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Geisha, Maiko or Oiran?


OiranThe word Geisha literally translates to "arts person" or "one trained in arts" (gei = art, sha = person). It is also sometimes described as "women of arts, which is exactly what a Geisha is - a woman trained in the traditional arts of Japan such as dance, music, singing to name but a few.

The word Geiko is another way of saying Geisha. It is predominately used by Geisha of the Kyoto districts. Whist their appearances are very similar, the main difference between Geiko and Geisha is really just their location, but there are a few differences in certain customs and traditions. The word "Geiko" derives from the Kyoto dialect of the word and is generally used to refer to those from the Kyoto hanamachi.

The word "Geisha", which is the widely accepted version of the word, is actually the Tokyo dialect for "Geiko". It was primarily used by geisha of Tokyo and surrounding areas, but it is now used as the general term to talk about all geisha.

Unfortunately there is very little literature about modern day Tokyo geisha and hangyoku or their customs and traditions. There is also very little literature about other geisha that reside around the rest of Japan.


The word Maiko literally translates to "dancing child" (mai = dance, ko = child), but is also referred to as "dancing girl". A Maiko is an apprentice Geisha who must undergo a period of training that generally takes 5 years, where she learns the various "gei" (arts) such as dancing, singing, music etc before she becomes a Geisha.

The Tokyo geisha districts have a rough equivalent to maiko called Hangyoku (han = half, gyoku = the amount charged for a full fledge geisha, literally "half charge"). They originally were young girls who, at the age of 9 to 10 would join the Tokyo hanamachi and train in the various arts. A few years later, she would start to entertain at parties. Hangyoku were less elaborate than the Kyoto maiko and did not wear the long trailing kimono or obi. They did, however, wear the distinctive red collar.

By the time Liza Dalby wrote her book, "Geisha" (originally published in 1983), hangyoku had pretty much disappeared – although there appears to have been a resurgence within the last decade. Unfortunately, there is little literature about hangyoku, so the length of training and duties are very unclear.

There is also a group of women in the Asakusa district who go by the name of "Furisode-san", who appear to mimic the look and feel of Maiko. It appears that the Furisode-san were created to help revive some of the older districts. Whether they can be called real Geisha or not, is debatable. To become a furisode-san, women have to be between the ages of 18-25 and undergo a training period of three months to learn basic dance and tea ceremony, along with correct application of the make-up and kimono dressing.

Oiran and Tayuu

Maiko and Geisha are most certainly not prostitutes! A Maiko and Geisha's profession is based on preserving the traditional arts such as dance, singing and music and entertaining in a non-sexual manner.

The confusion as to whether Geisha are prostitutes or not seems to have stemmed both from the close proximity Geisha had to courtesans in the Edo era and the fact that they did technically originate from the red light districts. The main culprit though appears to be from post World War II occupation by U.S. service men.

Many U.S. service came home from Japan with wild and raunchy stories of "Gee-sha Girls" whom, for most of the part where not in fact real Geisha, but rather, ordinary Japanese women or prostitutes masquerading or calling themselves "Geisha", largely because it was easiest for the service men to understand.

Of course, the large majority of service men did not know the difference, and despite the survival of the Geisha districts after the enforcement of the prostitution laws in 1957 and the subsequent closure of the red light districts, the misconception has haunted the flower and willow world ever since.

Oiran and Tayuu were the highest class of courtesans, or, to put it bluntly, the highest rank in the hierarchy of prostitution in the pleasure quarters. They were not Geisha, nor were Geisha Oiran or Tayuu. Geisha did used to work alongside Oiran and Tayuu though, entertaining in a conversational manner and also dancing, singing and playing music. They were not allowed to compete with the Oiran or Tayuu for their customers, and many strict regulations were placed on them to enforce this.

After the prostitution laws came into place, there was one Tayuu house that remained open, to serve as a museum and to preserve the artistic and cultural elements of the Tayuu lifestyle. This particular house is called the Wachigaiya, located in the Shimabara hanamachi.

Some of the women who took on the lifestyle of a modern day Tayuu (technically, "actresses" who mimic the life of a Tayuu minus the sexual aspect of it) could possibly have been geisha previously who, in addition to their prior knowledge in the traditional arts, decided to help preserve the artistic culture of the Tayuu.

How can I tell a Maiko from a Geisha?

It is actually very simple and easy to distinguish between the two. Starting from head to toe, the main points of difference are:

Junior Maiko makeup Senior Maiko makeup
Junior maiko
  • face painted white leaving bare skin around hairline
  • cheek/eye areas a noticeable cherry blossom pink
  • eyes outlined in deep crimson and black
  • eyebrows defined with red/pink under the black
  • noticeable element - small proportion of her lower lip is painted in crimson
Senior maiko
  • face painted white leaving bare skin around hairline
  • cheek/eye areas a subtle cherry blossom pink
  • eyes outlined in deep crimson and black
  • eyebrows defined with red/pink under the black
  • lips partially painted in crimson
Junior Geisha makeup Senior Geisha makeup
Junior Geisha
  • face painted white with the most subtle hint of pink for contouring
  • subtle outlining of crimson and black around eyes
  • eyebrows faintly defined with red/pink under the black
  • lips painted almost in full with crimson
Senior maiko
  • subdued make-up of choice - generally of a natural colour or base

There are, of course, many other subtle differences which may be the subject of a future article.

How can I tell Oiran or Tayuu apart from Maiko and Geisha?

There should never be any problem with mistaking an Oiran or Tayuu for a Geisha or Maiko! The differences are very pronounced and recognizable. For those who are still confused though, the main five items are:

Visual Guide to the Difference between Maiko, Geisha and Tayuu/Oiran

Maiko fashion dress Geisha fashion dress Oiran fashion dress
Maiko Geisha Tayuu/Oiran
Geisha fashion dress Oiran fashion dress
Maiko Geisha Tayuu/Oiran


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