Geishas and maikos are world famous for being some of the most long-standing examples of Japanese culture. These beautiful entertainers have been around for centuries as performers, who now continue to entertain guests with dancing, music, games, pouring drinks, and enlightening conversation. The art of being a geisha is something that is still practiced today – unlike other cultures such as samurai, they withstood the test of time – and if you travel to certain places in Japan such as Gion in Kyoto, you are highly likely to spot one of these iconic women.
They are instantly recognizable with their white makeup and red lips, elaborate hairstyles, and kimono, often accompanied with a paper fan or an umbrella. If you visit Japan, it is highly likely that you will want to see these enigmatic women, or perhaps you are even hoping to meet these lovely entertainers and enjoy a meal with them and watch some performances. Interestingly, the more you look into the geishas, the more differences you may start noticing. For example, some are referred to as a maiko or a geiko. So what is the difference between a geisha, a geiko, and a maiko?
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, often including the traditional stringed instrument, the shamisen, and various dances that celebrate the coming of changing seasons. They are also trained to move and speak elegantly, pour drinks eloquently, and be charismatic and charming.
They both wear the kimono, have the complicated hairstyle, and iconic white makeup with red lips. The only difference between them 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, as geisha is a widely accepted term.
To put it simply, a maiko is an apprentice geiko. She is a younger woman or even a child who is training in the arts of the geisha and geiko. The literal meaning of “maiko” is “dancing child”. In Tokyo, an apprentice geisha is also known as a hangyoku, which means “half-jewel”; they used to be paid half of that of a fully qualified geisha.
In the past, maiko could be as young as five or even three years old! However, in modern times where children must go to school, this no longer happens and the girl can wait until she is old enough to decide for herself. In Kyoto, maiko girls can start training at fifteen or sixteen years old, and in Tokyo, they can start at eighteen. An apprentice must train for at least a whole year before gaining the title of “geisha”. Sometimes, women who start training after the age of 20 are too old to recieve the title of “maiko”, but they still need to train for a minimum of twelve months before being considered fully qualified and therefore a “real” geisha or geiko.
There are some clear differences between a geiko and a maiko or a geisha and a hangyoku, the first of which is age. As the maiko or hangyoku are apprentices, they are usually quite a bit younger than their qualified counterparts. If you see one who is clearly a teenager, then she is almost definitely a maiko. However, don’t always guess it by their age! It isn’t always easy to guess a Japanese woman’s age, especially when they wear such beautiful makeup.
Another main difference is their hair. The hair of the geisha or geiko is iconic, thick and black and ornately styled back from the face. The maikos have their own hair put into these styles, whereas the geikos wear a wig that is already styled. Maikos usually also have more elaborate or showy hair ornaments, whereas geikos will have more understated adornments.
The white face makeup is usually very similar between both the qualified and the apprentice, although the maikos may wear more blush for a youthful appearance. The main difference in their makeup is the lipstick. The maiko will only paint their bottom lip red, or if a geisha in training is a senior, a thin line on both lips. Geiko or 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 information will help you tell the difference between the geisha, geiko, and maiko on your next trip to Japan! 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, then it is probably a tourist geisha, especially if they struggle to walk or are allowing people to take photographs of them. This is nothing negative on the women who are dressed up, just don’t expect a show of the Japanese arts!
Next time you see a geisha, see if you can guess whether she is a geisha, a geiko, or a maiko. Remember, if you are in Kyoto and she is an older lady with red lips, then she is a geiko. If she is very young with only her bottom lip painted and with tall shoes, then she is a maiko. If you’re in Tokyo and she is wearing understated hair ornaments and has red lips, then she is a geisha. Impress your friends by explaining the difference and identifying these entertainers correctly on your next trip! Just remember to show these ladies respect by not crowding them or taking excessive pictures. Watching from a distance as they go about their day is fine, though!