Stripped of her red silk and white face paint, the former geisha trainee Kiyoha Kiritaka said she watched her “mother” suggest to her how much her virginity should be sold for.
It’d been eight months since she began her career as an apprentice geisha. She’d practice traditional dance and classical music, things she was excited about when she started training at the age of 15. But what her mother—the head geisha and her employer—failed to tell her, she said, was how she’d be left to fend her herself if customers made sexual advances.
“Customers felt they could do whatever they wanted with me because I was l seen as beneath them—like I wasn’t human,” she told VICE World News. 
She’d said she endured eight months of sexual harassment and assault, but the proposition of selling her virginity was the last straw for her. “I couldn’t believe this was happening in the 21st century,” she said, recalling that cold February day in 2016 when she realized she needed to plan her escape—again.
Kiritaka’s allegations have shocked thousands in Japan, where many assumed that sexist traditions in this secretive world of Japanese traditional arts were long abandoned, especially after sex work was made illegal by the Anti-Prostitution Act of 1956.
Since she first came forward in June about her experiences as a maiko—a geisha in training—on her personal Twitter account, her tweet has amassed over 311,000 likes. It garnered the attention of government officials and women’s rights activists, sparking conversations about what goes on behind the closed doors of Japan’s geisha industry, one of Japan’s most symbolic cultural art forms that’s still practiced today.
But since Kiritaka made these public allegations, Pondo-cho—the geisha district she lived and trained at—has neither confirmed nor denied her claims of abuse. The response from the geisha world has been largely silent, leaving many to question how such sexist traditions could’ve been kept secret from the public for so long. If anything, critics say, Kiritaka was just unlucky and worked for an employer who cared little for her. 
But Fumika Tamura, a former geisha who also went public 30 years ago about the abuse she endured, believes Kiritaka wholeheartedly. The abuse Kiritaka claims to have endured isn’t an isolated incident, she said, but rather an example of how the very secrecy Japan’s geisha world is known for acts as a shield to keep abusive traditions hidden, alive and well. 
Tamura (right), chatting to her customers. Photo: Courtesy of Fumika Tamura
Raised by a single mother, Tamura became a trainee at 18 to earn money for her family. At the time, she knew that geisha could make good money from a young age. The perks of the job—meeting affluent people and practicing Japanese art—also lured her. 
But what she didn’t expect when joining was how trapped she’d come to feel. 
Following tradition, she lived in a house with her “sisters,” the other maiko and geisha. She barely had any time alone and was expected to repress her feelings at all times, even around her peers. Crying was forbidden, as was showing any signs of weakness or complaining about their work. She’d be yelled at for saying anything that contradicted her older sisters—if they said that grass was pink, she’d have to agree. 
Eventually, the stress of long working hours and never being able to be herself became too much for Tamura. Her menstrual periods began to stop. 
“When I asked the mother to see a doctor about this, she shooed me away and said it happens to everyone, so she didn’t let me go,” she told VICE World News. In her nearly six-year-long career, she said her period came only once or twice annually.
At a sakura viewing festival, Tamura poured drinks and talked to her customers. Photo: Courtesy of Fumika Tamura
She also developed signs of anorexia, insomnia and depression, though she never received a diagnosis—she wasn’t allowed to visit a doctor. Over the years, her meals would get smaller and her face would thin, her cheekbones large and protruding out of her taut skin. “My wig became so big on me that I used to shove towels in it to stop it from swallowing me,” she said.
Looking back, she’s amazed she survived the ordeal. Now 51, Tamura—whose virginity was also nearly sold to a patron—urges people to believe Kiritaka’s story. “Looking at the online reactions to her allegations, it seems like some people thought she was making this up, because the stories are just too horrible. But frankly speaking, this is totally normal,” she said.
Two years and nine months into her maiko training, Tamura was selected to be a model in a bus tour campaign. Photo: Courtesy of Fumika Tamura
 A symbol of Japan, geisha have served as skilled and specialized entertainers since the Edo period, from 1603 to 1868.
Once receiving about six years of training, geisha go on to perform for and serve guests at teahouses. They can dance, sing, play the shamisen (three-stringed musical instrument) and are known for their witty discourse. Only exclusive guests or those with personal or business connections—usually wealthy men like politicians and CEOs—could enter the teahouses where geisha would perform. Though not common, some geisha would sleep and bathe with their customers. 
During the 18th century, young girls were sold into the geisha world by their impoverished families. Maiko would train and serve the geisha house they were a part of to work off their debts. The ultimate goal was finding a patron, who’d finance their livelihood in exchange for companionship and, usually, their virginity. 
A practice known as mizuage, clients would bid for the right to take the virginity of a maiko, which would also signal her rise into the geisha world. The women never received any of the money. “The girls had no say in the matter, so you could call it sex slavery, in that regard,” Mariko Okada, a professor at Japan’s Oberlin University who studies geisha, told VICE World News. 
But after Japan enacted its “Anti-Prostitution Law” in 1956, which criminalized the act of paying for sex, mizuage was technically outlawed—at least that’s how it seemed to the outside world.
Okada, who’s been researching the Gion maiko district for years, said she was stunned to hear Kiritaka’s allegations. “I would never have imagined the women working there were expected to abide by male customers’ every sexual whim,” she said.
“It’s unforgivable, and I also think these districts need to have a proper support system for people like Kiritaka who experienced these problems,” she said. 
Now a 23-year-old mother, Kiritaka wonders what’ll become of future trainees and geisha. 
She recalls how she constantly felt alone throughout her eight months as a maiko. When she was groped by drunk male customers who slipped their hands into her kimono, or forced to drink with clients, her “mother” was never there for her, she said. Instead, she was berated for complaining. Her appearance too was frequently criticized—she was told she looked like a cricket and needed plastic surgery.
But unlike a regular job, she couldn’t just end her contract and leave—official papers were never signed. Leaving the geisha world, especially when one is still a trainee, is notoriously difficult. 
“Mothers” spend thousands of dollars training their “daughters,” including buying them silk kimonos, custom wigs and make-up, and paying for their living expenses. The unspoken agreement is that women must work several years to pay off their debt to thank their “mothers” for taking them under their wing. 
In the early years, Kiritaka heard countless stories of runaway apprentices who’d slip away in the dead of night. She’d also attempted an escape, but was quickly found by her “mother.” 
To officially quit, it took weeks of apologizing and writing letters to the people who’d been in charge of her. “If I had stayed, I think I would’ve killed myself—that’s how suffocating it is,” she said.  
Though she doubts her accusations will end centuries-old traditions, she hopes they would serve as a warning to young girls like her before they step into Japan’s geisha world.
“The rules are deliberately kept ambiguous so that older men can flirt with young girls in their teens—I just can’t forgive a world where this is allowed to happen,” she said.
Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.
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