A Random PSA on Fake Geisha
This is a term that I can’t help but use when I talk about said subject matter. What is a “fake” geisha anyway? Well, it’s a person who pretends to be a geisha but is not a real geisha. I’m not talking about cosplay or henshin, but rather, a person who promotes themselves as a geisha but is not affiliated with any city, district, or even kenban, yet continues to attempt to con people into thinking that they are something that they clearly are not. Usually I keep quiet on said subjects, but due to events that occurred last week I can’t help but weigh in on this publicly. As usual when it comes to things like this, all sources can be found at the end.
For those of you who are unaware of the issue, last week the con artist known as “Sayuki” did a Reddit AMA. The results were quite predictable: she admitted that she did it to promote herself in her usual narcissistic fashion and got completely shut down by the online community. You don’t need a degree to use Google to find the dirt on this woman, but I’d rather lay this out in a more practical way (with evidence) so, for research purposes, I aim to educate people once and for all on why this person is absolutely despised in all areas of the karyukai and even within Japan.
Fiona Graham, much like Dr. Liza Dalby before her, wanted to do her doctoral thesis on geisha. She was studying in the Asakusa district in Tokyo and had told her okasan that she never planned on becoming a geisha, but rather wanted to observe and possibly make a book out of it. After months of pandering and taking lessons on the side her okasan allowed her to debut as a trainee. It’s important to note here that she was not a full geisha. She likes to claim that she debuted as a full geisha but she never finished her training period. Once she “debuted” she immediately set up her own website full of her lies and basically sent out her story to every news outlet in the world. This is the first problem: geisha are humble and do not seek out attention and fame. They live to promote and cultivate their gei, not to show off about their status. She went so far as to even get an interview with Oprah Winfrey and promote the idea that she was “the first Western geisha” (which is not true). Why is that entire title wrong? Well, besides not being a full geisha she was far from the first Westerner or Non-Japanese to become a geisha. I do not count Dr. Dalby as a geisha as she did her fieldwork with respect and never personally claimed to be a geisha herself (although many people in the West promoted her as such). There are accounts of women from Eastern Europe becoming geisha prior to World War II, although the written documents are scattered and some disagree as to where they specifically originated from. Even if Ms. Graham was actually the first “Western” geisha that is, as stated above, something that a true geisha does not promote. It’s one thing to announce her debut, but a completely different issue when you tell international media all about your supposed status. It’s important to also note that she never got to perform in public performances.
Obviously, it didn’t take long for her to break established rules of the hanamachi; she started taking her own bookings and she was performing on the side in art forms that she was not given permission to practice in public (this is a very important part of the karyukai hierarchy). Needless to say, many of her fellow geisha, trainees, and okasan were not happy with her behavior, but apparently being reprimanded did nothing to stop her from breaking the rules. Just over a year after her “debut” her okasan retired and she pushed the Asakusa kenban to grant her ownership over her okasan’s okiya. Now, if the thought of a trainee demanding to take over an okiya isn’t ridiculous enough, she also demanded that she be allowed to take on trainees. Needless to say, this was the final straw for the Asakusa geisha. She was formally kicked out in early 2011. If you ask her she’ll say that it was because she couldn’t inherit the okiya because she was Caucasian (which is not the case) or that she took time off to “recover” from the Tohoku Earthquake (which is also untrue). Either way, she was no longer a practicing anything and was basically banished from the karyukai.
So, what did she do next? Unlike other people who would do something else in life (as she clearly did not complete her doctoral thesis) she continued to promote herself as a geisha and send another round of stories to the international media, this time about her sob story surrounding how she (falsely) could not inherit her okasan’s okiya. Now, while pretty much everyone fell for her lies of being a geisha the first time, news outlets actually got skeptical this time and interviewed various members of the Asakusa hanamachi. The overwhelming consensus from the true geisha and members of Asakusa was that she was kicked out for never following the rules and for bringing shame to the district. A long time geisha, Norie (乃りゑ), even publicly spoke out about Ms. Graham’s ridiculous claims in an effort to back up the ruling of her district. To quote her:
“そうそう。何かと話題になっていたオーストラリア人芸者「紗幸さん」ことFiona Grahamさんが２月末を持って東京浅草組合より除籍となりました。組合の対応が遅すぎましたが。(–;)もう「芸者」ではありませんので “
“Oh, right. There was information that the Australian geisha “Sayuki” called Fiona Graham was expelled from Asakusa geisha association. The decision came late. She’s not a geisha anymore.”
“Okiya-san didn’t put attention to continuing warnings from geisha association, but Fiona absolutely wasn’t agreeing. Looks like that.”
The Tokyo Shimbun interviewed members of the Asakusa community and published a full article on this story (found at the end), but the one that makes Ms. Graham the most angry was an article published in The Telegraph in England. She continues to state that it was written from “gossip” from an anonymous “insider”, yet the claims in the article are backed up by the Shimbun and the tweets by Norie. For the first time, the English speaking world was alerted to the truth about her assumed identity as a geisha, and she is still desperately trying to discredit that article in an attempt to continue her con on unsuspecting people.
Since being kicked out she’s attempted to establish her own okiya in Tokyo and a small town in Hokkaido (both of which have failed), and tries to get speaking engagements all around the world to keep income coming in. While promoting her false story of being kicked out to the media she even took on unsuspecting girls as “apprentices” (and continues to do this!), even though the Japanese do not recognize her as an actual geisha. She even had the audacity to name one of her apprentices “Sayuri”, just like the main character in the horribly inaccurate book “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden. As of today she’s still trying to sell her sob story and trying to say that she’s the only Non-Japanese geisha to ever be in the sisterhood! Right now there are six women working in various hanamachi in Japan that are not Japanese, one of them being the American-born Kimichō (who is quite respectful and can be found here on Tumblr).
This brings everything back to last week’s Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). It appears that Ms. Graham was attempting to get her name back in the spotlight because business is faltering and she’s trying to get new unsuspecting girls to join her in her con (and, yes, this is a con and I will explain the use of the word later). She used the same old sob stories, but was thoroughly fact checked and her claims were discredited by the online community. She has now gone into “hiding” and refuses to answer anymore questions, unless it’s about trying to book her for a speaking engagement.
Now, how can I call what she’s doing a “con” and not actually be slandering? Because she’s a convicted con artist. She was found guilty on numerous charges of fraud in New Zealand and will be arrested if she ever goes back there. Therefore, anything that she does can be referred to as a con because it is an action taken by a convicted con artist.
In the end, this a woman who needs to be outed for her many crimes, both legally and against the written (and unwritten) rules of the karyukai. She is not a geisha. She never was a full geisha. She was not the first Western person to enter the karyukai. She is a con artist and a fraud. She is a dangerous individual who will do whatever it takes to keep her false stories from being discovered for the lies that they are. Do not approach her or attempt to speak with her.
Edit: Thanks to some awesome readers I was pointed in the direction of an article written back in 2013 about cultural appropriation. It brings up some great points and it was already known three years ago how much of a fraud she was around the world. Did I mention that the people who wrote this great article are Kenyan? When you have African peoples calling you out on your cultural appropriation then you know that you’ve done something pretty damn bad.
-A magazine article printed in Western media. A highlight of it includes:
“Sayuki jokes about her lack of skills. ‘I’m a very bad geisha.”
“We go to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa. As we walk to the office, a young woman stops me to tell me in English that Sayuki’s obi (her wide cloth belt) is tied incorrectly. When I explain to the woman that Sayuki is a geisha, her eyes widen for a moment, before she smiles and says, ‘But I am Japanese and I know it is wrong’.” (which it was).
-The Tokyo Shimbun’s article about her being kicked out. I used a cached version since the main website is having a problem loading it.
-Norie’s public tweets about the situation. Translations are courtesy of hopeitwillendup on the forums.
-An article about some of the things that she apparently got kicked out for (some of these claims may be unverified). A cached copy was used for the link.
-The Telegraph article - the first English published news of her leaving
-An article from The Wall Street Journal about her leaving
-Another article about her and how she was kicked out
-A Mail Online article about her being kicked out (does have many inaccuracies about geisha in it though)
-An article that was not fact checked and is full of the lies that she spread before attending an event in England
-An article about her trying to get new “trainees”, and specifically about her “trainee” named “Sayuri”
-An article detailing her convictions for fraud in New Zealand
-The now infamous Reddit AMA
-The Kenyan article on cultural appropriation.