Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Former Geisha Becomes A Christian

Experience of Sawako Takahashi
(pgs 19-24 of the 02/22/96 Awake!)

(Sawako practicing at eight years old)

“The child of a frog is a frog.” ...This Japanese proverb means that a child grows up to be just like its parent. My mother was a geisha.
I grew up in a geisha house run by my mother. So from when I was small, I was surrounded by beautiful ladies who wore the most expensive kimonos. I knew that when I got bigger, I would join their world. My training began in 1928 on the sixth day of the sixth month when I was six years old. The figure 666 was said to guarantee success.
I studied Japan’s traditional arts—dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, performing the tea ceremony, and so forth. Every day after school I ran home, changed, and went to my lessons. There I would be with my school friends again because we were all children of geisha. It was a busy time, and I enjoyed it. In those days before World War II, compulsory schooling ended at age 12, so that is when I started to work. As a fledgling geisha, I dressed in gorgeous kimonos with sleeves hanging down almost to my feet. I felt elated as I went on my first assignment.

My Work as a Geisha
My work basically involved entertaining and acting as a hostess. When wealthy men planned dinner parties at exclusive eating establishments, they would call up a geisha house and request the services of a few geisha. The geisha were expected to liven up the evening and ensure that each guest went home satisfied, feeling that he had a good time.
To do this, we had to anticipate each guest’s need and provide for it—even before the guest realized he had a need. The hardest part, I think, was having to adapt at a moment’s notice. If guests suddenly wanted to watch dancing, then we danced. If music was desired, we got out our instruments and played the music requested or sang whatever kind of song was asked for.
A common misunderstanding is that all geisha are high-class, expensive call girls. This is not the case. Although there are geisha who make their living by selling themselves, there is no need for a geisha to stoop to that. I know because I never did. A geisha is an entertainer, and if she is good, her skills bring her work, expensive gifts, and generous tips from customers.
Admittedly, few are good enough to make it to the top. Most geisha become professional in just one of Japan’s traditional arts. But I held diplomas in seven such arts, including Japanese dance, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, the Japanese drum known as taiko, and three styles of music played on the three-stringed shamisen. Without these qualifications, to make a living, I would perhaps have felt the need to do whatever customers asked.
When Japan was not economically stable, girls sometimes chose to become geisha in order to support their families. They borrowed money to pay for their training and kimonos. Others were sold by their families to geisha houses. Their owners, having paid large sums of money, required repayment from the girls. Geisha in these circumstances were greatly disadvantaged, for their training began late and they started off heavily in debt. Many of these geisha resorted to or were forced into immorality to meet financial responsibilities.
My services came to be in demand by well-known people in the world of sports, entertainment, business, and politics. Cabinet and prime ministers were among my clients. These men treated me with respect and thanked me for my work. Although I did not join in the general conversation unless invited, I was sometimes asked for my opinion. So I read newspapers and listened to the radio daily in order to keep up-to-date with the news. Parties at which I served were often held for the purpose of negotiations, so I had to be discreet and not repeat things I heard.

(Sawako with adoptive mother)

Who Is My Mother?
One day in 1941, when I was 19, I was called to an eating house and found two women waiting for me. One of them announced that she was my birth mother and that she had come to take me home. The other woman employed geisha and offered me work. She thought I should work to support my birth mother rather than my adoptive mother. It had never crossed my mind that the woman who had raised me was not my real mother.
Confused, I ran home and told my adoptive mother what had happened. She had always been in control of her emotions, yet tears now filled her eyes. She said she had wanted to be the one to tell me that when I was one year old, I had been handed over to a geisha house. On hearing the truth, I lost all trust in people and became withdrawn and quiet.

I refused to accept my birth mother. It was obvious from our brief meeting that she knew of my success and wanted me to work to support her. From the location of her friend’s operation, I knew that working there involved immorality. I wanted to sell my artistic talents, not my body. So I thought then, and I still do, that I made the right decision.
Although I was upset with my adoptive mother, I had to admit that she had trained me so that I could always make a living. The more I thought about it, the more I felt indebted to her. She had carefully and consistently chosen my work, protecting me from men who called upon the services of geisha only for immoral purposes. To this day, I am thankful to her for that.
She taught me principles. One that she emphasized was that my yes should mean yes and my no, no. She also taught me to accept responsibility and to be strict with myself. Following the principles she taught, I was successful in my work. I doubt whether I would have received such help from my birth mother. My adoption probably saved me from a very rough life, and I decided that I was very glad it had happened.

A Son in the Midst of War
I gave birth to a son in 1943. In line with traditional Japanese culture, which does not recognize “sin,” I did not think I had done anything wrong or shameful. I was thrilled with my son. He was the most precious thing I had—someone to live and work for.
In 1945 the bombing was very bad in Tokyo, and I had to flee the city with my son. There was little food, and he was very sick. People jammed the railroad station in mass confusion, but we somehow managed to board a train going north to Fukushima. We stayed there in an inn that night, but before I could take my little boy to a hospital, he died of malnutrition and dehydration. He was only two. I was devastated. The boiler man at the inn cremated my son’s body in the fire he used to heat the bathwater.
Soon after that the war ended, and I went back to Tokyo. The city had been flattened by the bombing. My home and everything I owned was gone. I went to a friend’s house. She lent me her kimonos, and I started to work again. My adoptive mother, who had evacuated to a place outside Tokyo, demanded that I send money and build her a house in Tokyo. Such demands made me feel lonelier than ever. I was still grieving over my son and longed for consolation, yet she never even mentioned my child. All she was concerned about was herself.

Family Duties
Tradition taught that everything we have we owe to our parents and ancestors and that it is the duty of children to repay their parents by obeying them without question and caring for them until they die. So I did my duty, but my adoptive mother’s demands were excessive. She also expected me to support her brother’s two children whom she had adopted. Until I was 19, I had thought of them as my brother and sister.
Many geisha never married, and they avoided having children of their own. They often adopted baby girls from poor families and trained them as geisha for the sole purpose of receiving financial support to enjoy a comfortable life in old age. Unhappily, I began to see why I had received all the care and training I had. It was simply future financial security.
I accepted all of this, although I did wonder why, in addition to my adoptive mother, I had to support my “brother” and “sister,” who were both healthy and able to work. Nevertheless, I supported the three of them, doing everything they asked. Eventually, the day before she died in 1954, my mother knelt on her bed, bowed, and thanked me formally. She said that I had done enough. This one acknowledgment and expression of thanks made up for my years of work. The satisfaction of knowing I had fulfilled all my responsibilities still moves me to tears.

(Sawako with her daughter Aiko)
Providing for My Daughter
In 1947, I became the mother of a little girl, and I decided to work hard to amass wealth for her. Every night I went out to work. I also began performing on stage in Japan’s main theaters, such as the Kabukiza in Ginza. This too paid well. Whether dancing or playing the shamisen, I always received the lead parts. Yet, despite having success that other geisha only dreamed of, I was not happy. Perhaps I would not have been so lonely had I married, but the life of a geisha and marriage do not go well together. My only consolation was Aiko, my little girl, and I built my life around her.
Normally, geisha train their daughters, whether natural or adopted, to do the same work. I followed that custom, but later I began to think about the kind of life I was preparing her for. If continued, it would mean that generation after generation would never know what it was like to have a real family. I wanted to break that chain. I wanted Aiko, and her children after her, to enjoy marriage and a normal family life. I did not want the child of this frog to become a frog!
When Aiko was entering her teens, she became uncontrollable. Since my adoptive mother’s death a few years before, Aiko’s only companions at home had been the maids I employed. She desperately needed my time and attention. So even though I was in my mid-30’s and at the peak of my career, I decided to put the geisha world behind me and accept only work dancing and playing the shamisen. I quit for the sake of Aiko. We began having evening meals together, and almost immediately she mellowed. Giving her my time worked wonders.
In time, we moved to a quiet residential area, where I opened a coffee shop. Aiko grew up, and I was relieved to see her marry Kimihiro, a gentle man who showed understanding toward the life I had led.

(family alter used to worship her mother)
Religion Becomes an Issue
In 1968, Aiko gave birth to my first grandchild. Not long afterward she began to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. This surprised me because we already had a religion. I had installed a large Buddhist altar in our home after Mother—my adoptive mother—died, and I would kneel before it regularly in worship of her. Also, I would visit the family grave every month to report to her on all that happened. Ancestor worship satisfied me. I felt that I was doing what I should to care for my ancestors and to show them gratitude, and I brought Aiko up to do the same.
So I was horrified when she told me that she would no longer participate in ancestor worship, nor would she worship me when I died. ‘How,’ I asked myself, ‘could I have brought forth such a child, and how could she join a religion that taught people to be so ungrateful to their forefathers?’ For the next three years, it was as if a black cloud were hanging over me.
A turning point came when Aiko was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A Witness friend of Aiko, surprised that I was not present for my daughter’s baptism, told Aiko that she would call on me. I was furious, but simply because correct manners had been firmly ingrained in me, I welcomed her when she came. For the same reason, I could not say no when she stated that she would return the following week. These visits continued for weeks, infuriating me so much that at first I learned nothing from what she said. Gradually, though, the discussions made me think.
I began recalling things Mother used to say. Although she wanted to be worshiped after death, she wasn’t convinced about an afterlife. What parents want most, she would say, is for children to be kind to them and to talk warmly with them while they are still alive. When I read such scriptures as Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10, and Ephesians 6:1, 2, and saw that the Bible encourages the same thing, I felt as if scales fell from my eyes. Other things Mother had taught me were also in the Bible, such as that my yes should mean yes and my no, no. (Matthew 5:37) Wondering what else the Bible taught, I agreed to a regular Bible study. The sadness and frustration I had felt for most of my life melted away as I progressed in Bible knowledge. When I began attending meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was deeply impressed. Here was a different world. People were genuine, kind, and friendly, and my heart responded. Especially was I moved upon learning of Jehovah’s mercy. He lovingly forgives all repentant sinners. Yes, he would forgive all my past failings, and he would help me to enjoy a new life!

Changes in My Life
Although I wanted to serve Jehovah, I had strong ties to the entertainment world. I was then in my 50’s, but I was still performing on stage. I was also a leader and one of the two organizers of shamisen musicians when Danjuro Ichikawa performed Sukeroku at the Kabukiza. Since very few shamisen players can provide the katoubushi style accompaniment needed for Sukeroku, there would be no one to replace me if I quit. So I felt trapped.
However, an elderly Witness, who was also involved in a traditional form of Japanese entertainment, asked me why I thought I had to quit. “People have to work to support themselves,” he explained. He helped me see that I was doing nothing unscriptural and that I could serve Jehovah and continue my performances.
For a while I continued at the Kabukiza, Japan’s premier theater. Then, shows began to fall on meeting nights, so I asked to be replaced on those nights. Soon, though, our meeting times changed, and I could fit in both work and meetings. Yet, to get to meetings on time, I often had to jump into a waiting taxi immediately after the show finished instead of relaxing with the other performers as was the custom. Finally, I decided to quit.
At the time we were well into rehearsals for a six-month series of performances in Japan’s major cities. To bring up the subject of leaving would have caused a lot of trouble. So, without mentioning my intentions, I began training someone to be my successor. When the tour was completed, I explained to each person concerned that I had fulfilled my responsibilities and that I was quitting. Some became angry. Others accused me of being conceited and deliberately causing them trouble. It was not an easy time for me, but I stuck to my decision and quit after 40 years of performing. Since then, I have taught the shamisen, and this provides a little income.

(Sawako, her daughter & husband, and grandchildren)

Living Up To My Dedication
A few years earlier, I had dedicated my life to Jehovah God. I was baptized on August 16, 1980. The feeling that overwhelms me now is that of deep gratitude to Jehovah. I judge myself as having been somewhat like the Samaritan woman that is mentioned in the Bible at John 4:7-42. Jesus spoke to her kindly, and she repented. Similarly, Jehovah, who “sees what the heart is,” kindly showed me the way, and because of his mercy, I have been able to start a new life.—1 Samuel 16:7.
In March 1990, when I was nearly 68 years old, I became a pioneer, as full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called. Aiko too is a pioneer, as are her three children. They grew up to be like their mother in keeping with the Japanese proverb: “The child of a frog is a frog.” Aiko’s husband is a Christian elder in the congregation. How blessed I am to be surrounded by my family, all walking in the truth, and to have loving spiritual brothers and sisters in the congregation! Grateful as I am to my ancestors, my greatest thanks go to Jehovah, who has done more for me than any human could. In particular, it is gratitude for his abundant mercy and comfort that moves me to want to praise him for all eternity.