You don’t usually think of Japan’s geisha as being an industry, but it is. In fact, strictly speaking, it’s a cartel. A cartel that is now being disrupted by internet-based booking agencies and low-cost substitutes. It seems that even geisha are not immune to internet-based disintermediation.

In this special interview Sayuki, Japan’s only geisha who also holds an MBA, explains the business model behind geisha. We talk about the way things used to be, the current threats that have many geisha concerned that the traditional art form and the lifestyle will not survive, and how some geisha houses are trying to adapt.

This is a rare, behind the scenes look at the business of being a geisha and a chance to see how Japan’s geisha might survive and even thrive in the coming digital age.

It’s a fascinating discussion, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Show Notes for Startups

  • How Sayuki broke 100 years of tradition to become a geisha
  • How geisha are being challenged by both the entertainment and tourism industries
  • Changing geisha from a private art to a public one
  • Why geisha might not survive the modern era of tourism
  • The geisha cartel is being challenged, and why that’s not good for anyone
  • The challenge modern geisha face on social media
  • The changes in training for the next generation of Japan’s geisha
Welcome to Disrupting Japan. Straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.

I’ve got a great Selects show for you today. We sit down and talk with Sayuki a geisha. An actual geisha. and she also holds an actual MBA from Oxford.

It’s a great conversation that breaks down the business model of running a geisha house, and it’s a lot more complex than you might imagine. A lot of people talk about disrupting traditional business models, but this is a truly traditional business model. And we also talk about how the Internet and social media is threatening to complexly destroy it.

There are a lot of people wondering if geisha will survive this. In fact, there are a lot of geisha wondering if geisha will survive this.

It’s a story involving centuries-old cartels in new turf wars, counterfeit goods knowingly being sold over the internet, and the challenge of getting maiko off their social media accounts long enough to train them.

Although that last one is both a problem and a potential revenue stream. Anyway, please enjoy the conversation, and I’ve got an update for you at the end of the show.


Today I’ve got something really special for you. We are going to talk about the kind of business that you’ve probably never heard any details about. Today we’re going to sit down and interview Sayuki, a Geisha. And since this is Disrupting Japan, we’ll be talking about the business side of being a Geisha. We’ll look at the Geisha business model and examine how it’s being disrupted by modern technology. And believe me, it really is.

Now, listeners outside Japan might not understand how special this opportunity is. Traditionally, Geisha are not really supposed to talk about their business. Geisha create the illusion of comfort, beauty, and elegance, that is unsoiled by such base things as money. But make no mistake about it; it’s an illusion. Geisha is a very serious business and Sayuki, who also has an MBA from Oxford, has agreed to sit down and walk us through it.

In fact, from a business point of view, Geisha are an established cartel that are being disrupted by new technology, the internet, and tourism websites in particular, and by low-cost substitutes. And there’s a very good chance that Geisha will not survive in their traditional form. In fact, many Geisha houses are proactively trying to adapt to this new market environment. But Sayuki tells this story much better than I do, so let’s hear from our sponsor and then get right to the interview.


Tim: So today we’re sitting down with Sayuki, who is a bonafide Geisha here in Japan and we’re going to talk about the business of being a Geisha, so thanks so much for sitting down with me today.

Sayuki: Thank you.

Tim: First and foremost, a lot of our audience is either in Japan or knows a lot about Japan, but a lot of people don’t, so before I get started for the business can you clear up exactly what a Geisha is, what they do now, what they used to do?

Sayuki: A Geisha means arts person, literally. So Geisha are traditional dancers or musicians, and most of the entertainment that we do is private entertainment. So we go to dinners and parties, which are usually in private rooms, and not large-scale public performances, although we also do those occasionally.

Tim: Okay. You’ve been a Geisha now for about 10 years?

Sayuki: Nearly. Getting there.

Tim: Wow. Okay, so since this is an audio podcast, I should explain that you are Caucasian—you are not Japanese, which makes you very unique and I’m sure appealing in the world of Geisha. But can you back up a bit and tell us a story of why on Earth you decided to become a Geisha and how you managed to do it?

Sayuki: Sure. I’m an anthropologist. I got my doctorate from the University of Oxford, and graduating, I started to lecture in Japanese studies, and also to make documentary programs for television for broadcasters like BBC or National Geographic Channel. And I took a slate of ideas one day to National Geographic Channel, including ideas about infiltrating the mafia and all of those kinds of things. And one of those ideas was to make a program about Geisha.

Tim: So you started to infiltrate the Geisha?

Sayuki: Instead, yes.

Tim: Which sounds a lot more interesting and safer than infiltrating the mafia.

Sayuki: My life could have taken a very different turn.

Tim: I imagine so. I mean, but especially as an Australian, you can’t just decide, “I want to be a Geisha.” How did you get connected? How did you find someone willing to take you on?

Sayuki: I looked first among my alumni and I was the first white graduate—the first female white graduate of Keio University in Japan, and it’s a school with a very strong alumni network. And it came in very handy in the Geisha world because many of the tea house owners are Keio graduates, many of the customers are Keio graduates, and it was a really great network, and they really looked after me and helped introduce me to the Geisha world. So I was very lucky in that sense. But it’s true that you can’t just walk into the Geisha world. There’s a lot of misconceptions. There was an American anthropologist in the 70’s, called Liza Dalby, who wrote an absolutely amazing thesis about the Geisha world, after researching in Kyoto for a year. She was living in the house of an ex-Geisha and somewhere along the road, in her research, they dressed her up and sent her out to a banquet to experience what it was like. And she wrote her thesis on the basis of that research. And some people have made the assumption that she became a Geisha because of that, but it’s actually very different to actually become a Geisha. For example, in Kyoto, to become a Geisha, they would have to change their rules, their constitution, to allow a foreigner in for the very first time in Geisha history. And that would be an absolutely major affair, as it was for me. It needed the agreement of all 45 Geisha in the Asakusa and of all the people who are connected to the Geisha world, and it was a very major decision, and there was absolutely no way possible that Kyoto would have made this decision in the 70’s.

Tim: I’ve been in some hard negotiations before, but how did you manage to convince 40+ different Geisha houses to make this change? Not only accepting a westerner in but accepting—most people start off the Geisha training very young girls, right? So that’s a really big deal. How did you get them to make that change?

Sayuki: I think I was really lucky and I had very good introductions and those people worked very hard on my behalf. Asakusa is a very conservative, very old fashioned district and a lot of people realize that Tokyo is very much more conservative in many ways than Kyoto is. Kyoto is very conservative in the look and the way they do things but they have many modern business methods that Tokyo still doesn’t have. So in that way, Tokyo is still very conservative. In that way, I think it’s surprising that I got permission to debut in Asakusa, knowing now what I know about the Geisha world. There’s other misconceptions that people make. They think that I opened the door and now suddenly the Japanese Geisha world welcomes foreigners in. That is very far from the case. That’s not true at all. To get in a proper town district now would be equally as difficult now as it was when I debuted 9 years ago. Since I debuted, there have been a number of foreigners who have worked as a Geisha in the countryside, or in former seaside resorts, or Geisha districts that have very casual standards, and they’re not at all the same thing as town districts. In some of those districts, they have fewer Geisha than they used to have and they have a lot of need of Geisha for tourists who suddenly come in at certain times of the year. So they recruit part-timers and all kinds of casual people.

Tim: Geisha is not really a part-time job.

In the town that—see, there is a very big divide between a town class Geisha district and a countryside, or seaside, or former lodging town. Though along the road from Tokyo to Kyoto, there were 52 stops, and every single one of those had some form of Geisha, but they were not high-class Geisha. Because they were servicing for people who stayed one night only. So the first one of those was Shinagawa. That wasn’t part of Tokyo in the old days. And it went on from there.

Tim: So the further you got from either Tokyo or Kyoto, I don’t want to say the lower the standards got, but what is the right was to put it?

Sayuki: They were just more casual because of the nature of the clientele. So there have been a number of foreigners that have debuted in countryside Geisha districts. Nowadays, I have to point out, anybody who is a Geisha nowadays is serious about their art and serious about their job as a Geisha. It’s not a profession that is very casual these days. But these foreigners, they were all married, and the ones that debuted in the countryside or seaside districts, and this is because you cannot work as a Geisha without long-term residency, and you cannot work in a high-class Geisha district if you’re married.

Tim: Actually, that is one thing I’ve kind of wondered. Do Geisha get married or what happens when they do? Are they expected to retire?

Sayuki: It’s one of the longest traditions of the Geisha world that Geisha shouldn’t be married because it keeps a sense of romance I think. Every Geisha is theoretically available at a banquet.

Tim: Okay. Your training must have been very different from traditional training, at least in intensity, because you had to—how old are most girls when they start their training?

Sayuki: In the old days, they could have been 11 years old, they could have been 15 years old, but actually, you can become a Geisha at any age and that was always the case. Women with maybe with some kind of a problem in their lives, if they got divorced, if the husband died, if they had to repay a debt, maybe they would have become Geisha. So Geisha have always come in at any time. So it’s not only young girls that become Geisha in the first place. It’s ironic that my Geisha mother was 65 when she took me in and she herself had arrived in Asakusa at 4 years old, a distant relative of a well-known Asakusa Geisha and she’d started her dance lessons when she was 6 years old. And she had never taken a trainee until she took me, so I got the training as exactly the same as more than 50 years ago, so in that sense, I was very unlucky indeed.

Tim: Okay. Becoming a Geisha then is mostly—the first step is finding a Geisha mother who will accept you and agree to train you?

Sayuki: Yes.

Tim: Okay. So I understand the fascination. I certainly understand why you wanted to study this world and explore this world, but what made you decide to stay in it? What made you decide to actually become a Geisha, rather than an anthropologist studying Geisha?

Sayuki: That’s a very good question. The initial agreement with Asakusa was that I would study and train as a Geisha for a year. And we were supposed to be filming a documentary following my process. And the day after that agreement, I was scrubbing the toilet in the Geisha house and realized that it’s not compatible to be a television director and a Geisha trainee. So I had to put the program ambitions on hold and concentrate on becoming a Geisha. Because my apprenticeship was so old fashioned, it took 11 months before I was allowed to debut and the year was up just a couple of weeks after I debuted, so then I asked the Asakusa Geisha association if I could continue as a Geisha and they reconsidered and made a second decision, and allowed me to continue as a Geisha.

Tim: And you obviously enjoy it.

Sayuki: I do enjoy it. I do enjoy it. I used to play the flute when I was a student. I used to dress up and play baroque flute in shops, and restaurants, and hotel lobbies, and such.

Tim: So it’s not very far away from it, is it?

Sayuki: It’s not. And it never was in consideration in my mind when I started but of course, as soon as I started working as a Geisha, I was back doing something that I very much loved as a student.

Tim: That’s fantastic. Now I imagine, as a foreigner, you’re—not unique, because as you mentioned, there are other foreign Geisha—but certainly unusual. In the Geisha world are you treated as kind of a novelty? Or is it like so many things in Japan, once you’re inside, you’re inside and just like everyone else.

Sayuki: I think it’s true that once you’re accepted by a decision of the majority that you are accepted in normal members society. Having said that, a life for any new Geisha is very difficult compared to the life of a modern girl. It’s very hierarchical, it’s very strict, and it’s very difficult for any girl with modern norms.

Tim: Just the restrictions on your life in general is difficult?

Sayuki: Life as the youngest member of a hierarchy is very difficult, even for somebody who grew up partly in Japan. I was here from the end of junior high onwards.

Tim: Now it seems almost odd to speak of Geisha as a business, but we’re going to give it a try today. So in general terms, Geisha today, would you say that it’s more of an entertainment industry or closer to a tourism industry, or kind of a mix of both?

Sayuki: I think that Geisha are artists, as I said before, and if you think of musicians and dancers in the west, I think one of the key differences is that most artists in the west perform publicly and Geisha performances are still largely private. But if you think about the days of Bach Mozart, they didn’t sit around in a garage on social welfare. They had to go out, they had to perform their pieces, they had to create and perform, and perform at the houses of nobles and kings. They would have had to have some social skills in order to do that and in some ways, their jobs might have been a little bit like Geisha. For whatever reason, the Geisha continued to perform privately, so I think that very old tradition has just remained unchanged.

Tim: It’s a very interesting type of artist, obviously from the art itself, but from a business point of view, artists try to be as public as possible, but as you mentioned, Geisha is very private. Is the business a lot of repeat business? How do you build a clientele?

Sayuki: I think one of the challenges of the Geisha world is the fact that most entertainment these days is very public and all about getting as large an audience as possible. And Geisha have stayed in the other direction of making things very elite, and discrete, and private. Some things are changing these days, and Geisha are doing some public things, they’re doing some media, they’re doing all kinds of new business. In my mind, I think it’s incredibly important to keep the beautiful traditions alive and to not change the content of what we did, not lower the quality of what we wear, or how we behave, or the music on the standard of the music and the dancing. But at the same time, to open it up to new audiences and new places to go, and use new methods of communication. Even when I was in Asakusa, because I was thrust into the media without any intention of being in the media at all, because I was the first white Geisha ever in Japan, at some state, it was quite a few weeks after my debut, some reporter got a hold of this and in the U.K., and it was announced in the U.K., and overnight it went to Australia and my phone started calling at 5am and it didn’t stop for days, until one of my customers set me up with a website so we could just say e-mail the website and get rid of these people. And it was like nothing you can even imagine, being thrust into the limelight like that.

Tim: But this was something—traditionally, Geisha are not supposed to chase, right? It’s supposed to be very—

Sayuki: I didn’t chase it! That’s the whole point! Believe me, I did not chase that at all.

Tim: What the reaction?

Sayuki: Well, because that happened, I had to manage it, I had to think about it, and I had to manage it, and I had to try and ensure that I contained it in some kind of direction that was appropriate. And of course, when I was in Asakusa, every piece of media that I did, anything that I did at all, went through my Geisha mother and the Geisha association. So nothing at all was done by myself. But because I was in the media, all kinds of offers came from different places that we had to consider anew. So after the excitement in the foreign media, the first Japanese magazine that wanted to run a piece was Friday. Do you know this magazine?

Tim: Of course.

Sayuki: It’s a little bit dicey, a little bit Playboy-ish. So that was a bit of a decision for the Asakusa Geisha association.

Tim: So what did your fellow Geisha think of this newfound fame of yours?

Sayuki: Some of the new offers that came, for example, the Aussie Beef Trade Show wanted Geisha to dance for them. Also radical—can Geisha go to trade shows? Is that possible? The Geisha association gave us permission and I think 4 or 5 Geisha went out and performed at the trade show. And after that, we performed at many trade shows, and we performed at Frankfort Messe, the largest trade show events based on the world. So in the end, nothing about our content changed. It was a new place and a new audience but I think it was something that, in the end, gave work to the young Geisha and it was very good for them.

Tim: It’s interesting how the Geisha are adopting to the digital age now. You have a website and you’re active on social media. Is that common for Geisha in Japan?

Sayuki: I certainly wasn’t the first Geisha to have a website and there’s increasing numbers of Geisha who have websites and I think they’re connecting with new audiences because of that, which I think is a great thing.

Tim: Obviously tourism plays a big part in demand for Geisha these days, but tourism moves very quickly, it’s very digital, there’s multiple layers of brokers and dealers. It must be very challenging for Geisha to work within that framework.

Sayuki: I think it’s a really big issue for us and it will continue to be for a long time. Mostly tourists are a wonderful audience for Geisha because they want to see the real thing. And I’m always explain this to Japanese audiences who somehow fear tourism or think that it will dilute the traditions of Geisha. But it’s really the opposite. Some Geisha districts have done a very good job of diluting their own tradition. They’ve pulled down tea houses and put up concrete buildings. They’re not going out in white makeup anymore and I’ve heard of karaoke machines inside tea houses and all kinds dreadful things.

Tim: Oh my. That doesn’t sound very authentic.

Sayuki: That’s not very authentic, but that’s the direction that some Japanese districts have gone. Some Geisha houses have even sending their Geisha out as companions, which is a terrible thing. But tourists want to see the real thing, so it’s very important for the future of Geisha that we connect successfully with tourists. But of course there’s huge threats there as well and one of the threats is if the booking agencies are large enough, they can upset the Geisha hierarchy and they can change the face of what we do. And this is a huge danger. There is one booking agency in Japan now that had pictures of , which are companions. There are girls who are dressed up as Geisha but have nothing to do with the Geisha tradition whatsoever, and they’re advertising them in English, as Geisha.

Tim: I can see why this would be so challenging because, especially the tourism business, a lot of people are coming to Japan for the first time. Tourism in general is a very difficult, low margin business. They make money by booking people into something they’ll enjoy, regardless if it’s authentic or not. So how would someone go about booking an authentic Geisha for a party?

Sayuki: Anyone can contact me at any time on my website. I would be very happy to advise on any Geisha experiences.

Tim: We’ll definitely put those links up. But in terms of in general—

Sayuki: I’m serious. I’m not just a Geisha, I also lecture in Geisha studies. I’ve lectured at Keio and Waseda for the last 9 years. I’ve visited just about every Geisha district in Japan, and because I’m in a very unusual position now of now being affiliated with any Geisha district, I work with all of the Geisha districts in Tokyo and many from all around the country. I very much have a vested interest in ensuring that all Geisha succeed and I’m very happy to introduce anybody to Geisha districts, wherever they want to hold their banquet.

Tim: We’ll make sure that link gets up on the site. But how are Geisha houses or the Geisha industry—I don’t want to call it the Geisha industry—but how are Geisha responding to this problem? How are they protecting their image and their business from these low-cost shows that are going up on all of these tourism sites?

Sayuki: Good question. The Geisha are very upset about several developments. The people advertising fake Geisha in English. Of course, there’s only a handful of Geisha that speak English, so there’s not so many people that are aware but now they are becoming aware and they’re doing something about it. But the second dangerous situation in the Geisha world is that we’re seeing foreigners set up as Geisha when they have no legal right to work in Japan as Geisha. You need to have long-term residency to work as Geisha. The power of the booking agencies and the power of social media are affecting the hierarchy in the Geisha world and this is a huge problem.

Tim: Yeah, I can imagine with that much money and that much business flowing through one or two channels, it gives them a lot of power. But are Geisha technologically savvy? Do most Geisha tweet? Do they have Facebook pages?

Sayuki: Some of them do. Some of the younger ones are quite active on the internet. Some of them, they’re getting there.

Tim: Yeah? It’s a slow process?

Sayuki: Yeah.

Tim: The same is true in all traditional industries, take a long time to adopt new technologies. Traditional craft I could imagine take even longer.

Sayuki: Yes. I mean, Geisha have never really run their businesses by themselves. Geisha are artists so it’s the tea houses that acquire the customers and do a lot of the business side of it. So some of them may be more internet savvy. And I think some of them are catching up.

Tim: Is that still the primary means of business, the tea houses will book the Geisha? Or are Geisha now having to be more proactive and find the customers on their own?

Sayuki: Some Geisha are active in finding Geisha for themselves, but traditionally, of course, it was the Geisha tea house’s role. It was not something that Geisha would have been proactively involved in looking for new customers, at least. They would not have always been proactively involved in keeping customers. One of the dangers of the internet is that, for example, a lot of the tourist banquets in Kyoto now, they don’t involve a change in Geisha fees because Geisha fees are set by the district. It’s a system whereby Geisha can’t undercut each other, so Geisha are protected mainly in that way, but if you go to a cheap tourist banquet, one single Maiko comes in and it will be the most junior Maiko because senior Geisha don’t like to do these kind of banquets. She’ll come in by herself with a room full of 30, 40, 50 tourists, and the poor thing will do one dance and then have to walk around the room, interacting with dozens of people and it’s a Geisha experience, but it’s not a banquet. It’s not a beautiful private space where you can interact with a Geisha, and relax, and be part of the moment.

Tim: And for our foreign listeners, a Maiko is a Geisha in training.

Sayuki: One really new thing, I think, with Geisha, I said before, we’re trying to get to new audiences in new places. Geisha have always been able to travel anywhere and we’re very happy to entertain overseas, and we love to travel. We usually go overseas once or twice a year, and we go to private parties, we go to large scale events, to conventions, we can go and speak, we can go to all kinds of events. And that’s always been the case. Geisha were traditionally at the first day of the opening of the sumo wrestling matches, for example. Or on the first day of the kabuki, Geisha would have been there en masse, so this is just a new application of old ideas.

Tim: When we were talking earlier, you mentioned that you were starting your own Geisha house. You’re going to be both teaching the next generation and turning this into an expanded form of business.

Sayuki: After I had been in Asakusa Geisha for four years, I applied for permission to have my own Geisha house because my Geisha mother was retiring from illness. And that’s when I hit the glass ceiling, and I was not able to become a Geisha mother, on the grounds that I was a foreigner. That led to me opening my own independent Geisha house in the Yanaka area of Tokyo. It’s an unusual move but it wasn’t entire unprecedented. There’s single Geisha houses in different areas in Japan, where either the Geisha district has disappeared around it, or for some reason, there’s only one Geisha or one Geisha house there. So since that, in the last 5 years, I’ve had 9 trainees altogether—I’m about to get my 10th.

Tim: These are all Maiko or is there a stage before Maiko?

Sayuki: It depends, Maiko or Geisha is only a question of age. Translated into English as “apprentice,” and in the old days it was an apprentice stage. But these days, there’s a long period of training before you become either a Maiko or a Hangyoku as it’s called in Tokyo, or a Geisha, depending on how old you are. So depending on the age, my girls have either been Hangyoku or Geisha when they come in.

Tim: Okay. Running a Geisha house—is that more akin to running a school or is most of the business Geisha performances?

Sayuki: Sometimes it feels like I’m running an orphanage, actually. I never had children myself but I suddenly got landed with an 18 year old with my first little Geisha and that was a very big shock to the system, I can tell you. I tried to separate them from their mobile phones; it’s the first difficult part of being Geisha mother.

Tim: Well, at least you know they’re going to be social media savvy.

Sayuki: Maybe a little too social media savvy for the Geisha mother. To be a Geisha mother is to help these young Geisha trainees become accomplished Geisha, so I don’t directly teach any of the arts because I’m a flute specialist and the younger Geisha usually start with dance an drum, sometimes tea ceremony, sometimes other arts. So they train from specialist teachers in each different art. But some of them live in. If they’re very young, they live in with me. A trainee has to follow around their Geisha mother and learn by example. Learn how to greet people, learn what to do at different times, learn how to wear kimono, how to move gracefully. Everything one needs in order to become Geisha-like and elicit Geisha-like, is what they’re tiring to achieve and takes many years of practice to achieve.

Tim: But I understand the training never stops. I understand that you keep taking lessons in dance and music forever, basically.

Sayuki: Yes, Geisha train all their life in the arts.

Tim: What do you enjoy most about the job?

Sayuki: I love the flute, and I love practicing, and I love performing. And in the end, even though there’s many beautiful things about the Geisha life, in the long run, if you don’t love practicing and performing, it’s not going to work. So that’s very important, but apart from that, I think it’s very difficult to live a truly beautiful life, to be in beautiful surroundings, with beautiful things, wearing beautiful things, seeing beautiful people, being in beautiful, exquisite Japanese architecture, looking at beautiful paintings. It’s hard to live a truly beautiful life.

Tim: It’s not really a job, is it? It’s something else.

Sayuki: I think it’s a calling; it’s a vocation. I often joke that if I stopped being a Geisha, I would have to go to work.

Tim: Are Geisha dying out in Japan? Is there a revival going on now? What’s going to be the state of Geisha 20 years from now, in Japan?

Sayuki: If I have anything to do with it, there’s a revival happening right now. It’s very interesting to see the girls who are coming into my house. Some of them live overseas, they speak English, and because they were overseas, they’re asked questions about Japan that they can’t answer and they become aware that they don’t know very much about Japanese culture, and that they want to know about it. So you have a new type of girl who is also coming into the Geisha world. And in my view, Geisha have to redefine themselves. There’s always an element of drinking companion in the job but I think Geisha need to increasingly define themselves as representatives of Japan.

Tim: That would make sense. That would be a very appropriate role in today’s society.

Sayuki: Exactly. And that’s why tourism is very important and of course, the internet and social media are very important in that as well. Some of the things I’m most excited about at the moment is trying to connect these new Geisha trainees who are really excited about protecting Japanese tradition and who have the English skills to talk directly to foreign clients, and trying to connect them with Geisha fans from all around the world. So even just a quick look at the internet shows you that there’s hundreds of thousands of supporters of Geisha all around the world, which is a wonderful thing. Connecting those to these girls, they have to quit their jobs, they have to make sacrifices to their lives to become Geisha and the biggest challenge to the Geisha world is how do you fund these girls when it takes 6 months or a year because they can get to the stage when they can go to their first day of work?

Tim: Right. And I want to thank you again for sitting down for a business podcast because I know it’s often considered inappropriate for Geisha to talk about money and business, or at least their own money and business. Traditionally, it’s never been a real business-business, right? I mean, there’s always been a certain about of patronage involved.

Sayuki: Exactly. And the number of patrons have decreased, the number of Japanese that are very culturally aware have also decreased. This is a problem, how to replace the patrons, that would have supported young Geisha in their training is a really crucial issue.

Tim: And is this something that you think social media can play a role in?

Sayuki: I am hoping. I am hoping that we can do something really interesting to connect the trainees with Geisha fans abroad. We’re going to list my new trainees on Patreon and see how it goes.

Tim: We’ll definitely put a link to that on the site. I’m sure there will be a lot of interest.

Sayuki: The idea is that the Geisha fans would get unique access to the trainees’ weekly blog, and photos, and maybe have a chat session with them so that they can follow their progress, and their dance, and their drum lessons. Maybe have a podcast, and of course if they come to Japan, maybe have a banquet with the Geisha. And if they succeed in getting us Japan foundation funding to go overseas, of course we can have a banquet overseas.

Tim: Geisha on podcasts and Skype. What is the world coming to?

Sayuki: And I think if you’re just a Geisha fan, just watching Geisha on the internet, hopefully it will be exciting to actually be creating a new Geisha because that is literally what these people would be doing. They would be making it possible to create a new Geisha.

Tim: It does make sense because we’ve seen this happen in all kinds of other artistic endeavors. If you look back on the history of music and art, it used to be patron-based as well, all over the world. Maybe what we’re seeing is a change from having one or two really wealthy patrons to having hundreds of patrons who can follow remotely and pay a little bit of money, and achieve the same thing in the end from the artist.

Sayuki: Exactly. It’s a totally amazing thing. The thought that this beautiful, wonderful tradition in Japan could be supported and helped from people all around the world is just such an amazing idea and I’m so excited about it. I’m going to be absolutely lynched for this on social media. I can tell you that already. I get lynched for all kinds of things. We’re going to put it into a couple of stages, but I do want to point out that I’m already the major sponsor of the new trainees. And even if we got Patreon, even if we successfully went through the first stage, I am still funding all the second and the third stage myself. To what extent Geisha house is a business is kind of an issue. For me, I have an MBA from Oxford, so I can tell you that I can think of several thousands of jobs that would pay me a great deal more money than being a Geisha. So I think in my case, it’s absolute evidence that I’ve sacrificed a lot financially in order to become and remain a Geisha.

Tim: I think sacrificing for your art is almost a requirement.

Sayuki: At the moment I’m sacrificing for a whole generation of new artists and hoping very much that they would stay and actually fulfill their dreams.

Tim: I think it’s going to be fascinating over the next 5 to 10 years to see how this plays out, and if social media becomes the new patrons of the arts, and the patrons of Japan and worldwide. I think it would be a fantastic thing. Well, listen, thanks so much for sitting down with me. It was really fascinating.


And we’re back.

You know, most people don’t think of Geisha as an industry, and perhaps it’s not, but it certainly can be modeled that way. Now each Geisha district has strict boundaries, which are respected by other districts. And all houses within a district agree to set the price and not compete. Any new competition can only enter via the consent of the existing players, at least that’s how it used to work.

Online advertising and booking, and low-cost substitutes are disrupting that model, and not for the better. Another radical change in the Geisha world, that Sayuki shared with me after we turned the mics off, was that of retention. Unlike in ages past, Geisha today, they have options, particularly the bilingual ones that Sayuki is working with. Today, any young Geisha can go get a job as the personal assistant to the CEO of a successful company and get three times the salary.

So Geisha mothers can no longer expect absolute obedience and control. They have to make sure that the young generation actually enjoys being a Geisha and that’s probably a positive change, even if it does mean letting them keep their smartphones

And now for a quick update.

The coronavirus has hit the geisha business hard, as it has all in-person entertainment. But really, it’s just highlighted the problems that geisha have been facing for some time.

The Internet and social media have not been kind to Sayuki and the geisha, and the trends we discussed in our original conversation have continued. Sayuki’s attempts at crowdfunding have not been terribly successful. And in hindsight, it’s easy to understand why. Without dumbing-down and cheapening what geisha represent, it is very difficult to appeal to the byte-sized, instant gratification, viral sharing formats that social media demands.

But perhaps that’s for the best. Even if Sayuki managed to achieve some degree of internet success, sadly, the cheap fake geisha, the imitators, would move in and then come to dominate social media the way they have the online booking sites.

And so, it seems that some business models should not be modernized. Perhaps the traditional business model of running a geisha house is as much a part of the art as the musicianship and dance and tea ceremony skills. Changing the model would change who they are, and that would be a loss for all of us.

If you would like to talk more about geisha or other truly traditional business models Sayuki and I would love to hear from you. So come by  and let’s talk about it. If you leave a comment I guarantee Sayuki or I or maybe both will respond.

Hey, if you get the chance, check us out on LinkedIn or Facebook, but even better. If you like the show, tell people about it. Disrupting Japan is my labor of love. It’s free forever, and we have no advertising budget. People hear about the podcast because listeners like you enjoy it and tell their friends about it.<

But most of all, thanks for listening, and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups and innovation know about the show.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.