Thursday, January 14, 2010

Geisha vs. Maiko vs. Oiran

No, this isn't some new PS3 fighting game, though it'd be pretty funny to see one! Geisha, their apprentices known as maiko, and the classical courtesan-prostitute oiran are popular subjects in paintings and photos but can look similar to the untrained eye.

At a glance, how can you tell the difference between the three?

We'll start with the maiko, one of the most famous icons of Japan in the West:

-Often have a long, dangling obi worn in the back
-Whiteface make-up
-Tall "okobo" clogs (not seen here)
-Long, swinging-sleeve furisode kimono
-Collar low on the back of the neck
-Usually have hair ornaments made of silk flowers, leaves, etc. and tiny dangling strips of silver ("bira bira")

Geisha (known as Geiko in Kyoto) are what maiko graduate to be: classical entertainers versed in traditional song, dance, shamisen and the art of witty, engaging conversation.

-May or may not have whiteface, as they only wear whiteface for formal occasions
-Collar lower on the back of the neck than a normal woman
-Much simpler hairstyle than maiko or oiran
-Shorter-sleeved (than a maiko) tomesode kimono 
-Shorter (than maiko) obi knot tied in back

And finally oiran, which, as prostitutes, no longer exist in the modern world. Today the few "oiran" around are women who preserve the history of the profession without the sexual aspect, or simply actors dressed as them for special festivals.

-Eight tons of hair sticks and pins
-Huge, wide obi tied in the front
-Very tall, ornate hair styles
-Bare feet
-Super-tall clogs (taller than a maiko's)

There are many more details to what all three wear, but in general those are the big differences to look out for. You can spot-check how much you remember next time you're at the grocery store: Arizona Diet Green Tea features one of these three. :) 

Want to learn more? 

What's it like to be a maiko? Real-life maiko and later geisha Komomo wrote a book in 2008 called A Geisha's Journey: My Life As a Kyoto Apprentice.

What's it like to be a geisha? The famous book Memoirs of a Geisha was based off of, Geisha: A Life is the story of Mineko Iwasaki. Her humblebrag personality rubs me the wrong way, but I'm in the minority as a lot of people love this book.

What's it like to be an oiran? Well, what was it like? There is a lot less information on oiran in English than the other two, but the 1899 book The Nightless City is an account of the world they lived in

Images are copyright Joi Ito, Todd Laracuenta, and Konstantin Papushin, respectively. 


Kelly Maple said...

Some other things to look for:

Maiko have red collars in the back, where Geisha have white.

Maiko leave the backs of their necks unpainted, and have a red piece of cloth folded into their hair-bun. It's supposed to be provocative.

ponteve said...

thank you for ce site , i am happy beacause i like geikos san and maikos san thank you

Christina said...

Ponteve: You're welcome! Have you seen the post about the Miyako Odori dance?

Kelly: A long overdue thank you for sharing! I hadn't seen this before.

ponteve said...

merci site merveilleux j adore ces femmes si merveilleuses, et dignes d admiration et de respect

JupitersLamb said...

Hi, I had a couple questions about the Oiran Kimono. I've watched construction of a Kimono and I know the pieces are different for all three. What parts of a Oiran kimono are unique to them and not the other two? I'm only talking about the actual fabric pieces. The Obi is tied differently but is there any other additions to the kimono that are unique to the Oiran? Thanks!