The Smiling/Laughing Geisha
This is the story of Teruha.
Her real name was Tatsuko Takaoka.
She was born in Osaka in 1896. It is unclear how, or under what circumstances she made her way to Tokyo but at the age of 13, after a brief training period, she became a Shimbashi Tokyo Geisha, and took the name Teruha [shining leaf].
Around the age of 16, she fell in love and had her heart broken, and tried to commit suicide by cutting off the little finger of her left hand. She recovered from both her broken heart and her suicide attempt and was thus nicknamed ‘The Nine Fingered Geisha’. (Note that in her portraiture, you never see her full left hand.)
At age 23, Teruha married a stock broker and moved to New York City. Teruha and her husband traveled all over the USA, and it was an exciting time for her. The un-exciting part, however, was that her new husband dumped her at whatever hotel they were staying in, and spent his nights out on the town carousing with his buddies, drinking and chasing women. At least once, he didn’t even come back to the hotel for several days.
Still, it was Teruha’s fame, and not her husband’s, that preceded her all the way to the ‘Big Apple’. When she arrived in New York, the people there had prepared a big welcome party for her in a cabaret. Broadway choreographer Michio Ito even hosted a party for Teruha. She made for a striking figure, standing out from the crowd in her black velvet evening dress, a large diamond ring adorning a finger. Ito later recalled that Teruha asked him for the first dance of the night, and he took her to the floor. She told him, ‘… This will be the first time for me to do Western-style dancing, and I have no idea what I’m doing, so please teach me!’ Ito was totally surprised, and ended up sweating buckets as he danced the night away with her, teaching her all of the latest moves.
The actor Sessue Hayakawa, who had traveled all the way from Hollywood to New York to attend Teruha’s party, stood alone on the side-lines gazing enviously at Ito, as Sessue pined away for a chance to dance with Teruha (a dance she never let him have).
Having been a self-educated woman since becoming a maiko [geisha-in-training], she decided to take advantage of her stay in America. She left her carousing husband to his wine and women, and headed off on her own, eventually landing at a ‘Domestic Science School’ somewhere out in the suburbs of New York City. Teruha stayed in the school dorms while taking courses (and probably learning a lot of English). She also met a very nice girl, and took up something else – becoming a lesbian.
Her lover’s name was Hildegard, and for most of the nine months that Teruha studied, lived, and loved in America on this first trip, it was the love of a woman – and not a man – that sustained her. Soon thereafter, her marriage ended. Teruha returned to Japan, alone, in the hopes of becoming a geisha again.
But, she had great difficulty getting a license, however, mostly likely in retribution from her peers for her move to New York and her failed marriage. With few other options open to her, Teruha returned to New York City on her own and studied dance.
From there, she went to London, England, where she encountered an old friend whom she once dissed on the dance floor, the actor Sessue Hayakawa, who just ‘happened’ to be there in London, too. What happened between them is not written in words, but Hayakawa told her that she should go and live in Paris. She took his advice, and went to France, where she gave birth to a little girl. Suffice it to say, her ex-husband was not the father.
Teruha was now 28 years old.
Teruha eventually returned to Japan again and, this time, was successful in becoming a geisha again. She soon turned most of her efforts towards teaching dance to other Geisha in the district. She remained active to some degree as a geisha in her own right, and before long, she tried marriage again.
This time, Teruha married a medical professor and tried to live as an ordinary housewife but, once again, the marriage failed.
After her second failed marriage, it was now virtually impossible for her to become a geisha again, so Teruha sought work wherever she could – as an actress, a bar madam, and even as a model. During this period in her life, Teruha struggled through several failed affairs that later she described as ‘A Checkered Life!’
Teruha eventually turned to religion for a peace and purpose in her life that she had not been able to find as a Geisha. In 1935, at the age 39, she decided to dedicate her life to Buddha and entered the priesthood as a monk.
Over the years, Gio-Ji Temple became a place of refuge for many broken-hearted women who lived out their lives in the modest temple. It became known in some circles as the Temple of the Broken Hearted. Teruha became one of the broken-hearted, and spent the remainder of her days there also.
At Gio-Ji, Teruha took the name Chi syo, which means ‘Clever Sunshine’. She soon became a very popular monk, and later, she rose to the position of Head Priest at the all-female temple. Sometime later during her life at Gio-Ji, Chi syo published a book about her life called ‘Bird Eating Flowers’.”
The checkered life of the young Shimbashi geisha-turned-priest came to an end at Gio-Ji in 1995 at the age of 99. Her remains rest on the beautiful temple grounds that she loved so much. By all accounts, Teruha found the happiness that she so desperately sought as a young woman within the confines of this simple but elegant temple.
She never tried to escape her past. Upon her death, she willed to the temple an impressive collection of Teruha postcards she had saved over the years.