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Fiona Graham

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Fiona Graham
Sayuki playing flute.JPG
Graham as Sayuki playing the yokobue Japanese flute in January 2013
Born Fiona Caroline Graham
Melbourne, Australia
Residence Tokyo, Japan
Nationality Australian
Other names Sayuki
Education Keio University
University of Oxford (M.B.A., Ph.D.)
Occupation Anthropologist, geisha

Fiona Caroline Graham (born in Melbourne, Australia) is an Australian anthropologist who works as a geisha in Japan.[1][2] She made her debut as a geisha in 2007 in the Asakusa district of Tokyo under the name Sayuki (紗幸).

Academic career[edit]

Sayuki was born in Melbourne, Australia,[3] and first traveled to Japan for a student exchange programme, when she was 15.[4] There she grew up with a Japanese family and attended Japanese schools.[5]

Her first degrees in psychology and teaching were taken at Keio University. She did a M.B.A. at the University of Oxford before completing a Ph.D. in social anthropology.[6][7] She has been a lecturer on Geisha studies at Keio and Waseda Universities since 2008.[8][9]

Geisha activities[edit]

Sayuki (left) and one of her trainees in January 2013

On 19 December 2007, Graham formally debuted as a geisha under the name Sayuki, which she states means "transparent happiness",[10] in the Asakusa District of Tokyo, after a year of preparation and training.[11][12] She was the first Caucasian woman to do so.[4][11][13][14] As does any trainee who is past her early twenties, Sayuki debuted directly as a geisha rather than as a maiko or hangyoku (apprentice geisha).[15][16] Graham initially became a geisha as a one-year-long academic project.[17] After she got her doctorate in Social Anthropology from Oxford, she started working on programs for broadcasters including NHK, the BBC or National Geographic Channel. While she was trying to sell the idea of a behind-the-scene geisha documentary, she suggested that she be the geisha being trained and filmed over a year. After her initial planned year was up she had only just debuted. She asked and received permission from the Asakusa Geisha Association to continue as a geisha.[16] Her formal debut and membership of a geisha house distinguishes her from American scholar Liza Dalby, who researched geisha and attended banquets as a geisha in the 1970s, but did not formally debut.[18][19][20] Sayuki did a long apprenticeship of 11 months.[16] She had taken lessons in tea ceremony, and as of 1 August 2011, was taking lessons in shamisen, singing, and her main art of yokobue, which she chose after playing the flute for many years.[1][14][21][22]

After being in an Asakusa geisha house for four years, Sayuki applied for permission to have her own geisha house as her geisha mother was retiring due to illness but although Asakusa had allowed a foreigner to become a geisha, they would not allow a foreigner to become a geisha mother.[22] That led to Sayuki leaving and having her own independent geisha house. Since 2012, Sayuki has had nine trainees.[22] In February 2011, Sayuki ceased to be associated with the Asakusa Geisha Association.[23][24] According to the Tokyo Shimbun, Graham was expelled from her geisha house, which – as is customary – lodged an application for Sayuki's disaffiliation from the Asakusa Geisha Association.[25] The Wall Street Journal reported that one anonymous person had said that Sayuki was asked to leave "because her actions disgrace[d] the reputation of the association".[24] The Daily Telegraph cited an anonymous insider who claimed that Sayuki had failed to follow customs and show proper deference to more experienced practitioners, as well as spending too much time on self-promotion.[26] However apart from this one anonymous person the Asakusa Geisha Association never stated that Sayuki had been expelled. According to other reports, she had requested permission to operate independently from December 2010 after the "mother" of her geisha house fell ill and retired; Sayuki claims that she was not allowed to become a geisha mother on the grounds of being a foreigner.[27] She denied falling out with other geisha.[28] According to a representative of the Asakusa Geisha Association, the Association only gave special dispensation for Sayuki to be a geisha "as part of her study" and "did not expect her to want to become an independent geisha to begin with".[24]

In 2011, Sayuki opened a kimono shop in the Asakusa district of Tokyo.[10] In July 2013, Sayuki, performed at the Hyper Japan festival in the United Kingdom.[29] In the same year, she also visited Dubai and Greece.[30] As of 2013, Sayuki ran her own independent house in Yanaka, an old-world district in Tokyo, where she was training four apprentices.[31][32][33] In 2014, Sayuki opened a bar in Kutchan, Hokkaido.[34] In 2015, Sayuki was invited to Brazil to train for six weeks and then participate in the Carnival.[35]

Sayuki is currently (2017) working on many activities. One of them is helping the Fukagawa geisha in Tokyo to revive their district[16] She is helping the Fukagawa geisha by opening the little geisha trainee's lessons to the public for the first time. This makes it possible to visit classes and see how geisha and trainee geisha learn.[36] Sayuki as a flute specialist takes flute classes at different times of the year: in nagauta music from the kabuki theatre, hauta and kouta, lion dance music, and min'yō folk music. Sayuki apart from her main activity of geisha banquets offers a number of other activities including "lunch with Sayuki" (a lunch with her to talk about geisha world), geisha shopping (visiting the small shops and craftsmen making the products that geisha use), kimono shopping (a complete introduction to kimono by visiting the best recycled kimono shops), antique market shopping (finding genuine samurai armour or geisha pillows, antique pottery and ukiyo-e paintings) and kabuki viewing.[16]

Wanaka Gym court case[edit]

In 2000, the Queenstown Lakes District Council told the four tenants living in a house owned by Graham to leave the property. Later the Ombudsman of New Zealand ruled them to be in the wrong and Graham applied for compensation, by then a very significant amount of money as they had been unable to use the house normally for three years. The Council attempted to avoid paying compensation by closing the house down and taking Graham to court in 2003. Graham won the right in court to continue to use the house. The Council continued to try to avoid paying compensation for their mistakes in 2000 by closing the house again in 2005, but once again Graham was able to go on using the house. In 2008, the Council made new charges, this time arguing that the house did not comply with hotel fire standards, despite never having been used as a hotel and only having been used as a single household unit.[37]

In December 2010, Graham and a company owned by her were fined a combined NZ$64,000 and ordered to pay NZ$9,000 in costs after being convicted of a total of 14 charges relating to the use of a building in Wanaka to house foreign tourists after the building had been declared "dangerous" in June 2008.[note 1][39] In relation to six of the charges there was an issue whether fire safety requirements which formed part of the 2005 building consent were properly imposed. The applicant’s position is that the property (which, as we understand it, can accommodate up to 20 people) should have been treated as a single household unit for the purposes of fire safety requirements. The applicants’ position is that the building consent application which was processed in 2005 incorporated fire requirements which were more onerous than were actually required.[37] During the trial, Graham unsuccessfully sought to have her name and occupation details suppressed, claiming it would jeopardise her activities in Japan.[39][37] Following her conviction, an application by Graham to be discharged without having a conviction recorded was also unsuccessful.[37] Graham appealed the conviction and sentence to the High Court, which dismissed her appeals in February 2012,[38] and a subsequent application for special leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal was denied in August 2013.[40] A final appeal by both Graham and her company was refused by the Supreme Court of New Zealand in December 2014.[41] An interim application to have payment of the fines stayed pending the outcome of the appeal was refused in September 2014, meaning that Graham would be arrested if she returned to New Zealand whilst the fines remained outstanding.[42]

In November 2012, Graham filed a complaint with the New Zealand Press Council against the Otago Daily Times newspaper, which reported on the case, "citing principles of accuracy, fairness and balance; of comment and fact; and of correction". In March 2013, the Press Council found no breach and dismissed the complaint.[43]

Media coverage[edit]

Graham, as Sayuki, was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show in February 2010,[44] in the fashion magazine Marie Claire in November 2009,[45] in the lifestyle section of Metro in July 2013,[46] and on CNN's website in February 2015.[47]


Sayuki was featured on Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio National in February 2015.[48]


  • Inside the Japanese Company by Fiona Graham, Curzon Press, 2003, ISBN 0-415-30670-1
  • A Japanese Company In Crisis: Ideology, Strategy, And Narrative (Contemporary Japan) by Fiona Graham, Routledge, 2005, ISBN 0-415-34685-1
  • Playing at Politics: An Ethnography of the Oxford Union by Fiona Graham, Dunedin Academic Press, Edinburgh, 2005, ISBN 978-1-903765-52-4


  1. ^ Graham was convicted of 5 charges and fined $20,000; her company The Wanaka Gym Limited was convicted of 9 charges and fined $40,000.[38]


  1. ^ a b Ng, Adelaine (1 August 2011). "A glimpse into the secret world of geisha". Retrieved 13 May 2013. 
  2. ^ "The Sayuki Geisha Banquet service Starts!!". Niseko Japan. Japan: Niseko Promotion Board Co., Ltd. 7 January 2013. Archived from the original on 30 June 2013. Retrieved 13 May 2013. 
  3. ^ "Fiona Caroline Graham". Library of Congress. 2015. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 2015-03-16. ... studied at Keio Univ., worked in the Japanese life insurance industry; later, Master's degree, management studies and Doctorate in social anthropology, U. of Oxford; her exper. and production of a film documentary for NHK form the basis for the fieldwork in the book ... data sh. 
  4. ^ a b Ryall, Julian (9 January 2008). "Westerner inducted into mysteries of geisha". The Telegraph. Japan: Telegraph Media Group Limited. Retrieved 6 June 2011. 
  5. ^ Grunebaum, Dan (June 2016). "Sayuki Being a gaijin geisha isn't easy but it can be fun". Metropolis Magazine. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Ryall, Julian; Norrie, Justin (2008-01-08). "Australian academic is a geisha down to a tea". The Sydney Morning Herald. 
  8. ^ "2012-2013 Keio University: International Center Courses" (PDF). Retrieved 29 October 2015. 
  9. ^ "Course List (Spring Semester)" (PDF). April 2014. Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 June 2014. Retrieved 29 October 2015. 
  10. ^ a b Martin, Alex (3 June 2011). "Geisha cuts into kimono market". The Japan Times Online. Japan: The Japan Times Ltd. Retrieved 8 June 2014. 
  11. ^ a b "Melbourne woman becomes a geisha". 9 News. Ninemsn Pty Ltd. 8 January 2008. Archived from the original on 5 October 2012. Retrieved 7 July 2011. 
  12. ^ Corkill, Edan (29 June 2008). "Aussie geisha speaks out". The Japan Times. The Japan Times Ltd. Retrieved 3 June 2009. 
  13. ^ "Japanese geisha". Radio New Zealand. 5 December 2013. Retrieved 5 December 2014. 
  14. ^ a b McNeill, David (24 January 2008). "Turning Japanese: the first foreign geisha". London: The Independent. Retrieved 8 July 2011. 
  15. ^ "STORY 2010". Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 5 December 2014. 
  16. ^ a b c d e Bunny, Bissoux (October 2017). "A day in the life of a geisha". Tokyo Weekender Magazine: 24, 25. 
  17. ^ Nakano, Keisuke (12 May 2008), "Meet Sayuki, first foreign geisha", The Nikkei Weekly 
  18. ^ Dalby, Liza (1983). Geisha. London: Vintage U.K. pp. 106–112. ISBN 978-0-09-928638-7. 
  19. ^ Hyslop, Leah (4 October 2010). "Liza Dalby, the blue-eyed geisha". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 18 July 2011. 
  20. ^ Corkill, Edan. "Aussie geisha speaks out". The Japan Times. The Japan Times. Retrieved 28 September 2011. 
  21. ^ Sayuki. "Getting to be a Geisha". The Mainichi Daily News. Japan: The Mainichi Newspapers. Archived from the original on 8 September 2011. Retrieved 26 November 2014. 
  22. ^ a b c Romero, Tim (22 November 2016). "Will Japan's Geisha Survive the Digital Age? – Disrupting Japan". Disrupting Japan. Archived from the original on 27 September 2017. Retrieved 27 September 2017. 
  23. ^ 外国人芸者の独立ダメ…業界組合「想定外」と困惑 [Foreign geisha denied independence - Association uneasy at unexpected turn of events]. Sponichi Annex (in Japanese). Japan: Sports Nippon Newspapers. 6 June 2011. Archived from the original on 10 August 2011. Retrieved 5 August 2011. 
  24. ^ a b c Novick, Anna (7 June 2011). "Foreign Geisha's Future Uncertain". The Wall Street Journal: Japan Realtime. Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Retrieved 14 July 2011. 
  25. ^ 外国人芸者 独立はダメ 浅草の組合「想定外」 [Foreign geisha denied independence - Association talk of ‘unexpected events’]. Tokyo Shimbun (in Japanese). Japan: Tokyo Shimbun. 7 June 2011. Archived from the original on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 28 August 2016. 
  26. ^ Ryall, Julian (4 June 2011). "First ever Western geisha leaves the 'sisterhood'". The Telegraph. Japan: Telegraph Media Group Limited. Retrieved 6 June 2011. Oxford-educated Fiona Graham, 47, was the only foreigner in 400 years to be accepted into the ranks of the geisha 
  27. ^ GRUNEBAUM, Dan (June 2016). "SAYUKI Being a gaijin geisha isn't easy, but it can be fun". Metropolis Magazine. 
  28. ^ Wallace, Rick (6 June 2011). "Aussie Geisha Fiona Graham rejects reports she's split with Asakusa Geisha Association". The Australian. Australia: News Limited. Retrieved 29 June 2011. 
  29. ^ "Sayuki The First Western Geisha Appears at HYPER JAPAN 2013" (PDF). Hyper Japan. 2013. Archived from the original (pdf) on 22 April 2014. Retrieved 9 November 2015. 
  30. ^ "The Western woman who became a geisha". Retrieved 5 December 2014. 
  31. ^ "Meet Sayuki, the world's first western geisha". Metro. United Kingdom: Associated Newspapers Limited. 25 July 2013. Retrieved 13 November 2014. 
  32. ^ "花柳界初 外国人芸者 紗幸 好きこそ物の上手なれ". Retrieved 5 December 2014. 
  33. ^ "The Western woman who became a geisha". Tokyo: The National. Retrieved 2014-11-14. 
  34. ^ "Wikiwix's cache". Retrieved 5 December 2014. 
  35. ^ Lucas-Hall, Renae. "Sayuki Ushers the Japanese Geisha into the 21st Century". 
  36. ^ "Geisha School » Sayuki". Sayuki. 2013-12-30. Retrieved 2017-11-09. 
  37. ^ a b c d "Building company fined $64K". The Southland Times. New Zealand: Fairfax New Zealand Limited. 18 December 2010. Retrieved 4 August 2011. 
  38. ^ a b "The Wanaka Gym Limited v Queenstown Lakes District Council [2012] NZHC 284". 27 February 2012. Retrieved 31 October 2016. 
  39. ^ a b Beech, James (18 December 2010). "Gym owner fined $64,000". Otago Daily Times Online. New Zealand: Allied Press Limited. Retrieved 4 August 2011. 
  40. ^ Quilliam, Rebecca (28 August 2013). "'First western geisha' loses appeal". Otago Daily Times. New Zealand: Allied Press Limited. Retrieved 28 November 2014. 
  41. ^ "The Wanaka Gym Limited and Fiona Graham v Queenstown Lakes District Council [2014] NZSC 198". 23 December 2014. Retrieved 31 October 2016. 
  42. ^ "Fines not deferred for geisha". The Southland Times. New Zealand: Fairfax Media. 18 September 2014. Retrieved 28 August 2016. 
  43. ^ "Case Number: 2316 Fiona Graham Against Otago Daily Times". New Zealand: New Zealand Press Council. 2014. Archived from the original on 28 November 2014. Retrieved 28 November 2014. 
  44. ^ "Lisa Ling goes inside the world of a modern geisha and a real-life nunnery". Harpo Productions, Inc. 9 February 2010. Archived from the original on 10 February 2010. Retrieved 5 August 2011. 
  45. ^ Haworth, Abigail (9 November 2009). "Meet Japan's First Western Geisha". Marie Claire. Hearst Communication, Inc. Retrieved 5 August 2011. 
  46. ^ Scott, Lisa (25 July 2013). "Meet Sayuki, the world's first western geisha". Associated Newspapers Ltd. Retrieved 18 April 2015. 
  47. ^ Irvine, Dean (2 February 2015). "'A beautiful life': The Australian woman who became a geisha". Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. Retrieved 18 April 2015. 
  48. ^ "The mysterious world of the geisha". RN. ABC. 12 January 2015. Retrieved 22 April 2015. 

External links[edit]