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What’s the difference between a Geisha, a Maiko and a Geiko?

Geisha or Maiko, Real or Fake? Learn the differences between them here!

You may have heard others talk about how they spotted geisha while travelling in Kyoto – but did they really see a geisha, or was it a maiko they saw instead? Or was it even a tourist who paid to dress up in a geisha outfit just for the experience? The differences may be subtle, but let’s see how you can distinguish between them. Let’s clairfy the differences between a geisha and a maiko and between a geisha and a geiko.

First of all:

Geisha vs. Geiko

Literally translating to ‘arts person’, geisha (芸者) are highly trained in Japanese traditional arts, including music, singing and dancing. By contrast, geiko (芸子) is primarily used to refer to geisha from Kyoto. Although geisha formerly referred to only those from Tokyo and its surrounding areas, it has now become the general term for all geisha.

Geiko vs. Maiko

Maiko (舞妓) translates to ‘dancing girl’ or ‘child’, and refers to apprentice geiko. They undergo about 5 years of training in various arts, before graduating to become geiko. Outside of Kyoto, the hangyoku (半玉) in Tokyo would be the closest equivalents to maiko. Hangyoku literally means ‘half jewel’ and are trainee geisha, although little is known about their training process. So summed up, the difference between geiko and maiko can be described as the difference between accomplished “master” of their art and an apprentice.

Now that we’ve clarified the terminology, what are the differences between geisha and maiko?

1. Hair style

Geishas usually wear a simple wig over their natural hair, usually in the typical style seen below. However, maikos style their own hair into elaborate arrangements that vary depending on the stage of training they are in.

Typical Geisha HairstyleA typical geisha hairstyle

Typical Maiko HairstyleOne of the several hairstyles that maiko sport during their apprentice stage

2. Hair accessories

Maikos wear several elaborate hair ornaments, or kanzashi, such as fan or ball-shaped ornaments and combs. There is also the hanakanzashi – an ornament with silk flowers dangling from the maiko’s head to her chin.  While this is one of the most recognisable hair ornaments, it is only worn during the first year Minarai stage of a maiko’s training.

In contrast, geisha wear simpler ornaments or decorative combs in their hair.

Typical Geisha Hair AccessoriesA set of kanzashi for the month of May, featuring purple irises and wisteria

Geisha MamehanaThe far simpler hair ornaments worn by a geisha

3. Make up

As maikos do not wear wigs, they will have a noticeable band of unpainted skin at their hairline. Their eyebrows will be coloured with red or pink, while their eyes will be outlined in red and black. First year maikos will have only their lower lip painted red, while maikos in the second year of training and beyond will have both lips painted. By comparison, as geishas normally wear wigs, there will not be any band of bare skin at their hairline. Their eyebrows will only have a touch of red, while their eyes are only outlined in black. Both their lips will be painted bright red.

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4. Kimono

Maiko often wear brightly coloured, long-sleeved kimono with a wide obi or sash that is arranged into a bow at their back and extends to their feet. The collar of their kimono will hang low at the back of their neck and is thick and embroidered, containing only red, gold and white (or cream) colours. The geisha are older, hence wear more mature kimono, usually in solid colours and shorter sleeves. Their obi are narrower and tied in a square knot, while their collars are completely white and sit higher at the back of their neck.

Maiko and GeishaThe simple, shorter sleeved kimono with narrow obi worn by the geiko contrasts with the more elaborate outfit of the maiko

5. Footwear

Maiko normally wear very high okobo(おこぼ), or wooden sandals. Geisha wear shorter zori (草履) or geta(下駄), although maiko may also wear those on special occasions.

 Three Maiko and one GeishaThe footwear worn by the geisha on the right is far lower than that of the maikos

 

In addition, we found an explanation of the differences between maiko and geiko directly from a geiko:

Real Geisha vs. Tourist Maiko / Tourist Geisha

With those differences between geisha and maiko in mind, how do we tell whether a white painted-faced, kimono-clad person sporting a traditional hairstyle is actually a maiko or geisha, instead of a tourist dressed up as one in disguise? Here are some tell-tale signs:

1. Hair ornaments and makeup

As the long, dangly hanakanzashi is only worn by maiko in their first year of training, which corresponds to when they have only their lower lip painted red, a person wearing hanakanzashi with both lips painted is not the real thing.

Hana-Kanzashi on a tourist maikoA dress-up maiko with 3 tell-tale signs: ‘hana-kanzashi’ paired with both lips painted; the presence of colours other than red, gold and white on the collar; and the relative lack of red on the collar.

2. Time of day

Maiko and geisha start their workday in the evening, hence a person in full regalia in the middle of the day is most likely a tourist.

3. Location

As maiko and geisha hold celebrity status, they will usually avoid crowded places and tend to use the backstreets to get from place to place.

4. Photo-taking

Customers pay for the time required for maiko and geisha to get from place to place, hence they will not stop to take photos with tourists.

5. Walking

While the okobo worn by maiko can be very high and difficult to walk in, maiko are trained to be able to move around in them and will not require the assistance of others for balance.

6. Seasonal motifs

Geisha and maiko wear kimono with patterns that correspond to the seasons. Likewise, the motifs on their hair ornaments are aligned to the time of year too. If you see someone wearing an autumn kimono in spring, then she is most definitely a fake!

With all these in mind, you should now be able to easily distinguish between geisha and maiko, and between the real and the fake!

Although fake shouldn’t be seen with a negative connotation in this context. As we saw in Octavia’s Maiko Kimono Showcase, you can look good dressed up as maiko, even without working for an okiya in Kyoto!

 

The author of this article is Joanne, who is a former Osaka City JET whose love affair with Japan started when a friend in university asked to take a beginner’s Japanese language course together. Originally from Singapore, Joanne has been in Northern Ireland for two years but would love to live in Japan again. Joanne is the creator and current curator of rotation curation Twitter account @We_JapanShe has her own personal blog “Bits and Bobs”, where she writes about her personal interests, as well as traveling, Japan, ballet and living in Northern Ireland as a Singaporean.

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9 thoughts on “What’s the difference between a Geisha, a Maiko and a Geiko?

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  6. […] information sources: Kyoto Visitor’s Guide 300th Issue Special Feature | How Geisha Work | Difference between geiko and maiko Image credits: Photo of geiko & maiko in yellow kimono (Wikipedia, licensed under CC 2.0) | […]

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  8. […] Despite my initial indifference, I now think this transformation would be fascinating for anyone interested in beauty. The important thing is not to expect it to be flattering according to contemporary western standards. It can be (my daughter looked absolutely stunning, a little disconcerting considering she’s seven), but it probably won’t. Your figure will be hidden by many layers of fabric and your face completely white, with a small mouth and red-lined eyes. What is extremely impressive, though, is how completely makeup and clothes can change you. Obviously, for the dark-haired, rosebud-mouthed Japanese beauties the change is much less radical, but it’s still an extremely stylised look. Most tourists “do a maiko”, as the trainee geishas are more colourfully dressed (read about the visual differences here). […]

  9. […] with the white paint and the elaborate hairstyles, is actually that of an apprentice Geisha, or Maiko, although not all Geisha will go through the apprenticeship. If a candidate is already 21 or above […]

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