Behind the Closed Doors: Brokerage Function of Ochaya in Gion Kyoto

Yuki Yasuda


This study characterizes social network context of brokerage behavior among customers of a 101-year old bar and ochaya in Gion Kyoto, Japan. The bar and ochaya are in Gion, where is an international tourists’ spot famous for geisha and maiko since 16th century. An ochaya is a high-ranked traditional party house where customers can request to meet geisha who can entertain them with traditional Japanese dance, music and dinner. Gion holds the largest number of ochaya in Japan and more than 100 geisha live and work there. Ochaya keeps closed and members-only system for entry in order protect their high-status customers from outsiders and tourists. No first comers can visit ochaya without a reference from existing member of the ochaya. But once a person becomes a member of the ochaya, the person can travel to Kyoto, dine, stay, and visit wherever s/he likes, without having a wallet or even a credit card, just like a member of Royal Family. Ochaya takes all the care. So what is going on behind ochaya’s closed doors, who are their members, and what are they doing there? To answer these questions, in depth interviews had been conducted with the family members of an Ochaya during 2008 to 2017. My purpose of the presentation is to describe (1) behind the closed doors, who are the ochaya customers, (2) how they are connected socially and economically and (3) how the bar and ochaya serve as brokerage spots for closed VIP networks. I will visualize the structure of Kyoto VIP networks which are formed and maintained around the bar and ochaya. I found ochaya’s members include powerful politicians including ex-Prime Ministers, CEOs of world-famous manufacturing companies, actors and actresses, monks and priests, owners of Kyoto traditional manufacturing family companies. Strangely, ochaya’s majority of customers are not outsiders, but VIPs of Kyoto residents who often are the suppliers of ochaya, too. Information exchange and building reputation/gossips happen there. The bar and ochaya function as brokerage point for Kyoto native VIPs, Kyoto VIPs and outsiders of Kyoto or even foreigners. That’s where business information is exchanged, and reputations are built. Also found was the strength and power of Geisha and its young sister version, called “maiko” who are less than 20 years old, whose dresses cost more than $100,000 at minimum. They look elegant, but for insiders working in Gion, “there is nobody who is more horrifying as maiko.” Because they are living flowers of Gion who can talk anything they like to VIP customers at their dining table face to face, and without them Gion cannot attract the richest of the rich. The top 3 terrifying and powerful professions of Kyoto are said to be geisha including maiko, monks, and masters of traditional Japanese artists, such as tea ceremony and flower arrangement. They are often called “White Socks”because they always wear Japanese Kimono with white socks. If you make them angry, your business goes broke in Kyoto.

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