Geishas and maikos are world famous for being some of the most long-standing examples of Japanese culture and tradition. The art of being a geisha is something that is still practiced today – unlike other Japanese traditions or professions such as samurai, they withstood the test of time. These beautiful entertainers have been around for centuries and continue to entertain guests even now with dancing, music, games, as well as pouring drinks, and being great conversationalists. If you travel to certain places in Japan such as Gion in Kyoto, you are highly likely to spot one of these iconic women.
Almost everyone who visits Japan wants to see these enigmatic women, either spotting them on the streets or perhaps employing their services by enjoying a meal with them and watch some performances. They are instantly recognizable with their white makeup and red lips, elaborate hairstyles, and kimono, often accompanied with a paper fan or an umbrella. But the more you look into the geishas, the more differences you may start noticing. In fact, 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 shamisen, and various dances that celebrate the changing seasons. They are also trained to elegantly move and pour drinks, speak 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 and has become a loanword in many languages to signify this profession. For instance, both the Oxford Dictionary and Merriam-Webster have included the word ‘geisha’.
To put it simply, a maiko is an apprentice geiko/geisha. 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. Even today, a difference in price in performances of geisha (‘geisha’ used broadly when aimed at foreigners) might help you figure out whether a maiko or a real full-fledged geisha will e performing. Although maiko performances are beautiful, and the difference is lost on most people not familiar with the intricacies of the geisha profession (all Japanese people are not necessarily geisha connoisseurs), geisha performances will still cost more even today.
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. But this not necessarily means waiting until they are not minors. In Kyoto, maiko girls can start training at fifteen or sixteen years old, while in Tokyo, they can start at eighteen. An apprentice must train for at least a whole year before gaining the title of “geisha”, but it is often longer than that. Sometimes, women who start training after the age of 20 are told they are too old to receive 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.
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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 special 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 done into these styles, whereas the geikos wear a wig that is already styled. Maikos usually also have more elaborate or colorful hair ornaments, whereas geikos will have smaller and more understated hair accessories.
Not only accessories, but also the kimono worn by a geisha is more subdued and understated than the one of a maiko. A maiko’s kimono is more colourful, with more bold patterns, and with longer hanging sleeves and longer obi hanging at the back.
If you look at the shoes they wear, you can spot another difference. Maiko are wearing very high platforms (okobo) which look rather difficult to walk in! A geisha/geiko will wear more sensible sandals (zori or geta).
The white face makeup is usually very similar between both the qualified geisha and the apprentice maiko, although the maikos may wear more blush for a more youthful appearance. The main difference in their makeup is the lipstick. The beginner maiko will only paint their bottom lip red, while a more senior maiko training as a geisha will have a thin line on both lips. Geiko or geisha will paint both their lips fully red. Maiko will often also paint their eyebrows red.
Here are a maiko and a geisha pictured together:
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 they struggle to walk or are allowing people to take photographs of them, it’s probably a tourist dressed as a geisha.
If there is no white make up, it might be just someone going about their day wearing kimono or yukata, or both foreign and Japanese tourists deciding to sightsee while wearing traditional Japanese clothes. Dressing up as a geisha or maiko, or simply wearing a kimono or a yukata, is a booming business in Japan aimed at tourists, but also at Japanese people.
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.
You can 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, stopping them or taking excessive pictures. Because of some badly behaved tourists taking photos of geisha was banned in Gion, Kyoto, and sadly taking any kind of photos in Gion became completely banned in October 2019. Watching from a distance as geishas go about their day is fine, though!
And if you want to properly book a geisha performance, read our article on traditional performances in Tokyo.