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From Geisha to Diva

The Kimono of Ichimaru

June 27, 2014 - October 19, 2014

Curated by Barry Till | Pollard Gallery

The fascinating life of Ichimaru (1906-1997), one of the most famous geishas of the 20th century, is told through this collection of her magnificent kimonos and personal effects. In the 1930s, Ichimaru left geishahood to pursue an illustrious career as a recording artist, but even as a diva, she continued to perform in full geisha regalia. Combining her experience as a geisha with an extraordinary talent as a vocalist and musician, she would become a unique figure int he social history of modern Japan.

About Ichimaru

Because of the confidentiality of geisha, little is known of Ichimaru’s early life as a geisha. The following are tidbits gleaned from published books on Ichimaru translated by Michiko Warkentyne.

Ichimaru was born into in Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture on the border with Nagano Prefecture on July 16, 1906 with the birth name of Mitsue Goto.  Her parents had eleven children, ten of which were girls. The youngest child was a boy but he died at an early age. With so many mouths to feed, she had to leave home and work in a geisha house at the age of 14 or 15. In her later life, she would never speak of her parents. 

Ichimaru started out working as a low-rank geisha or oshaku-waitress (one who serves sake) at a hot spring spa inn at Asama, Nagano Prefecture.  In older times, at spas men and women bathed naked together without inhibitions, but by the turn of the century Western ideas of puritanism began changing this custom and segregated sections for men and women resulted.   Male participants often came to spas for fun and games.  Groups of businessmen or friends came to the spas to get drunk and to experience geisha and bar girls.  The geisha of these hot-spring resorts called onsen geisha acquired a rather poor reputation and were not known for their performing arts.

One day when Ichimaru was asked to sing a particular song by a customer, she was embarrassed and perplexed to be unable to perform it.  This single event made her determined to improve her skills.  She left for Tokyo and began studying in earnest the songs of the geisha.  Her singing talent caught the ear of the proprietress of the Fujita Restaurant in Asakusa, Tokyo.  At age 19 she was able to enter a geisha house (okiya) called Ichimatsu-ya, the master of which was a noted actor at the Miyato Theatre.  She took on the name of Asakusa Ichimaru in 1926 and would later be simply known as Ichimaru.  Numerous geisha have names that begin with the character pronounced “ichi”.  The element ichi represents the interconnection with one particular branch of geisha and hence a name could often be traced back. The name Asakusa was the name of one of the geisha quarters of Tokyo, which was known for its high and strict standards of training for the artistic pursuits of the geisha.

Ichimaru had a single-minded attitude and was determined to make herself standout among other geisha.  She began taking shamisen and singing lessons (kiyomoto style) from the famous female shamisen artist-teacher and authority, Enchiga Kiyomoto.  She came to enjoy a reputation as the geisha who possessed a “nightingale-like” singing voice combined with elegant good looks and consummate skills with the shamisen.

Ichimaru often appeared at the first-class inn-restaurant in Asakusa known as the Kinsen (Golden Pavilion).  Her singing talent was in great demand not only in the teahouses and restaurants of the Asakusa geisha district, to which she belonged, but also to other first-class restaurants of the other geisha districts such as Yanagibashi, Akasaka and Shinbashi.  It is said that many geisha were jealous of her quick rise to fame and criticized her, accusing her of being haughty.  Not discouraged by all the criticism, Ichimaru continued to sing and diversify her repertoire.  

In the late 1920s and early 30s new technology was occurring in the performing arts.  Radio broadcasting and recording companies began replacing stage, teahouse and street performances. Several recording companies were set up and began competing with each other for talent.  They searched the geisha districts and began scouting for talented geisha.  The Victor Recording company, which was established in 1927, discovered   Ichimaru.

In 1933 Ichimaru recorded a song for the movie Wet Swallow (Nure Tsubame) produced by the Shochika movie company, which became a major hit.  This was followed by the production of Nikkatsu’s Three Mile mountain Pass (Toge Sanri), Shochiku’s Two Stone lanterns (Futatsu Toro)and Tenryu River Ride (Tenryu Kudareba), the last of which proved to be a mega hit that would elevate Ichimaru’s position to that of superstar status.  Another interesting anecdote to Ichimaru is that she met the famous silent film star, Charlie Chaplin, in the mid 1930s.

During the 1930’s Japan was involved with expansionist wars in Manchuria and China. Ichimaru was called upon to perform for the factory workers of the war effort and for troops, both at home and abroad.  With the beginning of the full-scale war with the United States in late 1941, her recordings gradually decreased and eventually stopped by 1944.  In 1948, Ichimaru resumed her recording career and tried to brighten the gloomy and chaotic post-war society.  In 1949 she established her radio program entitled “Mitsukoshi Calendar of Songs”, which would last for ten years.  

With the arrival of television in Japan, she became a popular guest on national television.  Her performances became more diverse and mature throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  From the 1960s through into the 1990s, Ichimaru received numerous honorific titles and awards.

Ichimaru would continue to teach and perform well into her senior years although unfortunately when she passed away in 1997 at the age of 91, she did not have much of a fortune left.  Throughout her life, her impoverished sisters would regularly visit her to request loans and she would generously give them money and, near the end of her life her housekeeper maid-servant walked off with much of her fortune, thought to be as much as 80,000,000 yen.  Ichimaru did however, leave behind a tremendous legacy to the Japanese music industry and her triumph over adversity, in perfecting her arts to become an outstanding diva, is indeed a remarkable story.

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