TOKYO -- In the world of the geisha, Chiyogiku and Shizuka are the essence of discretion, femininity and power. Between them they have poured sake for every Japanese prime minister since 1959. Two years ago, Chiyogiku was also summoned to serve Ronald Reagan during his $2 million junket to Tokyo, when Reagan's Japanese hosts took him to Kitcho, the wildly expensive restaurant currently much in favor with conservative ruling-party politicians. Years earlier, Shizuka remembers turning to then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato at another restaurant and remarking that one of the American guests looked remarkably like Richard Nixon. "That is Mr. Nixon," Sato replied.

Such encounters are all in a day's work for these two geisha of Shimbashi, the Tokyo business district that gives its name to the most prestigious and inaccessible group of geisha in the capital. Not surprisingly, both women think very little of the woman from the considerably less elite Kagurazaka geisha area who two summers ago wrecked the political career of then-Prime Minister Sosuke Uno when she went public with the details of their affair. "It was a case where problems had developed between a man and a woman," Shizuka says. "But even so, the rule is that you never speak of these things to the outside world. She didn't know the basic moral code of the geisha."

Today, the geisha is probably the most misunderstood woman in modern Japan. Even the Japanese know very little about her mysterious world, and often confuse her with a prostitute. But as any geisha of Shimbashi will tell you, "gei" in Japanese means "art," and a geisha is one who practices art -- in her case, by singing, dancing and playing the traditional Japanese instrument called a samisen -- for rich men in the private restaurants of Tokyo and Kyoto. Among Shimbashi geisha, serving food and sake and carrying on flirtatious conversations are always secondary to "gei." Geisha of course have love affairs with their married customers, but only after long, formal and expensive courtships that none but the very richest men in Japan can afford. "What I want to emphasize," Shizuka says, "is that it never happens quickly." The Shimbashi geisha is not the sort of woman who has a one-night stand, and she is disapproving of the "other kinds of geisha," the ones in Japan's popular hot-spring resorts, who do.

In the Japan of 1991, geisha are dwindling in number and the karyukai, or the flower and willow world, the traditional term for geisha society, is long past its prime. In 1920 there were 10,000 geisha in Tokyo; today, there are fewer than 1,000. But in exclusive pockets like Shimbashi, the geisha survives -- not as a curious relic of the past, but as an essential element in the way business is conducted in the upper reaches of Japan Inc.'s corporate oligarchy.

What follows is a story about two of the most elite geisha in Japan and, inevitably, a story about the relationship between Japanese men and women.

In a nation that has been built on the complete division of labor between the sexes, where the men go to work for 18 hours a day and the women single-handedly oversee the household and the education of the all-important next generation, the geisha still exists to perform the roles of hostess, lover and friend not expected of traditional Japanese wives. Yet geisha never think of themselves as subservient, and in many ways are among the most liberated women in Japan. "I cannot join in the categorical Western feminist scorn for geisha as chattel," writes the American anthropologist Liza Dalby in "Geisha," the definitive book in English on the subject, "and I do not take the position that theirs is a degrading profession that must be rooted out before Japanese women can attain equality with men."

In recent years especially, the geisha has in her own fashion adjusted to the modern world. "What we do is not that mysterious at all," Shizuka insists. "We go to restaurants, we serve, sometimes we dance, we say thank you very much, and then we go home." All in all, she concludes, "what we do is not that different from the new career woman in Japan."

Well, yes and no.

On this warm, rainy evening, Chiyogiku and Shizuka are working at Kanetanaka, a famous private restaurant, or ryotei, on a quiet back street in the heart of Tokyo. Outside, the restaurant's elegant earth-colored walls topped with Japanese tile could be hiding the traditional Japanese home of an heir to one of the country's great industrial fortunes. Inside, it may as well be a home. In the spare, meticulous entrance hall, decorated only by a plain gold folding screen at the far end of the tatami mat, there isn't a coat check girl or cash register in sight.

This is one of those places in Japan where few people can go. Kanetanaka's regular patrons include the chairmen and presidents of Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Sony, Nomura Securities and Dai-Ichi Kangyo, the world's largest bank -- all charter members of the private men's club that runs Japan. One does not walk off the street and ask for a table, or even phone for reservations. Introductions are necessary from a regular Kanetanaka guest. Fame helps. In recent years, Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger and Eduard Shevardnadze have all been taken to Kanetanaka by Japanese hosts. Bills that routinely run as high as $800 per person are sent to guests' offices afterward.

"Good evening," Shizuka says with a coy formality. She and Chiyogiku have just entered one of Kanetanaka's private rooms to greet their guests -- an American woman, an American man and a Japanese man. The room is an expensive celebration of the Japanese aesthetic: an immaculate tatami mat that gives off the delicious, grassy smell of rice straw; a red lacquer table; a single stem of day lilies in an antique basket; a Heian era-style scroll hanging on one wall.

Chiyogiku is 28, pretty and delicate, with exquisite manners and a quiet sense of self-possession. She is dressed this evening in a sea green silk kimono with pink blossoms over her shoulder, and is excited about an upcoming three-month trip to Paris to study French -- the latest rage among ambitious young Shimbashi geisha interested in European polish to help with their increasingly cosmopolitan Japanese customers. Shizuka is 51 and striking. She is dressed in a pale yellow kimono with a matching fan, and has about her an assertive, intelligent and worldly-wise air. She became a geisha when she was 19 years old, and as she says in a voice full of meaning, "Many things have happened in my life in 32 years." Neither woman is wearing the traditional white-face geisha makeup, which is for dancing and New Year's. "It takes forever to put it on," Shizuka says.

This evening is the culmination of months of preliminaries. Geisha, particularly Shimbashi geisha, almost never talk to the press, and any reporter who wants to interview one must go through an elaborate process that at times seems as intense as the courtship ritual of potential lovers. In this case, Kunio Takemura, the secretary general of the Shimbashi Geisha Association, was the key person who finally agreed to an interview. After some time, he produced Chiyogiku and Shizuka for an interview in a sterile conference room at the geisha association offices, with himself in attendance. Given the circumstances, the interview didn't go badly, but both women insisted afterward that to really understand how a geisha works, an evening with them at a ryotei was a must. So here we are.

Chiyogiku and Shizuka kneel by the table with their feet tucked under them, share a cup of sake with the guests, then chat innocuously as two maidservants begin bringing a 10-course dinner of minuscule Japanese delicacies arranged on beautiful porcelain, pottery and lacquerware. If this were a large party of typically uptight, sixtyish Japanese men -- if, say, senior bank executives were giving a dinner for important clients -- the geisha would get things going by pouring vast amounts of sake and enticing each man out of his shell. "Often the customer just wants to forget about the heat and storms of the day," Shizuka says. "So we'll have relaxed conversations about things like summer vacations and golf tournaments."

And things like "My wife doesn't understand me"?

Shizuka smiles. "Sometimes," she says.

Men who attend such dinners in Shimbashi say the evenings are often excruciatingly dull, and that the geisha save them from complete disaster. Things may get noisier after the geisha perform their traditional Japanese dances, for many an acquired taste. Then everyone might play party games with lots of innuendo, like janken-pon, the Japanese childhood game that an American would recognize as rock-paper-scissors. The men make passes, but Shizuka claims that in Shimbashi it never goes beyond a pleasantly inebriated "You're my type." Afterward, everyone goes home happy. Once again, the geisha have ensured that another dealmaking evening in the ascendancy of Japan Inc. went smoothly. As Shizuka puts it, "We are the lubrication of the machine."

Both Shizuka and Chiyogiku became geisha in the modern way, which is to say their training lasted months instead of years. Before World War II, country girls from impoverished families were sometimes sold by their parents to geisha houses at the age of 12. They spent their first two years at the house as servants, and the next two in rigorous training. Education and child labor laws have since intervened.

Chiyogiku was born Yumiko Saito, the daughter of a car salesman. She grew up in Yokohama, graduated from high school, went to work as a secretary and soon found the job stultifying. So one day, she presented herself with no introduction to the manager of Kanetanaka. "I told her I wanted to be a geisha," she says. It was 1983 and a slightly odd thing for a modern 20-year-old Japanese woman to do. But ever since she was 10 years old, Chiyogiku had gone to the Azuma Odori, the spectacular dances that the Shimbashi geisha stage each spring at the Shimbashi Embujo, the great theater next to Kanetanaka. The dances are the pride of the Shimbashi geisha, and the once-a-year public display of their gei. "It was my dream to dance on that stage," Chiyogiku says.

The woman at Kanetanaka sent Chiyogiku off to an okiya, or geisha house, where she lived with a geisha of more experience. Chiyogiku called her okasan, or mother. (In the old days, okiya were traditional Japanese houses where a dozen or more geisha lived, but Chiyogiku's okiya, like many in Tokyo these days, was a small apartment.) By day, Chiyogiku studied the geisha arts, and by night she sat in the corners of the rooms at ryotei and observed. After four months, she passed an exam by performing before a group of senior Shimbashi geisha, although like most new geisha it would be two years before she was good enough to dance in the Azuma Odori. Her geisha name became Chiyogiku -- Chrysanthemum of 1,000 Years.

Shizuka, too, grew up in Yokohama, as Shizuka Hayashi. Her parents ran a pharmacy. She studied traditional Japanese dance from childhood, but the real reason for her interest in geisha was an evocative book called "Karyukai" that had been in her home for as long as she could remember. In the spring of 1959, when Shizuka graduated from high school, she asked her parents to take her to see Kikumura, a famous geisha who had been featured in the book at home. Kikumura accepted the young woman, and by July she was simply the geisha Shizuka. (Typically, introductions from a dance teacher or other mutual friend are necessary for a woman to become a Shimbashi geisha, but it does happen without them -- provided that the women is serious, shows potential and passes the background checks.)

In her three decades as a geisha, Shizuka has devoted herself to her art. If she marries, she has to quit. Would she have liked to have married? "The answer is not so simple," she says. "Sometimes I wish I could have. Other times I am so happy I haven't. But I don't think marriage is everything. In my case, when I was young, I thought that marriage might be a good thing. But at that time, I didn't meet anybody suitable. So I decided to devote myself to my art. Then I thought I might want to marry again. But as before, I didn't meet anybody who was right. I've been through this cycle many times."

The evening is progressing, the mood is warming, and the food is still coming -- sea urchins with slices of eggplant, delectable grilled prawns, cold Japanese beef topped with slivers of dried seaweed. Shizuka flutters her fan, chatting happily. This seems a good moment to ask the delicate question about her relationships with customers. After all, she casually said during the interview at the geisha association that she has had lovers.

Tonight, her mood changes instantly, and she draws the line. "I do not want you to write about my personal life," she says, emphatically. But she wants to explain. "In my profession, I need an image of cleanliness and mysteriousness," she says. "To have a clear-cut name {of a man} beside me is not good. It destroys the dreams of the customers toward us."

A Shimbashi geisha's reputation is everything to her. "I think of myself as a liberated woman," Shizuka says. "I am free, but I also have a strong notion that I belong to the Shimbashi Geisha Association. So I know I can't do stupid things. I realize I must be careful in my relationships with men. If I start having love affairs all the time, I'll get a reputation as a woman with no discipline."

Among the geisha of Shimbashi, Shizuka says, it is not uncommon for a geisha to have a 20-year relationship with a married customer. Sometimes she has his children as well. The wives usually don't know, or don't want to know. In an earlier time, such a customer was called a patron, and was expected to support the geisha lavishly; these days, because so few customers can afford it, geisha often support themselves, but depend on their special customers for elaborate gifts and cash. The relationship with the customer is above all discreet, and known to only a few close friends of the couple. "In the old days, it was more clear about patrons," Shizuka says. "If a guest would like to have a geisha as his partner, there was an established custom. The mama-san {the proprietor of the restaurant} was the go-between, to make sure the geisha was well treated. But basically the geisha had no right to say no if she had been selected by a customer. Now it's different. Some geisha carry on the custom, but it's not at all compulsory. The access is direct -- between the geisha and the customer."

But a customer still must follow the established rules. "First, I would be called many times to the restaurant," Shizuka says. (This is handled by a suitor's secretary, who when making the restaurant reservations can also request specific geisha.) "After that," says Shizuka, "there would be an offer -- 'How about meeting privately, or for golf?' And only then will things develop according to normal relations between men and women."

Some geisha do marry their customers, but only after the wives have died. "It is our moral code that we should not break up the family," Shizuka says. But isn't it difficult for a geisha never to be the wife of the man she loves? "This is a problem between men and women," Shizuka says. "This not only happens between customer and geisha -- it also happens between secretaries and their bosses. If a geisha cannot bear this, the relationship can't last."

She rejects the notion that there is something wrong with the traditional Japanese marriage. "It is not at all the case that these things happen because the marriage isn't going well," she says. "This is the human nature of men and women. Some geisha think this kind of relationship can coexist with marriage, and that this is something completely different from married life. After all, there are many different kinds of love."

Geisha to the Samurai

The first geisha appeared in Japan in the 17th century, but the history of the Shimbashi geisha really begins in 1868, when a group of young samurai from western Japan seized control of the shogun's central government in Edo, now known as Tokyo, and installed Emperor Meiji as their puppet. This coup came to be called the Meiji Restoration, and with it a new ruling class from the far west of Japan arrived in the capital. The sophisticated Edoites looked down on the new bureaucrats as parvenus from the countryside, and the geisha from the elegant quarters of town would have nothing to do with them. But the Shimbashi geisha, who were themselves dismissed as ambitious country girls, threw open their doors. "Perhaps they realized," says Takemura of the Shimbashi Geisha Association, "that the future of Japan was with these men."

The reputation of the Shimbashi geisha rose along with the Meiji era, not least because two of the greatest statesmen of the time, Hirobumi Ito and Taro Katsura, frequented the area. Ito, who was Japan's first prime minister, had a geisha mistress, while Katsura, who was prime minister three times in the early years of the 20th century, became the patron of one of the most famous geisha of the day, Okoi. By 1925 Shimbashi was at its height, with 1,000 geisha.

Today only 150 remain. Most modern Shimbashi geisha live alone in apartments in other parts of Tokyo, while the ryotei in which they work have moved to the neighboring business district of Tsukiji. But the Shimbashi name endures. For now, the geisha ranks are steady: Three new Shimbashi geisha are initiated each year, and the same number retire. Both new and old geisha receive the same standard fee per hour, and make about $50,000 -- not including gifts and cash presents -- per year. Typically, in one night a geisha will work at two, three or even four dinners at different ryotei. Sometimes she'll go by old-fashioned rickshaw, but more often she'll take a taxi. Shizuka drives her Toyota Corolla to work. Many of the Shimbashi geisha are in their sixties and seventies; unlike other working women in Japan, secretaries in particular, geisha are not penalized for aging. Younger, more glamorous geisha can be found in the area of Akasaka, which is frequented by politicians because the ryotei there are close to the Japanese Diet, or parliament. Many aficionados prefer Akasaka geisha, but Shimbashi geisha look down on them as modern girls who wouldn't know what to do with a samisen if it hit them over the head.

The Cost of a Lifestyle

Naoji Yui is 43, a partner at the American accounting firm of Arthur Andersen, and an example of how a relatively young Japanese man can afford to move within the world of the Shimbashi geisha. Yui works in the Tokyo office of Andersen, and for years, like many Japanese men, he prowled the hostess bars of Tokyo's expensive Ginza district, having teasing, suggestive conversations with the stunning young women in miniskirts who kept pouring the whiskey and running up his tab. "But I graduated from that," Yui says, talking over lunch in his offices at Arthur Andersen. "I'm sick of it. I found it was a waste of time and money."

Fortunately for Yui, a friend who is a teacher of traditional Japanese dance introduced him at a Shimbashi ochaya, a kind of bar where geisha also work. Now, about twice a month, Yui goes to his ochaya and pays $200 (of his own money, not the company's) for three hours of drinks, snacks and geisha. "There is one geisha who takes care of all of my arrangements," he says. "This geisha has friends. If I bring four people, then she asks her friends, 'Please come to my party.' " One of the regulars at Yui's parties is Chiyogiku.

Although Yui makes $250,000 a year, it is not nearly enough to support a geisha in the style she would expect. As he says, "If I wanted to dominate her, I would have to be rich." But he and his friends have worked out a looser, group arrangement. "There are about 20 of us," he says. "If we go to Shimbashi twice a month, we 20 support her. Support means that I ask her to come to my parties, where I have to pay an hour rate. I buy tickets to her performances. I give her money at New Year's, and other times of the year."

Today, Yui is much happier at his ochaya than he ever was in Ginza. "The geisha's commitment to her art is concrete and substantial," he says. "Person-to-person contact can continue for 10 years. But in Ginza, an office lady can become a hostess tomorrow."

Yui is married with two children. His wife, he says, accepts his geisha evenings. "She knows this is a rather unique society," he says. "I go there for exceptional, special times only. She knows that geisha are not her rivals. But if I were dating a so-called 'mature girl,' then she might worry. As long as I don't go too often and spend too much money, it's okay."

Bon Voyage

The evening at Kanetanaka is near its end. By the time the dessert arrives -- three perfect grapes and two slices of nashi, the Japanese pear -- Chiyogiku has since excused herself for an engagement at another ryotei, this one a goodbye party thrown by six of her best customers on the eve of her trip to Paris. "I would like to widen my experience," she says sweetly.

Shizuka is still fanning herself. For her, it has undoubtedly been a long, peculiar evening. No party games, no dancing -- just endless questions.

But of one thing she is certain. "It is true that the geisha world is in general decline," she says. "But I really believe that it will never die out."

Washington Post special correspondent Shigehiko Togo contributed to this report.