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Uno Affair Underscores New Decline : Japan's Geisha: Height of Culture, Object of Scorn

July 17, 1989|SAM JAMESON | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — At 76, Kiharu Nakamura, a resident of New York City for 33 years, lectures on Oriental philosophy and poetry, serves as an opera adviser and has written seven books, one of which has been made into a movie and a stage play.

But the wives of Japanese businessmen she meets from time to time still speak in gossipy disdain of her.

" 'Oh, she's a geisha,' they say," Nakamura, a former geisha, complained during a visit here.

Nakamura's dual status--a symbol to Japanese of the traditional and exquisite pinnacle of their culture while simultaneously an object of contempt in polite society--has been a hallmark since the 8th Century.

Ever since the forebears of geisha, called shirabyoshi , charmed legendary warriors in the Heian Era (794-1185), artists have glorified their beauty in woodblock prints. Countless writers, such as the late Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, have added to their mystique in novels.

Geisha--literally "art person"--perpetuate ancient songs sung in a cracked, wavering voice to the accompaniment of the three-stringed, twangy shamisen . Without geisha, few public performances of traditional dance would be seen. Poetry, traditional etiquette and even the kimono owe much to the continued existence of geisha.

Along with Mt. Fuji, cherry blossoms and, more recently, the bullet train, they are a symbol of Japan, proudly promoted in tourist brochures and frequently trotted out by the government for foreign guests. Gerald R. Ford, for example, was photographed with geisha on both sides at a dinner when he became the first incumbent American President to visit Japan in 1975.

Yet geisha also remain a symbol of illicit sex.

In each layer of geisha society--from Tokyo's and Kyoto's hanamachi (flower towns) down to onsen (hot springs) geisha, "an irreducible element of high and low, prestige and ill repute, persists," wrote Liza Dalby, an American anthropologist, in a book entitled "Geisha."

At the moment, it's the low life of geisha that is attracting attention in Japan.

Revealed Affair With Uno

A former geisha who appeared on TV and identified herself as Mitsuko Nakanishi, 40, exploded a bombshell in June when she said she received $21,000 to engage in a four-month affair with Prime Minister Sosuke Uno in 1985.

Subsequent reports of other sex-for-money escapades by Uno fueled the anger among many Japanese women who were already enraged by an influence-buying scandal and implementation of a consumption tax that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party promised three years ago it would not impose.

For Uno, the sex charges could not have come at a worse time. He and the ruling party face a crucial election for the upper house of Parliament on July 23.

For the "flower and willow world," as the geisha world is known, the flap underscored the hard times into which at least part of the business has fallen.

Code of Honor

Protecting clients and their secrets has always been at the top of a geisha's code of honor, and Nakanishi's public charges, to which Uno has refused to comment directly, cast a pall of shame upon the geisha world.

"That woman is nothing but a prostitute," an enraged Nakamura said, noting that the divorcee had met Uno only four months after leaving a job in a lawyer's office to become a geisha at age 36.

Before the end of World War II in 1945, girls as young as 12 or 13 started preparing to become apprentice geisha or geisha. Some sold into the profession by impoverished parents began as housemaids at even younger ages.

Long years of training in traditional Japanese songs, poetry, the shamisen , drums, posture, etiquette and conversation were a prerequisite.

Careful attention to personal appearance dominated their life. Uniquely smooth, youthful skin--produced by cleansing the face with a bag filled with powder ground from raw rice instead of soap--set a geisha apart from other women, even at Nakamura's age.

Experts at Social Arts

Some geisha also became experts at go (Japanese chess), flower arrangement, tea ceremony and calligraphy.

(In autographing one of her books, Nakamura, for example, selected Japanese characters pronounced with the sounds of an American reporter's name, creating both a work of art in calligraphy and a poem as her brush swept down the cover page without a pause.)

Teahouses, where geisha parties are held, prospered even in World War II until Japan's military authorities in 1944 ordered them closed and geisha conscripted to work in factories in a last-gasp mobilization effort.

But the teahouses reopened quickly after the war ended--with the approval of American occupation authorities.

Government figures show that the golden days of geisha occurred in the 1930s, when 74,200 plied the trade. In 1985, the latest year for which statistics are available, their ranks had dwindled to 13,000, according to the Cabinet's Management and Coordination Agency.

Average Age Was 40

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