Glimpses and Random Musings: Maiko in Japan

Last month I posted a series of pictures from my trip to Japan, but there was one set of pictures that I did not get a chance to post — a few pictures taken during a fleeting encounter with Maiko, or apprentice Geisha.

Many people outside of Japan are familiar with Geisha primarily from images in Western movies and literature, which can of course be quite a questionable source of knowledge. Geisha are traditional female entertainers, known for their skill in dance, song, music and witty conversation.  The profession evolved out of the courtesan system in the Edo period.  Courtesans,  known as Oiran,  provided both entertainment and sex, though the emphasis was on entertainment, differentiating them from common prostitutes.  Men waiting to see oiran were entertained by dancers and actresses, the highest level of which was the tayu.  As the social system changed, somewhere in the 18th century the tayu became what are now known as Geisha.   The symbol of the geisha was the willow — a symbol of grace, subtlety and strength — in contrast to the courtesan or flower, and the world of the geisha and courtesan is referred to as the “Flower and Willow World”.

Traditionally you could become a Geisha only after a long apprenticeship, sometimes beginning as young as 5 years old, but now, the ‘maiko’ or apprentice stage usually lasts between 6 months to 3 years.  As my son and I wandered around Kyoto, we came to the area called Gion, which is the district of Kyoto best known for geisha, and saw this.

Gion Kyoto

As one group of maiko left the theatre area, another arrived, two processions passing each other.  Like movie stars, they were surrounded by people snapping pictures and following them to and from the limos that brought them to Gion.  Their colorful kimono, lowered in the back to expose the nape of the neck, elaborate obi. and distinctive hair styles mark them as Maiko or apprentice Geisha.  Interestingly, once they become full-fledged Geisha, they will no longer wear the bright and elaborate kimono and obi, nor will  they expose the nape of the neck so dramatically.  As a full fledged geisha, they are expected to be able to entertain with musical skill, wit, and intelligence, rather than relying on bright colors and sex appeal (the nape of the neck is thought to be very erotic) to keep the attention of their audience. [What does that say about our fashion trends in the West!]

But look carefully, beyond the maiko with their white makeup and colorful kimono.  What really caught my attention as we watched the procession was these women.


These are the women with the highest status here.  Each of the maiko made an almost full turn to face the leader of the opposite procession and give her a very  polite bow.  These leaders (and leaders they were without doubt), continued walking,  barely acknowledging the maiko.  Only the leader of the opposite group was acknowledged with a visible nod of the head, a greeting of equals or near equals at least.

So who are these women?   I think they are the owners of the Geisha houses, or perhaps higher level representatives of those houses.  It is very expensive to become a geisha, so traditionally women who wished to enter the “world of flowers and willows” would be bonded to a geisha house.  That house, headed by an okaasan (literally mother, but I assume a senior geisha) would pay for their food, lodging, training, and clothing, and that debt had to be repaid. Only after it was repaid could the geisha choose to live independently outside the geisha house. Within the geisha house, her status and progress depended on her relationship both with the head of the geisha house and with other ‘older sister’ geisha who mentored her, and it had, like much of feudal society, strict hierarchies and complex rules governing the relationships of its members.

The world of flower and willows was and is a world of women, where women wield power and can achieve independence in a way certainly was not possible in most of society in earlier generations.   I can imagine the appeal in that age, where so few means of independence existed for women, but I wonder about what attracts women to this life today where independence at least, if not power, is much easier to attain.  For those of you who are interested, there have been a number of scholarly and popular works by modern-day geisha or maiko, including Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki, and Geisha by Liza Dalby, an Australian who apprenticed (but did not become a full-fledged Geisha) as part of her Ph.D. thesis in Anthropology.  I have not read them myself, but this fascinating and fleeting glimpse raised many questions for me about power structures in society and how women find their own spaces within them.  I may need to do some research!


Add yours →

  1. I’ve read some fanciful novels about that world, but I hadn’t realized the tradition continued. Thanks for this fascinating glimpse.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Most interesting! Always good to learn more about real traditions instead of the popularized version. I may have to read more.

    Liked by 1 person

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