Geisha or Maiko? Know the Difference!

  • Geisha are synonymous with Japan, with the white skin and rouge lips being an iconic image of the land of the rising sun. If you visit Japan I am sure you will want to see these enigmatic women doing what they do best; performing. However, the more you look into geisha the more differences you’ll start noticing. Some have one lip coloured, some both, some are called geisha, some geiko or maiko… what is the difference?

    Geisha vs. Geiko


    The simplest difference to work out is the difference between Geisha and Geiko. A Geisha or Geiko is a woman trained in the art of music, singing and dancing. The difference is where they come from. In Kyoto, these women are called Geiko whilst in Tokyo they are known as Geisha. However don’t be too embarrassed if you forget the difference, Geisha is a widely accepted term.

    So who are Maiko?


    To term it simply a Maiko is an apprentice Geiko, a younger woman or child who is training in the arts. The translation of Maiko literally means dancing child. In Tokyo an apprentice Geisha is known as a Hangyoku.

    Differences in appearance


    There are some obvious differences between Geiko/Maiko or Geisha/Hangyoku, the first of which is age. As the maiko/hangyoku are apprentices they are usually quite a bit younger than their qualified counterparts, however, don’t always guess it by age! Another main difference is the hair. The hair of the geisha or geiko is iconic, with thick black hair ornately styled back from the face. The Maiko have their own hair put into these styles, whereas the Geiko wear a wig which is already styled. Maiko usually also have more elaborate or showy hair ornaments whereas Geiko will have more understated adornments. The white face make-up is usually very similar between both the qualified and the apprentice, although the maiko may wear more blush for a youthful appearance. The main difference in makeup is the lipstick, the maiko will only paint the bottom lip red, or if a maiko is senior, thin line on both lips. Geiko/geisha will paint both their lips fully red. Maiko will often also paint their eyebrows red. You can also spot the difference in terms of the shoes they wear, with maiko wearing very high platforms which look rather difficult to walk in!

    Hopefully, this helps tell the difference between the geisha/geiko and maiko on your next trip. This can also help you tell the difference between the real deal, women who are training in the arts, and ‘tourist geisha’ who simply dress in the style for photos. If you spot two full red lips with ornate hair decorations it is probably a tourist geisha, especially if they struggle to walk or are allowing photos. This is nothing negative on the women who are dressed up, just don’t expect a show of the Japanese arts!

    Related articles:
    Meeting Geishas, Japan’s ancient legacy
    Experience Geisha lifestyle: 4 recommended studios in Kyoto