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Japan’s Oldest Geisha Dies At 102

August 19, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ Japan’s oldest geisha, one of the last links to a fading and much-misunderstood artistic tradition, has died of kidney failure. Tsutakiyokomatsu Asaji was 102.

Her family said she died Sunday at a Tokyo hospital.

Born Haru Kato, Asaji spent nearly 90 years as a geisha, performing the refined songs and dances of geisha tradition until she fell ill and retired in April. Over the years, her customers came from the elite ranks of Japan’s politicians and business leaders.

Geisha _ which literally means ``arts person″ _ are often assumed, especially by Westerners, to be prostitutes. While some do develop intimate relationships with customers who become their patrons, the profession has a rigorous and centuries-old etiquette.

Though a skilled geisha can have a lifelong career, as Asaji did, the number of what purists consider true practitioners declined with the emergence of Western-style hostess bars.

Geisha skills _ music, dance, smiles, charming conversation and the serving of sake _ don’t come cheap. An evening’s fee for a geisha party can easily run into the thousands of dollars, and Japan’s long recession put a damper on such lavish business entertainment.

In the past, it was considered normal for wealthy and powerful men to have liaisons with entertainers, but mores have been changing. Former Prime Minister Sosuke Uno resigned in 1989 over a scandal involving his geisha mistress.

Asaji entered Japan’s entertainment world as an 11-year-old apprentice in 1905. Five years later, she made her debut as a professional geisha in Tokyo’s Yanagibashi district, where she remained until the end of her career.

She was known as a master of ``okiwazu bushi,″ a Japanese traditional song featured in kabuki plays. She won a cultural award in 1989, and published an autobiography two years ago.

Asaji is survived by a daughter, Kinuko. Her funeral is scheduled Thursday.

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