A Random PSA About The People Who Actually Run Things - Part 1
For the second Day of Holidays I give to you all… a new essay on the people that run everything behind the scenes in the karyukai (and some very public too) as this question has come up more than once. However, this would end up being stupidly long if I kept it in one part, so it’ll be released in multiple parts.
Everyone looks in awe at the maiko and geiko and their refined skills, yet they would be nothing without the people who actually run the karyukai. Make no mistake, the maiko and geiko are the outside face of the karyukai, but they have limited power compared to those who support them from behind. Then again, what would a student be without a teacher? These are the people that guide the maiko and geiko to be the wonderful artists that we have come to admire.
The Okasan (お母さん)/Okamisan (女将さん)
Besides the instructors of the various art schools, these are the women responsible for what maiko and geiko are today. They are the okasan (sometimes called okamisan), the women who run the okiya and ochaya. “Okasan” means “mother” as she basically adopts all of her girls (symbolically) and raises them as her own while they are under her charge. “Okamisan” means “female proprietress” and is just as valid to use as okasan, although okasan is used much more often. Okamisan tends to be used when the woman is either learning to inherit the business or is very young whereas okasan is a sign of respect and can be used for any woman who runs an okiya or ochaya regardless of age.
The vast majority of these women were former geiko themselves, with most reaching the stage of natori, the highest level of dancer. Those who decide to open their own okiya usually name the establishment after something from their geiko career: part (or all) of a geimei, their real last names, or something unique. Either by being adopted by a family that owns an okiya or by opening her own she becomes a fundamental pillar of the community. Since she has decades of experience she will know how to get her girls to reach their full potential and has many established connections to help them succeed. It is incredibly rare that a customer would break off all relationship with a geiko if she were to retire but continue to work in the karyukai. That customer will likely become a patron of the new okasan’s ochaya or at least know to request her charges at the next ozashiki. Some women will simply operate an ochaya and not an okiya as this is a very tough job in and of itself.
The fundamental roles of the okasan are as follows:
-Have an incredible memory of hundreds (if not, thousands) of people to which she knows each person’s specific likes and dislikes and can best cater to them when they arrive for an ozashiki.
-Arrange everything to said customer’s tastes at an ozashiki. This includes which foods to order from which restaurants (to fit both taste and budget), which kinds of alcohol to serve, which girls to call, and to ensure that each ozashiki runs smoothly. Should any incident arise it is the okasan who must deal with it, such as an unruly guest or a slight mishap, and she must do so with both grace and sternness.
-Manage the financials of her business. Obviously to be successful she has to make more money than she spends, but she also needs to know when to spend money and when to save it. Should anything in the ochaya look cheap or not very expensive then it shows on the okasan and can taint her reputation. Everything must be the best for her guests, literally. This doesn’t mean that she has to spend more than everyone else, but to be savvy enough to be fashionable, chic, and meet the expectations of the exclusiveness of her venue.
-Manage the hired help. All ochaya have maids that will come in and clean to make sure that the places are spotless. Some of these maids will live on the premises while others will live in apartments nearby.
If an okasan also manages an okiya then she will also have to do the following:
-Teach the shikomi the mannerisms of a maiko and the Kyoto dialect (Kyo-ben). The vast majority of shikomi experience culture shock when they come into the karyukai, and it is the okasan who is in charge of making her presentable enough to take the test that will determine if she will become a maiko or not. The shikomi will be made to accompany the okasan and then the maiko and geiko everywhere and not only watch how everyone interacts, but will also help with the chores. She will also reprimand the shikomi if they step out of line or forget to use Kyo-ben. She is the single most influential person on a new shikomi, so if the girl doesn’t meet the standards of the community then it looks bad on her.
-Manage the financials of all maiko and geiko in her care. She will keep a running ledger of all costs they will incur (food, boarding, lessons, any other random cost) and how much income they make. She will deduct all costs from their income and keep it in trust for them. Most maiko and geiko never handle money within the karyukai as they will go to a store and ask for the cost to be billed to their affiliated okiya. Should a maiko or geiko need money for something they will request it from the okasan and she acts almost like a bank with their money. When a bill comes she pays it and makes notes. If a jimae geiko is the one on the ledgers then the okasan will only keep track of their engagements, how much they’ve made, and only deduct a fee to be affiliated with this specific ochaya or okiya.
-Choose outfits for the maiko and junior geiko in her care. The outfits must be of seasonally appropriate motifs, which are so accurate that you can tell the date that an image of a maiko was taken down to the week. The traditional Japanese calendar has 72 seasons and these must be followed. They also need to remember what combinations have been worn for what guests before as it would be a faux pas for a maiko or geiko to be seen wearing the same kimono twice in a row to see the same customer. This obviously means that the okasan must know where all of the kimono, obi, pocchiri, obijime, obiage, juban, and eri are at all times and can effortlessly choose the perfect outfits for her charges. She is in charge of the care of the outfits too, so if a kimono needs cleaning she’ll send it out to be cleaned.
-Act as a go-between if any negative situations were to arise. If the okasan of another ochaya had a bad experience with one of her maiko or geiko the okasan would pay a visit to the other okasan to apologize and try to mend the gap. This rarely happens, but when it does the okasan will protect her charges and will take the blame for their actions as if she were their onesan or real mother.
If she is the okasan of a long standing okiya she may even be on the council that actually decides things in each hanamachi. These include appointing a new head of a school of arts where maiko and geiko take their lessons, appointing new members of the kenban, and any new changes to any rules that are to be made to okiya or ochaya.
When it comes time for her to retire she has 1 of 4 options as to what to do with her business. She can either:
-Pass it on to her biological daughter
-Pass it on to an adopted geiko (who then legally becomes her daughter)
-Attempt to sell the business (however, this usually results in the last option)
-Close the ochaya
The job isn’t for everyone and, if the new owner can’t handle the stress or the inheritance fees, then the ochaya will close. It’s a bit sad when this happens, so it makes you appreciate every time a new ochaya opens to continue the traditions of the karyūkai.
In cities outside of Kyoto it’s not uncommon for men to own an ochaya, and they are referred to as “Ojisan” (uncle).