion at the moment anyway), but to protect the staff and, in a wider picture, to minimize the risk of a collapse of the health care system. Just as in any other country, it’s all about flattening the line of hospitalization. The first measures were taken in February and March with the cancellation of all spring theatre performances. It as a painful but inevitable decision. The street festivals, intended to start from May, are following suit. The rumor has it that even Gion Matsuri is preparing to be canceled this year. Ironically, this particular festival commemorates the end of the plague back in the 9th century. It originated during the epidemic as a purification ritual to beseech the raging gods and miserable souls of the deceased. Those infected were ordered to pray at the Yasaka Shrine in Gion.

Gion Matsuri’s hive. The gold mikoshi is carried back to the Yasaka Shrine after washing it in the Kamo river.

Nowadays, with detailed knowledge about viral infections, it would be quite imprudent to hold Gion Matsuri normally. The daily life of Gion has to be sacrificed, as well. It’s been already 2 slow months for the entertainment business over there and, according to some geiko, the ozashiki rate is 95% lower than usual. As of this week, a majority of the teahouses decided to close temporarily in an act of solidarity. An average patron of a teahouse is an over 55 years old director of a big company, so a potential spread of the infection is too risky, both in a social and economic sense. And the risk is high there. The entertainment parlors in Gion are usually located in old, wooden machiya buildings which means that they’re quite poorly ventilated and narrow inside. The distance between guests is small and it’s not uncommon to share the same table within one party. Then, the type of entertainment provided by geiko is notably a face-to-face service. While they need to show a lot of kindness, and even affection, how is it possible to do so from a 2-meter distance? Will maiko entertain on Zoom from now on?

Last show of the day with maiko Kosumi. She retired unexpectedly a few months later.

Another problem is an unwritten prohibition of wearing a mask for geiko and maiko while at work. Not only the elaborate hairstyles and thick makeup is an obstacle here, but also the face needs to be seen during a dance performance. A geiko or maiko cannot even wear glasses, they need to switch into wearing contact lenses upon their official debut in the community. Keeping these strict rules in mind, it’s not surprising that the masks are not allowed either.

The Odori that never happened. A poster advertising Miyako Odori 2020 stuck outside my workplace, under a Gion Kobu theme lantern announcing Onshukai, October 2019.

With no bookings, geiko are put in an extremely difficult position. Those independent need to pay their own bills for the most trivial things, such as rent, utilities, supermarket food. But then still, additionally, they need to keep on practicing the arts (and classes might be expensive), even though the training doesn’t go along with the rules of social distancing. Tea ceremony, for example, is another high-risk activity. The bowls used for drinking matcha cannot be treated with alcohol sanitizer, nor soap.

A giant poster of Miyako Odori 2019 hung outside our shop

In the worst scenario, and it’s just a matter of time for the coronavirus paralyzing hanamachi, we might expect some retirements. Maiko will be sent back home for some time, as they’re already practically jobless and there’s a possible cluster infection hazard inside the okiya. A few establishments might go out of the business, too. Several older customers may spread the coronavirus onto geiko and maiko before passing away. Likewise, the high-school or university part-time workers at the teahouses and restaurants of Gion or Pontocho may bring the virus behind the sliding door. These are serious threats that shouldn’t be ignored.

Former teahouses in front of the Yasaka Nyokoba school of arts

Japan, and all five geiko districts of Kyoto, is currently waiting for the infection peak. This powerful tsunami-like wave is inevitable but some damage can be under control. Kyoto’s community of the traditional arts has a very strong spirit and it can face every crisis with absolute grace. But will the decimated geisha districts survive this time, too? Will the coronavirus be a breakthrough factor of a digital revolution in Gion? Let’s hope for the best and help to minimize the loss by isolating ourselves.

Photos: “analog” snaps of my nights spent in Gion and every day walk back home from work, 2019.

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