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Grumpy Geishas and Pheremone Comebacks

Illustration by Chip Boles

When President Bill Clinton visited Japan in 1998, he attended an open town meeting where normal citizens were invited to ask questions.

"I have a question regarding Monica Lewinsky," a Japanese housewife chirped up. "How did you apologize to Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea? I would never be able to forgive my husband such a thing. Did they really forgive you?"

Pausing slightly to simulate a thoughtful reaction, Clinton replied with a slight quaver to his voice, "You'll have to ask them that."


The crafty acting and cunning choice of words–implying humble contrition and an open-ended commitment to character reform–struck a chord with the audience, and they instantly felt a new respect for the philandering statesman.

The questioner later reported that Clinton's "honest answer" had made her his biggest fan with the kind of enthusiasm that suggests that if she had somehow been magically transposed to the White House as an intern, Bill might have found her a lot less difficult to seduce than Monica. Elsewhere on his trip, irony was in short supply as the Prez was praised by the Japanese media for his candour, and lauded for his long-term support for woman's rights.

The emotional red carpet laid down for Clinton was quite in keeping with the VIP welcome accorded to almost any visiting foreign celebrity, and was in stark contrast to the way the Japanese reacted to their own biggest sex scandal, which occurred in 1989, when the new Prime Minister Sosuke Uno was forced to resign after only a few weeks, following allegations from a geisha.

The Uno Scandal was important because it was Japan's inaugural political sex scandal. Before that time politicians simply didn’t need to worry about "pumping the flesh." Back in the 1950s, when Bukichi Miki, one of the founders of the Liberal Democratic Party, was accused by a heckler at a rally of keeping several mistresses, it was enough for him to respond, "Yes, but I take good care of all of them."

Even the Uno scandal initially looked like a political non-event. It was reported briefly in the back pages of a Sunday magazine and then forgotten. But, after being picked up by the Western media, Japanese news outlets took a renewed interest.

The outline of the case presented nothing out of the ordinary, involving as it did a standard-issue extra-marital relationship between a politician and a geisha that was already three years out of date. This was the sort of thing guaranteed to elicit a "so what?" from the average unconcerned voter.

The geisha in question was Mitsuko Nakanishi, a 36-year-old, divorced ex-office lady, who had only just finished her training as a geisha when she met the 62-year-old Uno, then a prominent MP. He had noticed the delicate-looking beauty at a party in which several geisha had been employed, and had arranged to meet her alone a few days later at a ryotei, an exclusive Japanese restaurant, where geisha typically provide their services.

Nakanishi told reporters that she and Uno met for their first dinner in October, 1985, in a private room with a tatami mat floor. The rising politician sought to impress her by showing her his biography on the jacket of a history book he had written, drawing her attention to the various posts he had held, including Minister of International Trade and Industry.

After singing a few songs to put her at her ease, he suddenly changed gear and got down to business, bluntly offering her 300,000 yen per month to be his mistress. Nakanishi remembers that he emphasized his offer by crudely grabbing three of her fingers, asking, "How about it?" Once the deal had been made, he immediately commanded her to "lie down" on the straw tatami mats to have sex.

What turned a run-of-the-mill affair into a scandal was that Uno clearly wasn’t to Nakanishi's taste, either for the way he looked or the way he behaved, or that of the voters. He was something of a stopgap appointment, following the resignation of the previous PM over a financial scandal, plus he had just blotted his copybook by introducing the country’s first consumption tax. A short, fat, ugly, blubbery, bespectacled creature, he was nevertheless arrogant, overbearing, tactless, and conceited. When he finally had sex with the geisha in late December, Nakanishi said he spoiled the occasion by repeatedly mentioning the fact that he was paying her. Then, at a New Year party, when asked by another geisha if he was having an affair with her, he merely gestured derisively.

Also he normally visited her early in the morning so that he could boast about his coverage in the newspapers and television, even though geishas normally work late and therefore prefer to rise late. He also promised to buy her plenty of gifts, but never followed through. When he finally broke off their relationship in March 1986, he claimed that it was a dokuta-stoppu ("doctor-stop"), a medical order to refrain from sex, and neglected to give her the traditional parting gift.

Three years later, when Uno became Prime Minister, Nakanishi released her story. Initially ignored, it started to catch on, not because of the lascivious details or moral outrage at the marital infidelity – there wasn’t any – but because it revealed that the Prime Minister lacked the finesse to carry on a proper relationship with a geisha. Playing away from home, the Japanese voter can wink at. But getting the etiquette wrong? Unforgivable!

The details of the relationship also suggested that Uno didn't actually like women very much, treating them as mere appendages to his grubby ego or receptacles for his biological urges. If the sex had been tempered with a little romance, then, regardless of the marital infidelity, the female half of the electorate wouldn’t have felt so alienated. This was Clinton’s advantage in Japanese eyes. Despite the fact that he let Monica scuff her knees, he was still seen as something of a dashing romantic, who had quite frankly done the girl a favour.

When Uno resigned, Nakanishi crowed, "Victory at last," telling reporters, "Tears came running down. I felt like an athlete who just won a game."

Caught up in the unprecedented excitement of a Japanese PM resigning over a sex scandal, the Western media, as usual, got carried away. With their own agenda and audience interests to serve, Western commentators started to cast Nakanishi in the role of a feminist icon, citing the case as proof that Japan was finally adopting a Western-style morality.

But, as the reaction to Clinton's visit suggests, this was yet another misreading of the situation. The difference in Western and Japanese mores was better demonstrated by the case of Taku Yamasaki, Secretary General of the Liberal Democratic Party, who was the subject of a 2002 tell-all book by a former mistress, entitled "Sensei: I Was Secretary-General Taku Yamasaki's Lover." With an eye for the sensational, the authoress cast Yamasaki as an egoistical sex maniac with a penchant for cosplay (uniform fetish). "If I weren't a politician I'd be a porn star," she reported him as boasting. Also, when she got pregnant, he paid for her abortion, saying "the more abortions a woman has the better she gets at sex."

Although Yamazaki's image suffered a temporary blow, resulting in a lost election, Japanese voters are naturally forgiving. Despite making the sort of comments that would see him hung, drawn, and quartered in the UK, he was soon on the road to recovery. This was helped by the backlash against the ex-mistress, who was seen as overdoing the kiss-and-tell routine when she participated in a double-header interview with Uno's old flame Nakanishi. With Yamasaki turning his charm back onto the voters, the 69-year-old reprobate soon regained the popular mandate, and was able to win re-election with the full support of an important woman's group and plenty of support from female voters, leading commentators to dub his return a "pheromone comeback."

Erotic Review
April, 2010
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