Geisha company in Japanese city of Niigata bets on crowdfunding to survive coronavirus downturn

Geisha are seen in a restaurant where they entertain customers. Many have suffered during coronavirus restrictions, leading to an online fundraising campaign.
PHOTO: Reuters

An ultra-modern online crowdfunding campaign has come to the rescue of one of the most traditional and uniquely Japanese businesses in the north coast city of Niigata – its geisha community.

Japan ’s famous female entertainers have been struggling for years, with fewer young women willing to put in the long hours of studying musical instruments and dance to become geisha, while there are also fewer wealthy patrons willing to support the “willow world” and growing competition from alternative sources of entertainment. 

Niigata’s geisha quarter has a long and storied history, but the tea houses, restaurants and banquet halls where they would traditionally perform have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly after government calls to avoid dining and drinking out and being in close proximity with other people in a relatively small space.

“For geisha, that is exactly what they are meant to do, so the coronavirus has been very difficult for us over the last year,” said Miyuki Tanahashi, who oversees the 12 geisha who work for Ryuto Shinko Co. in Niigata city. 

Coronavirus forces Japanese geishas to offer their services online

Established in 1987, the company is the first in Japan to take a slightly more modern approach to the training and employment of geisha, using a website to introduce its entertainers and then dispatching them to perform at one of over a dozen venues around the city. That came to a grinding halt in late spring last year.

“At the beginning, we hoped the problem would be over soon, but it soon became clear that it was going to take a long time,” Tanahashi told This Week in Asia. “It was not long before there was simply not enough work for all the geisha that we employ and I estimate that we have lost 90 per cent of the business we were doing before the pandemic.” 

The short-term solution, she said, was a crowdfunding campaign that the company hoped would raise enough funds to keep the firm sufficiently solvent to ride out the worst of the crisis. The response, however, has been phenomenal.

“We decided to set a target of 10 million yen [$120,900] to support our operations through this financial year,” Tanahashi said. “The campaign started on May 10 and was to run for 51 days until June 30 and we used the ‘all-or-nothing’ model, which meant that if we failed to reach the target, then we would return all the money to the donors.”

Geisha perform a dance routine. PHOTO: Reuters

Tanahashi considered the target to be ambitious, but the company announced the initiative on its social media sites and the geisha themselves were encouraged to use their own personal internet sites, as well as telling their patrons.

They did not need to worry – the 10 million yen target was surpassed within the first 11 days. Given the response from the public, a new target of 20 million yen was set. That, too, was soon surpassed and the campaign – on the ReadyFor website – presently stands at 25.15 million yen.

The campaign page has also attracted more than 400 messages from supporters, with posters calling on the geisha to “Do your best” and “Keep working hard”.

One message read, “You are an important part of the culture of Niigata. You have my support.”

Tom Nakano, an official with the Niigata visitors’ and convention bureau, said the geisha are crucial to the city’s history and its future. 

“Niigata was a port that was important in the ‘kitamae’ coastal shipping trade for rice in the Edo and Meiji periods, so there used to be many visitors to the city then,” he said. “The culture of ‘ryotei’ traditional Japanese restaurants and geisha can be traced back to that time as they entertained the visitors in the Furumachi district.”

Nakano said “ryotei” culture has sadly faded in many parts of Japan, so Ryuto Shinko was set up to promote the sector and give women from all over the country the opportunity to pursue a career as a geisha.

“Today, they have become proud symbols of Niigata’s traditional culture,” he added. 

Hiroko Kataoka, the owner of the Ryotei Ichi restaurant in the city, said she is delighted the crowdfunding campaign has been such a success.

“Geisha have been a part of the city’s history for more than 200 years and right up to the modern day,” she said. “It is important that we preserve and protect this very special form of entertainment and its heritage. I just hope that the pandemic ends soon and we can all return to how things were before.”

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According to Ryuto Shinko, most of the donations came from Niigata, with amounts ranging from 3,000 yen to a generous contribution of 3 million yen from one individual. Tanahashi said she was surprised – but happy – to see that people from all over Japan were generously supporting the geisha. 

“These are ordinary people, of all ages and from all backgrounds, but from every region of Japan,” she said. “Many of them are not our patrons and we have been very moved by all the expressions of support and the calls for us to continue this style of Furumachi geisha entertainment. We are very grateful.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.