Interview with Yuko Leong
Creativity lies at the heart of ‘Kyoto pleasure quarter retiree’, Yuko Leong, whose service is as unique as her impressive collection of kimono. Yuko engaged in an email interview with The Professional to reflect on her first year as a sex worker and to discuss the intertwining of work and culture.
- Can you tell us a little bit about Yuko, and how a 23 year old former Maiko trainee made the decision to move to Sydney and embark on a new career as a sex worker?
Sydney is the latest stop of my nomadic life. Kyoto happened in my early years and sex work only happened quite recently. In the interim, I kept moving and met my first love… He taught me there’s nothing shameful about being a comfortable and sexual woman. That relationship saw a peaceful end but it inspired me to start this business where I can explore sex and intimacy while remaining the shy introvert I am:)
- How long does one train to become a geisha?
Five to six years, depends on the Maiko’s progress and the condition of her teahouse.
- There has long been an uneasy relationship between geisha and sex workers, often due to the misunderstanding that they are one and the same. How does it feel to have traversed both worlds?
You’re right about the tension. It’s a murky zone with a lot of entanglement – their historical roots, WWII and the American Occupation (more detail can be found in my blog). Sex exists in every workplace, especially when a power hierarchy facilitates/shelters such negotiations. Models, actresses, musicians… we can’t single out Geisha and say they’re sex workers because some of them had relationships with patrons. And that’s the pre WWII Geisha boom we’re talking about. Now, “Geisha = sex workers” is simply a false statement.
I keep on educating people that Geisha don’t sell sex. Even joked about printing the sentence on a T-Shirt because I repeat it so much;’) It is about doing my former community justice, as well as telling my own experience: One reason Kyoto doesn’t suit me is because a woman must be seen as “sexy” but isn’t allowed to be sexual. At the end of the day, anonymity is the primary concern. While I don’t feel slightly embarrassed about my business, I’d hate to cause any trouble to my former community to whom I owe so much; hence my minimum advertisement and the “no photography” policy, even amongst peers.
- Do you know of anyone else who is offering/has offered a similar service to you?
I hoped to find others, but it seemed like I’m the only one in Australia and elsewhere.
- We are lucky enough to enjoy a decriminalised sex work industry in New South Wales. Are you at all familiar with the sex industry in Japan?
You’re right. We’re blessed with the law standing on our side. Not to mention the lovely clients who have inhabited this decriminalised space. This environment has arguably made them savvy and more comfortable in many ways, compared to others who are facing hostile legislations and law enforcements.
I haven’t physically met any Japanese sex worker; my knowledge of their industry comes from activists like Suzuki Emi (@emi_sws) and Kanawa Mariko (@MarikoKawana)… There’s no better way to understand them than to listen… They are currently raising awareness for fair wage, ethical porn and safety nets for women (to encourage full autonomy and reduce survival sex work)…
- One of my favourite quotes of yours is, “I left prior to completion. Otherwise my rates would be higher and the trolls would spin with rage in their mother’s basement.” How did you decide on your rates, and do you experience a lot of animosity in regards to this?
That’s a funny one! I almost regretted it after hitting “tweet” because it sounded a little childish for a response… I try not to mind random men’s ‘animosity’ towards my rates. Organising a night of entertainment in a prestige Kyoto teahouse or restaurant costs a lot more than I charge, the clients who book me are more or less aware of this; they rarely even speak of money.
- Clients are as different as the sex workers they see, however, given that your profile is so unique, is there a common thread that links the clients that book you?
I feel they understand the value of “Yuko” very well – my skillset, experiences and how impossible it is to physically meet someone like me in real life. To most people, including Japanese, Kyoto Geisha circle is an unreachable zone. This lack of accessibility is alive and strong, as the most prestige Kyoto teahouses still insist on the “No Foreigners” rule and the “No First-Time Client without Introduction” rule… Top Geisha and Maiko in Kyoto are a bit like the three-star Michelin restaurant Sukiyabashi Jirō, only way more difficult to book.
- Reading your Twitter posts, I learned many things about Japanese culture, from obis to Japanese manners to how to wear okobo. Do you find that education makes up as much a part of the face-to-face service you provide?
Clients are certainly very curious. I’m very happy to share about things from the motif on my kimono to my previous training experience, most clients are a lot more curious about the experience part:)
- Despite your very educational blog posts, do many of your clients have initial misconceptions in regards to what they expect from a booking with you?
That’s very rare. My blog and the “Ask Yuko” page are for my clients to get to know me better while the date gets closer. Other than that, a gentleman is usually very good on finding all the information he can get before walking into the room.
- After reading about the process of dressing, I realised that getting ready for a client takes on a whole new meaning when you are Yuko… J Can you describe the practical process of preparing to see a client that has booked ‘Your Private Geisha’?
The preparation takes a total of 4 to 6 hours including hygiene routines. It includes wig (an unwilling decision as there is no hairdresser/Kamiyui-shi in Australia who is qualified for the job), make-up which I do myself, and putting on the kimono with the assistance from a skilled professional. Sometimes, when that person is not available on the date requested, then the client has to choose another day…
- I understand that you have 5 times more kimonos than civilian styles. Do you have a favourite? Is there a particular kimono you are currently coveting?
Yes. I have about 30 pieces of civilian clothes and over 150 kimono at the moment. There is no one particular favourite but I have several best pieces for each occasion and season. The nuance of the booking will also influence the choice of embroidery, dye/handpaint and metal threads (gold or silver). I recently lost an auction… It’s a beautiful formal kimono previously owned by someone I deeply respect… That was a shame:(
- I believe that geisha engage in daily practice and kimono maintenance. How much of your week is devoted to similar tasks?
That depends on the condition and habits of the teahouse. The fact I don’t work every night gives me time to take better care of them. Old silk needs time to ‘breathe’. That alone is an on-going task (to keep a record and switch to the next one). There are other things like smudge checks and fixing them using a care kit. In case of spots I can’t remove, they get sent back to Kyoto to be cleaned. Just like my wig, it gets sent back to the artist who made it to be washed and re-styled.
- You engage regularly and to great effect on Twitter. How important is that to your marketing and engagement with clients?
Twitter connects me to clients who aren’t on Scarlet Blue, some have never booked a sex worker before. In that sense it’s filled some gaps that traditional advertisement can’t. Most of my existing clients on there are completely silent; they don’t even press the like button; instead they’ll send a text about my tweets ;)… Some active men on Twitter can be “promising”… in the literal sense that they “promise” the moon but never book. A genuine Twitter client’s task is then to separate himself from those people.
- You recently wrote a particularly touching blog entry about your one-year anniversary as a sex worker. What have been the highlights of that year (and the lowlights, if you care to share).
Thank you… I can quickly recall some moments involving luxurious items or tremendous efforts, but the ones that really moved me are when clients come for the aesthetics but stay for the realness. It’s like the summer fireworks in Japan – people come for the spectacles, but they keep coming back because of how it makes them feel.
- You regularly engage with other sex workers online, and seem to value being a part of the sex work community. How important is this to you, and was it something you expected?
Yes, being a private worker can be all too isolating and the warmth of friendship is priceless… There are so many sex workers on Twitter I’ve been admiring from afar but have been too shy to even follow… That needs to change!
No, the strong solidarity in our community is an unexpected blessing. When I was in a really bad state after being attacked by a violent client, waves of messages filled my inbox for weeks offering help, advice and company… The kindness and support of this community is truly something I have never experienced before and may never feel adequate enough to repay.
- How does your Maiko trainee retirement sit with you now? Do you have regrets?
So far, none! I used to want the life of a full-fledged Kyoto Geisha, but my current adventure has given me more than a Kyoto Geisha can hope for.
- I understand you are recently involved in a new civilian project – one that fits the bill of ‘childhood dream’. This must be very exciting! How are you finding your new ‘double life’?
It’s exhausting hard work to do it well. What consumes the most energy isn’t the role-switching, per se, but to keep your two feet on the ground when committing to the responsibility those roles entail. And of course there is the common concern with privacy…
My dream job is the kind of thing your kindergarten self would shout out to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” There are still mountains of work to do to get there eventually…
- What are your plans for the future, in regards to being a sex worker?
There’s no plan of retirement in the near future, but things can change quickly if/when new progress are made in my civilian life. I may leave Sydney later next year, but that’s still way too early to say…