Photographing Geisha: They Are Not Movie Stars

The geisha Fukunami of Miyagawa-cho looks skyward

One of the biggest misconceptions I have heard is that the geisha and maiko of Kyoto are “just like movie stars.” This comment is usually made by tourists or photographers, and it seems to be their rationale for stalking geisha and maiko, blocking their paths and sticking cameras in their faces, and doing just about anything else to get a snapshot of these kimono-clad women. After all, if paparazzi can photograph movie stars and celebrities whenever, wherever, and however they like, why can’t tourists do the same with geiko and maiko in Kyoto?

If you know even a little bit about the world of geiko and maiko, you will realize that they are the complete opposite of movie stars and celebrities. Movie stars and celebrities depend on the public for their fame and fortune, but geiko and maiko don’t. If people stop buying tickets to a star’s movies or stop watching a celebrity’s reality t.v. show, their careers will be in trouble.

The success of geiko and maiko comes in part from the fact that they are part of a world that a relative few have access to, even most Japanese. They do not depend on the public or fans; they depend on the patronage of a relatively small group of customers, some of whom would stop being customers if ochaya (tea houses) became more accessible to a larger number of people.

The one large event that is open to the public is Miyako Odori, held every April in Gion Kobu. However, if you have ever attended Miyako Odori, you will know that no geiko or maiko is featured or marketed or singled out like a movie star. The performers in each scene of Miyako Odori change every day on a set schedule. Most members of the audience are there just to see geiko and maiko, not a specific geiko or maiko.

If someone goes to see a Broadway show, they want to see the star, not the understudy. When people go to Miyako Odori, there are no stars, and no one gets top billing. Each geiko and maiko has her photograph in the program, but all photos are the same size. Those of the most senior geiko come first, and those of the newest maiko come last.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to photograph geiko and maiko or to be a fan of any of them. It is pretty obvious to anyone who has read my blog or one of my books that I am both. I am saying that it’s wrong to justify your rude behavior in trying to get a photograph of a geiko or maiko by saying they are like movie stars. They are not movie stars, and you are not a paparazzi who might get thousands of dollars (or more) for your photograph. You are a visitor in someone’s neighborhood, and you should act accordingly.



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  1. stefan2009 September 23, 2012 at 8:56 pm #

    You explained perfectly well. On the other hand maiko and geiko may appear on documentaries or publicities, that’s also maybe why some people consider them like movie star and think to have the right to photograph them whenever they see them. They don’t (want to ?) understand there is a border not to be crossed.

    • John September 24, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

      I think geiko and maiko are more comparable to ballet dancers or classical musicians than movie stars, Stefan. These performers are featured in documentaries and concerts and the like, but they don’t seem to have photographers chasing after them!

  2. Marina September 24, 2012 at 4:29 am #

    it makes me really sad when some people do thinks like this with this bad behavior
    i think maiko & geiko are really precious and not things

    • John September 24, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

      I agree, Marina. Perhaps part of the problem is that people don’t realize that there are girls as young as 16 under the makeup and kimono. They just see the surface.

    • Tessa September 23, 2013 at 1:24 am #

      John, this perfectly explains who maiko and geiko are in the sense of an equivalent in western culture. I am a huge fan of both ballet and the karyuukai. In fact, one of the reasons I got into researching and learning about the karyuukai is the fact that I was a ballet and Norwegian folk dancer, so the study of other types of dance styles was a hobby of mine; not to mention that my whole life I have been studying Japanese culture and language. I immediately fell in love with these women and the respect I give them is immeasurable.
      Ballet dancers enjoy prestige without the massive paparazzi and pressure that movie stars endure. However it should be noted that for most ballet performances, the dancer (whether male or female) in the principal role will the the reason many balletomanes go to that particular performance. The ballet world is also becoming more increasingly open to the public – to their advantage – but they are only stars within the circles of ballet fans worldwide, which is very small in comparison to the fans of movie stars. In that sense this is similar to the karyuukai because, like you said before, maiko and geiko rely on the patronage of a small group of customers and those who have access. To ballet exclusivity is a downside, in the karyuukai it is not. Both ballet dancers and the women of the karyuukai enjoy an almost private prestige of mystery, as their very presence has very particular air that draws you into their world, whether en pointe or inside an ochaya.

      • John Paul Foster September 24, 2013 at 9:26 pm #

        Thank you for your thoughts, Tessa. I don’t know much about ballet, except that I love the pastels of ballet dancers drawn by Degas, so I’m glad you can tell me a little bit more about them! I do realize that the top performers in ballet and opera are very famous within their worlds, but I don’t think they are well known to the general public, at least in many countries. I’m not sure, but I would imagine that ballet dancers in Russia and opera singers in some European countries are household names there.

        What I find both interesting and disturbing about what I am starting to call “Geisha Syndrome” is that some people, mostly those who have never even been to Japan, let alone met a geiko or maiko, feel the need to make geiko and maiko famous and turn them into celebrities. In other words, they have appointed themselves the publicists of the hanamachi, but they have never stopped to ask if the geiko or maiko want or need publicists. In my opinion, they don’t, but I certainly do not speak for any of them.

        It is a very strange phenomena to me, to say the least!

    • pontleve December 27, 2013 at 6:38 am #

      les geikos et maikos sont des personnes et doivent etres espectees et admirees

  3. Siren September 24, 2012 at 9:18 am #

    That is a very good point you make about this, and well said to ^^
    But i must say it would be nice if the real paparatzi wern’t so rude, it’s disgusting what they do sometimes.
    Respect should be ultimate.

    • John September 24, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

      I agree with you, Siren. Sadly, as I look around the world, I see respect lacking in many, many places, not just photography. I hope this changes, but I’m not so optimistic…

  4. biscuit September 26, 2012 at 3:40 am #

    (I apologize in advance. My comment may sound bitter.)
    It saddens me that some wealthy customers seem to spend their money rather for showing their status in society than to appreciate the company of graceful, elegant and excellently skilled artists when they hire geiko-san or maiko-san.

    • John September 26, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

      There’s no reason at all to apologize, and I don’t think your opinion sounds bitter. I believe that most customers do enjoy knowing that they have entry into a world that few have, but they also enjoy and appreciate the company of geiko and maiko as well.

      When I first started going to ochaya regularly six years ago, I was always worried that some customers would be a bit hostile towards me since I am neither Japanese nor independently wealthy. I expected at least some to have the attitude of “What’s he doing here?”

      Fortunately, most people are curious about who I am, but in a good way. If anything, I make Japanese customers nervous, but it’s because of my language ability, not my race or social status. The ochaya has a karaoke system, and every once in a while some brave soul will sing a song in English, and I’m always asked about their pronunciation afterwords.

      • biscuit October 12, 2012 at 3:32 am #

        Me again! Sorry, I did not express my thoughts clear enough in my comment. When I read that some customers would quit frequenting ochaya if more people had access to them, I felt sad. To me(I may be mistaken, though) that sounded as if these customers enjoy that feeling of exclusivity more than the actual arts performed, which is not very respectful towards geiko and maiko.

        • John October 15, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

          Thank you for the clarification!

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