The geisha who didn’t

play by the rules

SadaYakko was a respected, worldwide-famous performer at the beginning of the 20th century. She attained such a status by constantly breaking the rules, in her professional as well as her private life, both in an ultra-conventional Japanese society and a Western world where nobody was waiting for her, but somehow everybody remembered her.

A loan, but a gift

Sada Koyama was born on July 18, 1871, in Tokyo, Japan in a prosperous family. Her father died when she was seven, bringing the family to indigence. She was adopted by Kamekichi, the owner of a geisha house in Tokyo, officially not “sold” but adopted against a loan. Kamekichi developed a special feeling for her and, betting on her huge potential as a geisha, decided to make a star out of her. Sada was treated as her daughter and was given the opportunity to master several traditional arts, such as Japanese dancing, singing, literature, poetry and flower arranging. Her geisha name was then Ko-yakko, meaning “little Yakko.”

Kamekichi had great plans for her little Yakko – excelling in geisha arts was only a prerequisite step. Sada was sent to a local Shinto priest to learn special skills reserved for men or very few women from the Japanese elite. She thus learned to read and write, and took judo and horse riding lessons. Ko-yakko eventually became a respected geisha, under the patronage of Prime minister Hirobumi Ito. As a young adult, she was called Yakko.

While being the Prime minister’s lover and protegee, she met Momosuke – a young student at Keio University. Kamekichi disapproved of Yakko’s relationship with Momosuke: even if a great future was mapped out for him, Yakko was a special, exclusive kind of geisha. She wasn’t allowed to mess with a poor farmer’s son and could certainly not risk falling in love; love being, at that time, perceived as a shameful feeling within Japanese society. Eventually, Momosuke married another woman and left Japan for the USA to perfect his education. Yakko had to let love fly away.

Three years after he became her patron, Prime Minister Ito decided to end their relationship and remain friends. Yakko was aging and under societal – and financial – pressure to find a husband. Yet, she nurtured relationships that were not likely to end in a marriage. At that moment, she dated several men at the same time, including popular entertainers – a sumo champion and kabuki actor. In this context, she developed a passion for drama and started to act in modern kabuki pieces, which was unconventional – kabuki’s practice being restricted to men only. All the more so as she liked to play male roles, more precisely, outlawed men. She later remembered: “I always liked playing men. Whenever someone didn’t want to play a man’s part, I took it – old men, villains, I did them all. I was good at fighting scenes and doing hara-kiri standing up. I was a real tomboy in those days!”

Liberty Kid

In 1891, she met Kawakami Otojirô, an actor performing non-conventional, political satires under the stage name “Liberty kid.” His brash temper got him arrested 180 times, banned from speaking in public for a whole year, and jailed six times because of his activity. Despite this, his popularity was skyrocketing – he was the leading actor of the moment. It was, however, not enough to bring him a proper social status: as an actor, he had the lowest rank in the Japanese social hierarchy. It was thus a great – and bleak – surprise for everybody when Yakko engaged in an official relationship with him. She was the top of the geishas and was expected to date, then marry, a powerful, respectable man and rise in society. She didn’t, and openly mocked conventions by proposing to Otojirô after only a few months of dating.

Once married, she became a devoted spouse, adopting the good-wife behavior she was supposed to assume, waiting for Otojirô when he was touring and accepting his womanizer’s mischief … But not for long! One day, a woman visited Yakko with a baby … Otojirô’s baby. Humiliated by her husband’s betrayal, she cut off her long hair – a strong gesture meaning she would prefer to be a nun rather than being married to him. Still, she forgave him and decided to pursued their artistic partnership.

SadaYakko and Otojirô

A name born in America

Otojirô’s eccentricities quickly put the couple into debt. In an attempt to escape from creditors, they fled to the USA with Otojirô’s troupe, with the dream of exporting Japanese theater to the West. Yakko was the sole woman among the travelers and was not supposed to perform as an actress. However, US producers wanted women to star on stage. Thanks to her many talents, Yakko was the only one who could assume this role. She changed her name, combining her birth name with her geisha name, and became SadaYakko.

The public interest for their show made them travel the USA to present their art. SadaYakko quickly understood the expectation of the US audience. She suggested that they stage romances, which could be universally understood, instead of playing the Japanese traditional register, and made a name for herself – more than the troupe ever did.

In spite of her success, money did not follow the level of public curiosity, and the troupe remained miserable, hungry and discouraged, humiliated by having to beg for food. Kawakami decided it was time to leave for Europe. They did.

La Belle époque

After a stop in London, the troupe moved to Paris where the 1900 Universal exposition was in full swing. Even though Japonisme was the highest trend in Paris, it was the first time a Japanese troupe had acted on the French soil.

The troupe met with Loie Fuller, a pioneer in modern dance, who recalled that “she had never saw anything like the way critics went wild with enthusiasm” watching SadaYakko perform. Paris socialites and artists were indeed enchanted by SadaYakko: “She is an opium hallucination of the Far East, elegant and fragile like an Utamaro print,” said Jean Lorrain. Rodin wanted to sculpt her figure, but she refused because she had to prepare for an event at the Elysee Palace, the residence of the French President – probably not knowing that such a collaboration would make history. On the contrary, Picasso – then a young art student – succeeded in painting her portrait; and the composer Giacomo Puccini drew his inspiration to compose Madame Butterfly based on SadaYakko’s special talents. Guerlain, the infamous perfume house, also created a fragrance called “Yacco” in her honor.

After their Western tour and Parisian epitome, Kawakami decided it was time to go back to Japan. SadaYakko returned to Japan in 1901 with the aura of an international celebrity, considered as a free and modern woman: “SadaYakko is in a new dress in the latest Paris fashion. In the old days, her hair was black as crows’ feathers, and she wore it geisha-style … Now it is as blonde as the hair of aristocratic ladies abroad, and loosely coiled Parisian-style, with a few strands curled around her delectable cheeks … She is so dramatically changed! She is by far the most radiant and exotic of the troupe,” wrote a local newspaper. Her international stature improved the general condition and perception people had of actors in Japan: they were not considered outsiders anymore.

Once in Japan, SadaYakko refused to perform on stage. She probably knew that the plays the troupe offered to the public would be poorly received by Japanese people, because of the western elements that had been added to Japanese classics. She, however, went back on tour to the West several times and kept writing the legend with other activities in her home country.

SadaYakko by Picasso

Writing legend in Japan

In Japan, Kawakami decided to build an ultra-modern building, where the masterpieces of European theatre would be performed, from Shakespeare to Moliere. We don’t know exactly how much SadaYakko contributed to this project, but it is no doubt, considering the dynamics of their relationship, that she was a driving force in it. Either way, she was hugely involved in it, being stage director of some of the plays performed. This project made history as a starting point for the development of contemporary theater in Japan, particularly the Japanese “new wave.”

In 1911, Kawakami died, leaving SadaYakko alone after twenty years of partnership. She decided to focus on her own projects and created a school for actresses – the Imperial Actress Training Institute, whose aim was to train girls and women to become great actresses – kind of “Japanese Sarah Bernardts.” This project took shape with the financial help of … Momosuke! Her first love.

SadaYakko and Momosuke

SadaYakko eventually engaged in a new relationship with Momosuke, even though he was still a married man. In 1917, she wrote a short poem about their unofficial, hidden relationship, saying: “in the end, the wild chrysanthemum has to bloom in the shade.” However, they progressively became more and more public, kissing and hugging in public places, which was perceived, at that time, as shockingly outrageous. Once again, SadaYakko put conventions aside, risking disgrace in a male-dominated society by demonstrating love to a married man in public. In 1922, they started to live together in Momosuke’s house and to appear together at public events.

Their love relationship lasted for twenty years, after which they decided it was time for Momosuke to take care of his wife in her old age. SadaYakko remained alone for the rest of her life, devoting herself to spirituality. She died on December 7, 1946, aged 75, from cancer of the liver.

More about SadaYakko :

Book: Madame Sadayakko : the Geisha who Bewitched the West – Lesley Downer (2003)

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