Judit Kawaguchi

Words to Live by: Geisha Chikako Pari

Interview by Judit Kawaguchi

Chikako Pari, whose stage name is Ichizuru, is the last geisha in a small town in Kyoto prefecture. Her unusual last name, Pari—written with kanji characters— refers to the city of Paris and her French ancestry, although the details of her French great-grandfather’s life were never deciphered. Chikako’s happy childhood came to an abrupt halt at age twelve, when she was sold to a geisha house to pay off her father’s debts. Thrown into a vicious cycle of suffering and drama both on and off-stage, the ravishing and exotic Ichizuru managed to turn it all into art and laughter. Today, she has plenty to smile about: recently married to the police officer who stole her heart 43 years ago, the two are still captivated by each other’s charms.

Tears are useless. For a week I did nothing, but cry. I was in shock at being torn away from my mother. I was just a little country bumpkin who spoke with a thick Osaka dialect, dragged and dropped into a gorgeous teahouse in Kyoto, among cultured women who spoke eloquently, even when they were making fun of me. The ochayasan (teashop master) showed me how to clean the geishas’ rooms. I didn’t need a bucket of water: I had two waterfalls in my eyes. My tears flooded the room as I moved around, scrubbing and wiping those hard floors.

It’s tough for a woman to make it in this world. Women are discriminated against, mistreated and discarded. One needs guts and brains to survive. If she has them, she’d better use them to find a strong, wealthy man to stand by her side.

Teaching styles change. I was hit a lot. All the sensei carried long sticks with them and would whip us when we made mistakes. A sudden hit on my left wrist, when I missed a cord on the shamisen, or a speedy slash on my right foot, if I made the wrong move. They were hardest on those who had potential.

Never do anything half-baked! I was fifteen when I had my first show in the Komori, a dance full of humor. Being on stage was fun and I decided that if I were to become a geisha, I’d be a good one.

If you owe someone money, they own you: even if they treat you well, you’re their slave. From the age of twelve I was accumulating debts. The daily art lessons, the gorgeous kimonos and the beauty regimen were extremely costly. I owed a lot to the ochayasan and it took me till I was 25 to break even.

Once ties are severed, even when we reconnect, we can never be whole again. I met my parents for the first time after I became free. I didn’t think of them as my family anymore. I didn’t feel any affection for my father. I couldn’t respect him. But my mother was lovely. Still, in a distant way, as one admires a beautiful creature.

A woman never asks a man to marry her. She’s fun and attractive so he simply can’t help but marry her.

Men who have money are all married —to someone else. I was popular so I took my time to pick the only man I would be with. He was the president of the best Chirimen kimono company. Of course, he had a family.

Once a man takes care of us financially, we like it and feel we owe him. Eventually we love him, as he is good to us. That’s how the feeling of a lover is born.

A geisha may sit down on the tatami mat, but it takes a lot more than just words and alcohol, to get her laid. Having sex before a lengthy courtship and plenty of gorgeous presents is not proper for a lady. A man can be close to ground zero yet still so far from the goal.

Men pay more for a woman who doesn’t have sex with them. Ojorosan were beautiful prostitutes, yet men were willing to pay three times more for a geisha, who wouldn’t have sex with them. Of course, the hope was there.

Prostitutes deserve respect, as they do jobs few people can. On the street, we’d walk behind them, out of respect.

All men are single for a geisha. We never ask about our clients’ families.

Humor is the greatest art of a geisha. We make men laugh and since our clients are all smart, it’s not easy to put them into stitches. The woman who manages to, is respected and loved because one must be smart and quick to get a repartee going.

Putting a very high price tag on something means picking one’s own customers. Anyone can pay for a cheap thing. But a geisha is luxury for the super elite. In other words, we geisha pick our own clients and we want the top one percent of society. If I am to sit with a man for hours, I want him to be witty, elegant and polite. The rich used to be that way.

Work and you will live long and healthy. I love my job so I’m alive and well.

When the time is right, do it right. We loved each other but he had a wife. She lived in Kyoto and he stayed with me here. For forty years! We didn’t want a divorce because his wife deserved a respectable, good life. When she passed away three years ago, we got married. He was ninety then but still very handsome!

Marriage is better than living alone. I feel happy now. When I was young, I was working hard and progressing nicely, but the war interrupted everything. Now we can eat enough and have each other.

We can’t argue if we use polite language. With my husband, we use keigo, the most polite form of expression.

Every story can have a happy ending. You just have to wait it out!

Geisha Chikako Pari being filmed for NHK TV with reporter Judit Kawaguchi
Geisha Chikako Pari being filmed for NHK TV with reporter Judit Kawaguchi
Geisha Chikako Pari, photographed by Judit Kawaguchi
Geisha Chikako Pari, photographed by Judit Kawaguchi

A version of this interview appeared in the Japan Times on May 27, 2010

This Quote

Men who have money are all married ---to someone else. — Chikako Pari