The J-Files

Back to Contents of Issue: June 2000

The Traditional Ryotei Are in Danger

by William Hall

With clamps on corporate entertaining biting deep, a cultural treasure in Tokyo is threatened with extinction. The traditional Japanese ryotei -- the high class, highly discreet dining places of the barons of business and politics -- are in danger, and having to adapt to new circumstances and use new technologies to survive.

Some are taking reservations from people they have never been introduced to. Some are accepting credit cards -- on the spot -- instead of discreetly billing customers at month's end. Some are even publishing a set budget menu course -- with prices clearly marked. And some of these courses come with the services of that most mysterious, attractive, and ephemeral creature, the geisha. Make that the budget geisha.

Traditionally, ryotei would not accept business from newcomers unless a known customer introduced them. There was no carriage trade here. Behind their high walls and modest entrances, the exotic world of old Japan was carefully and tenderly nurtured. Ryotei have been a constant feature of Japanese society since the early 19th century, serving as the places for the discreet exchange of business and political intelligence. Government decisions evolved, or perhaps revolved, around geisha games and sake flasks. Secrets remained secret, for the discretion of the geisha was absolute.

Menus were exotic and expensive, the prices of no concern to customers, who were using company, or even government (read taxpayer) money to indulge themselves at up to 100,000 yen a head. Such lavishness, made public after a series of scandals, forced many companies to place spending limits on personnel, and the ryotei have suffered in consequence.

In their long history, ryotei have faced tough times before. In a spending clampdown in the 1840s, government spies were posted outside famous ryotei to check who was entertaining whom. Today's major threat to patrons' privacy are Tokyo's voracious paparazzi.

The fate of the ryotei came to mind recently when, together with other like-minded senior business associates and serious students of Japanese culture, I visited one of my usual haunts in Asakusa, one of Tokyo's traditional entertainment areas.

My group had serious business to discuss, which is why we had convened at this particular ryotei. Our labors were made much easier by the efforts of a troupe of 10 geisha. Aged from their mid-twenties to their mid-seventies, the ladies treated us as danna-sama, or lords, and we soon fell for their flattery and charms. Not all our band was well acquainted, and the geisha helped break the ice, as well as ice the drinks.

We then supped, exchanging cups with our new friends, and dined off a dazzling array of dishes, while our geisha group danced, played, and sang.

With business over, then came games, which took the form of the old "stone-scissors-paper" routine, or jan-ken-pon. It was all very jolly and relaxing, considerably eased by sipping sake from a thimble-sized cup, replenished at frequent intervals by Miss August Moon.

Later, speaking with an old friend who has frequented ryotei since his gilded youth, I learned that the ryotei owners' association is adapting further to today's world. Apart from opening their doors wider to a lower class of customer, they are also launching websites and being more aggressive in seeking new business. Geisha guilds are doing likewise.

It would be a tragedy if this unique mode of entertainment were lost. Is there a case for e-geisha? Maybe, but perhaps not yet. Geisha are in any case highly interactive, and a real geisha evening in a discreet ryotei is far better than any virtual reality experience.

Our ryotei agendas are business first, fun second, but I wonder -- did great decisions depend on a game of jan-ken-pon? Scissors-stone: you lose, Finance Minister, so the interest rate goes up next week. Paper-stone: you lose, Mr. Agriculture Secretary, so let's cut the import tariff on US beef. Only the geisha know, and their discretion is guaranteed.

William Adams is a pen name chosen by the columnist, a corporate executive wishing to remain anonymous. The real Adams was an English sailor who became highly favored by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in the early 1600s; he was able to observe closely the inner workings of Japanese culture, especially commercial dealings.

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