For reasons we will soon discover, Teruha is also known as “The Nine-Fingered Geisha.”

In the golden age of the Geisha, the Meiji period (September 1868 to July 1912), Geishas were the equivalent of today’s celebrities, models and actresses. Desired by men and envied by women for their lifestyle and fashions, they captivated all levels of society, icons of both physical beauty and Japanese culture.

Born in Osaka in 1896, Teruha’s original name was Tatsuko Takaoka. Like most geishas, Teruha joined the secretive world at the tender age of 12. She was an illegitimate daughter, and her father sold her to the profession. As a maiko (a trainee geisha), Teruha was known as Chiyoha. In 1911, she moved to Tokyo and worked at Seika, which was considered East Japan’s most prestigious geisha house. After just two months of service, she took on the name Teruha, which translates as “shining leaf,” and became a fully-fledged geisha.

Teruha’s early life as a maiko was traumatic. After first being sold by her father, she was then offered to the highest bidder to be deflowered when she was only 13 years old. In those days, wealthy patrons could pay to take the virginity of a young maiko in a ritual known as mizuage. In this case, the chairman of the Osaka Stock Exchange paid for Teruha’s. Unsurprisingly, it was a distressing event that left a lasting impression on Teruha, who later said, “Unconsciously, I branded myself with an impurity that could never be washed away.”

The teenage Teruha then developed a crush on an actor named Ichikawa. Moreover, Ichikawa took full advantage of the infatuation, and the two began a brief affair. At the time, Teruha was engaged to two other men and was still only 13 years old. One of Teruha’s fiancés was a successful and handsome businessman named Sobe Otomine. Otomine would later become the reason for Teruha’s missing-digit nickname.

Teruha’s fling with Ichikawa soon ended and, heartbroken, she found comfort in her fiancé, Otomine. As the story goes, Otomine had left his wife to marry the young maiko, and the pair were soon besotted with each other. Sadly, it was not to last. During a trip to the spa city of Beppu, Otomine discovered a photograph of Teruha’s first love, Ichikawa, in her mirror case. Suffice to say, he did not react well, and the engagement was broken off.

Although she couldn’t understand Otomine’s anger at something she felt was natural – that is, keeping a souvenir of her first love – Teruha was nevertheless distraught that her fiancé had left her. Wondering how she could prove her love and win him back, Teruha hit upon the idea of performing the painful ritual of yubitsume, which involved cutting off part of her little finger.

The squeamish may want to skip this section, as it details exactly how Teruha mutilated her hand. First, she tied the string of a samisen (a type of musical instrument) around her little finger. Then, in her own words, “I held the razor the other way around using the four fingers of my left hand, and turned the cutting edge to the little finger. I then covered my left hand with a handkerchief, and brought it down hard on the table – again, and again, and again,” until the severed tip fell off. She then presented it to Otomine, whose reaction is not recorded.

Teruha’s act of contrition and devotion did not win her any admiration from her fellow maikos. She was known as “The Maiko Without a Little Finger,” and gossip about the 14-year-old Teruha and her affairs drove her from Osaka to Tokyo – where envious contemporaries later referred to her as “The Nine-Fingered Geisha.” In Tokyo, she was reunited with Otomine for a short while but did not stay with him. Teruha’s life then became a series of encounters with wealthy and powerful men until, at the age of 22, she married her first husband.

After their wedding, Teruha and her stockbroker (and rampantly philandering) husband moved to the US. They traveled all around the country, and on their travels Teruha met her rumored future lover Sessue Hayakawa, who was Hollywood’s first Japanese American film star. In New York, Teruha also had a fling with a woman known only as Hildegard. The relationship lasted for most of the period until Teruha and her husband returned to Japan.

Back in Japan, Teruha’s marriage remained troubled. She soon returned to the US and then traveled on to London. There, she again met movie star Sessue Hayakawa. There are no definitive records to say that Teruha and Hayakawa had an affair, but what is known is that Teruha left London for Paris, where she gave birth to her only child, a daughter. Unfortunately, what happened to the baby is unknown.

After that, Teruha returned to Japan and once again became a geisha. Eventually, she married her second husband, a medical professor. Yet no matter how hard she tried, domestic life was not for her, and after the marriage collapsed, Teruha returned to a life of turbulent love affairs. No longer able to work as a geisha, Teruha ran her own bar and worked as an actress, model, published author and poet.

Finally, at the age of 39, having tried practically everything the world has to offer, Teruha shaved off her beautiful hair and became a Buddhist monk at the all-female Gio-Ji Temple in Kyoto. She changed her name to Chi syo, meaning “clever sunshine,” and eventually became head priest of the temple. She was reportedly very popular and spoke openly about what she referred to as her “checkered life.”

In 1995, Teruha passed away at the temple at the age of 99. She remains one of Japan’s most well known geishas of all time.

Teruha’s life had all the hallmarks of a great story: tragedy, romance, scandal and redemption. It’s no wonder, then, that the narrative has been recounted in plays and television dramas in Japan.


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