Geisha cuts into kimono market

Foreign entertainer shows public easier way to slip into outfit


Wearing a kimono can be a daunting task, where one must follow numerous steps and protocols steeped in tradition to prevent making a fool of oneself.

And wrapping the obi around the kimono and tying a knot may be the most difficult part of the entire process, where a single mistake can ruin the silhouette and force one to start over — the main reason why according to some statistics more than 90 percent of Japanese women can’t put a kimono on by themselves.

But Australian Fiona Graham — more commonly known in Japan by her geisha name, Sayuki — learned from the onset in becoming Japan’s first Western geisha three years ago that there was a much simpler and practical way of wrapping an obi. This is a way that has been favored by geisha for decades: using the “tsuke-obi,” one that has been cut in two, allowing women to slip into a kimono quickly without any assistance.

And Sayuki, an Oxford MBA who lectures on Japanese culture at Keio University, where she also studied and graduated, has decided it was about time this geisha secret be disclosed to the public.

She has teamed up with fellow Keio graduate Kenichi Nakamura, heir to a 90-year-old Kyoto kimono firm and CEO of Tansuya, a shop with stores nationwide that sell recycled kimono, to introduce the tsuke-obi to all women who want to wear a kimono but have been hesitant due to its image as a complicated garment.

Starting Tuesday, Tansuya has begun promoting Sayuki no Tsuke-obi (Sayuki’s tsuke-obi) at its shops, selling tsuke-obi made from recycled obi for ¥8,000 and up. The store is also letting customers bring in obi that have been gathering dust in their closets to have them remade into tsuke-obi for ¥3,150.

“A tsuke-obi is an obi cut in to two separate parts, one part to wrap around your waist, and one for the bow — it’s an easy process to learn and can be done on your own,” Sayuki said Monday during a joint news conference with Tansuya’s Nakamura at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo.

Sayuki, who speaks fluent Japanese, said she realized while working as a geisha in Tokyo’s Asakusa district that nearly 80 percent of the geisha around her preferred using the tsuke-obi to regular obi, based on its convenience and durability.

Sayuki said that if used on a near-daily basis, a regular obi would be worn out in three to four years, while a tsuke-obi could be used for decades. She also stressed that unlike the ready-tied “tsukuri-obi,” which are unadjustable and look “fake,” a tsuke-obi measures up to professional aesthetic standards.

“One-hundred years ago, when there were no schools teaching women how to wear a kimono, 100 percent of Japanese women knew how to wear a kimono by themselves,” Nakamura said.

“But nowadays, even when there are kimono schools all over the place, only 8 percent of women can wear a kimono on their own — Sayuki’s tsuke-obi is a drastic solution to this problem,” he said, explaining that customers visiting a Tansuya shop could receive free 15-minute instructions on how to use a tsuke-obi, and be able to wrap one themselves in three minutes.

A female Tansuya employee actually demonstrated how quickly a tsuke-obi could be wrapped during the news conference, successfully wrapping one in 2 1/2 minutes.

Nakamura said he believed there were two main reasons why the tsuke-obi did not gain mainstream acceptance, despite geisha in Asakusa having used them for nearly 60 years.

One reason was because of a general reluctance to cut an obi, which is considered an expensive garment. However, Nakamura said he believed it was even more wasteful to let an obi sit in a drawer without ever using it.

The other factor hindering tsuke-obi’s widespread acceptance has been the fact that those who work in kimono shops, by trade, know how to wear a kimono on their own, and have difficulty sympathizing with those who have trouble doing so, he said.

As part of the project, Sayuki has also opened a kimono store, Sayuki no Kimonoya, in Asakusa. She said she planned on offering recycled kimono sets, complete with a tsuke-obi, for less than ¥20,000, for foreigners interested in buying a kimono but unsure where to go for an affordable one.

“Kimonos have always been recycled. And being able to wear one easily using a tsuke-obi is really a new concept,” said Sayuki, who first came to Japan as a high-school exchange student and was an anthropologist specializing in Japanese culture before setting foot in the “flower and willow world” several years ago.

“The economy is bad, and the tourism agency is looking for ways to attract more foreign tourists to Japan,” Sayuki said.

“I’m sure tourists will enjoy buying an affordable kimono, being able to change into it at the shop to have a stroll through Asakusa, and then taking the kimono back home with them,” she said.