Geisha Etiquette 101: Is it Offensive to Take Pictures of Geisha?

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Okay, technically she called me “kawaii,” but yanno same thing and all. ARGUABLY, being called kawaii makes it even cuter. Here’s what happened.

Well, actually first, lemme back up.

Does everyone know proper geisha etiquette? Or even…what a geisha is? If not, that’s totally okay! More than okay, in fact! This blog is all about learning! Even if you do know what geisha are, but maybe your first exposure came from media like “Memoirs of a Geisha,” like mine did (at like…age 12 or something? Probably shouldn’t have been watching that any way), then you might need a bit of relearning. I’ll get into the specifics of THAT in a bit.

Or if you DO know what a geisha is and you’re ready to head to Japan and see one IN REAL LIFE for yourself…well…maybe just slow down for a second. You’re the one who’s most gonna need this tidbit of geisha etiquette.

Don’t worry, I promise this won’t be a long post.

Probably.

What is a Geisha

So before we can get into this geisha etiquette, we first gotta answer the question: what is a geisha? In the simplest explanation, a geisha is a specialized Japanese art performer. The Japanese word geisha literally means โ€œart person.โ€ You may also see “geiko” or “geigi” and those are just the Kyoto and Niigata regional word for geisha, respectively. And “a “tayu” is the highest rank of geisha entertainers.

Their performances largely revolve around traditional dances, singing, and playing instruments, and there are different names for geisha who specialize in dance (tachikata) over musical arts (jikata). Geisha also have other creative talents like calligraphy, hosting tea ceremonies, flower arrangements, and of course the greatest talent of all…

GOSSIPING!!

*these young women are maiko

Kidding kidding, but geisha are trained to be entertainers, and with that comes conversation skills, both about Japanese history and culture AND current pop events. And with that, they are also trained geisha etiquette on how to have these conversations and remain polite and charming. THAT’S a talent!

Where did Geisha Come From?

The longer explanation of where geisha (and thus geisha eqtiquette) originated, however, will take us back to 17th century Japan, the beginning of the Edo period. Before the Edo period, the Imperial family had been living in what we now call Kyoto (Heian-Kyo) and as more and more agriculture land transitioned to private estates, so too did Imperial power begin to decline as less tax revenue for said land was collected.

Samurai, essentially the military power, were a means to collect taxes and ensure order in the countryside, but different clans of Samauri would battle for military power. The head of power of Samurai was called the Shogun, and the Shogun’s military followers were the shogunate. Since Samurai were in charge of collecting taxes and enforcing social order among the people, the Shogun had strong influence with both the imperial government and private estates/landowners.

As things go, by 1460, Japan had no true central authority power. Samurai clans were warring over territory. Civilians armed themselves with swords to protect themselves. Temples and shrines had to train their monks to be warriors in case of attack. And even lone Samurai would look for freelance work as personal bodyguards. If you’re wondering, yes, this is also around the time ninjas (Shinobi) became more prevalent, when a “respected” Samurai would need to hire someone else to do seedy mercenary type work for them. Basically, a full civil war broke out.

To speed up this history lesson, the Portuguese arrived to Japan with weapons to trade (and an enslaved person – but that’s a whole OTHER story). One Samurai clan used these weapons to seize control and reestablish order: they seized all civilian weapons and either destroyed castle fortresses or forced the remaining samurai to go live in them without their previous political power. Then, of course, they kicked the Portuguese Christian missionaries out of the country and banned the religion entirely. No loose ends.

Geisha in foreground, maiko in background

After centuries of instability, this new Edo period of Japan, brought a sense of cultural reform as well. That is where geisha come in. The geisha etiquette system we know today started as a form of indentured servitude, when families who could no longer afford to live would offer up their young daughter to work as a geisha and repay her family’s debts.

The job of geisha came about as *cultured* wealthy businessmen and nobility of the Edo period looked down on “commoner” forms of entertainment (sex workers that had GREAT BUSINESS entertaining all the battle weary Samurai) or men performers, so geisha were supposed to embody all things traditional Japanese effortless opulence. Geisha etiquette was unattainable to the commoner and thus EXACTLY what rich (and rich aspiring) folk wanted.

What is a Maiko

So, that’s where the roots of geisha and geisha etiquette came from. But then…what is a maiko? You might hear that word floating around and yes, they ARE related, but technicallyyy they are not the same. When young girls started their journey to becoming a geisha and learning the ins and outs of geisha etiquette, they must undergo years of training, first starting by living at a geisha lodging house (okiya) to learn geisha etiquette and skills. They are essentially geisha-in-training or apprentice geisha, and the official word for that is maiko!

To the untrained eye, it is easy to mistake a maiko for a geisha and vice versa (though usually people assume geisha), but there are a few key differences to tell if the person you are seeing is a maiko. First, since they are still in training, maiko are usually younger, usually between 15-20 years old when young girls (nowadays) decide they want to go down the geisha career path. So…they’ll look young.

But since they do still wear elaborate makeup, there are a few signs there as well. The easiest tell makeup-wise is that maiko do not have the backs of their neck fully painted white. You’ll notice maiko wear blush on their cheeks, another indicator to emphasize their youth. Maiko also adorn more hair accessories and have more colorful kimonos. Maiko do not wear the impressive geisha wig, though that might be harder to spot from a distance.

maiko on left, geisha on right

On the opposite end of the spectrum, tayu are the highest rank of geisha, and the only ones allowed to entertain at the Imperial Palace back in the day. A LOT of geisha etiquette goes into achieving this rare status. Tayu have their own unique set of dances and rituals that only they are allowed to perform. They have ELABORATE hair ornaments decorating their hair, usually at least twenty! Tayu also have a fantastic obi that is tied in the FRONT, and they keep their hands buried under the obi the majority of the time unless they are actively using their hands for something. Tayu are also always barefoot, to show humbleness to their guests despite their high ranking.

There are only a handful of tayu currently, but if you do spot one, they will have their iconic clothing as well as blackened teeth.

Aoi Tayu-san, an active tayu

What a Geisha is NOT

Alright, are you ready for the biggest piece of geisha etiquette?

Do not take the fictional renderings of “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “The Last Concubine” as an accurate description of what an actual modern geisha does. In fact, don’t take it as ANY description of modern geisha etiquette.

Elephant in the room – a modern geisha is not a prostitute, escort, or in the realm of sex worker. And I don’t mean that in a bad way or that sex work is somehow beneath being a geisha, no no, they are just different things. Sex work is literally the oldest profession, and that is no different in Japan. You didn’t have to be “dressed up” by any means to be a sex worker (yujo), but those that were had the title “oiran” and were courtesans who escorted and catered to wealthier clientele.

tayu on left, oiran on right: image screenshot from Let’s ask Shogo

Oiran and tayu (the highest rank of geisha) doooo look kinda similar in their dress and makeup. That is by design. In order to attract the most elite, oiran adopted many looks from tayu (the most unattainable) to fulfill their client’s fantasies. The highest oiran may even call themselves tayu – it’s all about the marketing baby. So that’s kind of where the connotation between sex work (from oiran) and geisha comes from, but again, they are not the same.

ALSO, during pre and post-WWII, foreign “comfort women” (trafficked into sex slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army) were extremely commonplace both domestically and in the countries Japan occupied such as Korea, China, the Philippines, and others. As the West’s fetishism of these exploited comfort women grew, so to did their convolution of comfort women, sex work, and geisha etiquette and entertainment roles.

Independent of their duties as a geisha, sure, a full blown adult can choose to do whatever they want, but for the large majority of geisha, that’s not even on the outskirts of their mind. Geisha are professional entertainers. That’s as far as their job role requires.

Proper Geisha Etiquette

Now that you know what a geisha is and how and why their job has certain misconceptions, let’s finally touch on geisha etiquette. Seeing a geisha is often someone’s bucketlist “things to do in Japan” because they are icons of Japanese culture. That said…

PLEASE – don’t be a weirdo around geisha! Easiest piece of geisha etiquette right there!

Geisha have super cool jobs and are very talented with incredible hair and makeup and costume…but at the end of the day, they are PEOPLE who are WORKING. Please remember their humanity and don’t loose your marbles trying to chase down and shove cameras in their faces. First, that’s just rude to anyone, in my opinion, including celebrities. Unfortunately, tourist paparazzi are something geisha have to uncomfortably navigate in addition to their every day tasks.

Especially in the Gion district, tourist frenzy got so bad that the city actually BANNED taking photos of geisha in Gion. You have to have an official permit to photograph geisha in Gion and there is a fine if you are caught. According to the official Kyoto city instructions for proper geisha etiquette: Do not stop, touch, follow, or take unauthorized photos/videos of any geiko (regional term for geisha) or maiko (apprentice geisha) you see walking around the Gion district.

Outside of Gion, like Hanamikoji Street for example, I’ve heard it’s fiiiine to take a respectful picture (from far away, and never front facing. only from the side or the back), as long as you mind proper geisha etiquette. But as someone who gets a lot of strangers taking pictures of me while traveling (aka being a Black traveler in Asia)…eh, you’re probably fine without the picture, yeah?

But that’s why there’s very few photos of geisha, especially from the front! Not that you should throw geisha etiquette out the window for maiko haha.

You can give a smile and polite bow, then let them move on to their next job.

Storytime

So, spoiler, I was fortunate to spot a geisha during my 3 days in Kyoto. However, it was completely by coincidence. And I didn’t have the best grasp of geisha etiquette…

You see, we went out to a kaiseki meal, a fancy Japanese tasting menu, at Gion Hanasaki. The five of us were seated in our own private room and each course was brought in for us. Towards the end of the meal, suddenly a music started to play in the hallway and all other talking ceased. Since we were in a private room, we couldn’t see what was going on, but the music was…well, enchanting.

We paused in our eating, straining our ears to hear any details of what was happening just outside of our door.

As if we could wakarimasu anyway lol.

After a few minutes, with the music continuing, our waitress entered the room with a smile and our next dinner course. I craned my head around the slightly ajar door, but I didn’t see anything in the hallway. We guessed it might have been a geisha entering the building, but we had no way of knowing. Was that also part of geisha etiquette? And with the delicious food now in front of us, we forgot to even ask.

We each took our turns leaving the room to use one of the restrooms. On my way back, I accidentally entered the wrong private room.

No, the geisha wasn’t in there. However, the heads of about eight people swiveled around to look at me confused. I apologized in a jumble of Japanese and English, This detail isn’t important to the story by the way, it was just something embarrassing that happened orz.

Anyways, we paid our bill then filed out of the room. At the entrance, there is a genkan, or the place where you take off your shoes. Since the boys in our group were leading the way, they were the first to put on their shoes and exit the restaurant. The hostess also stepped outside with them since it is a pretty small entryway, and they chatted about the meal and the other activities we had planned for our 2 weeks in Japan.

Amanda, my other gal pal traveling with us, sat on the small stoop putting her boots on and I stood in the hallway waiting for my turn. In the corner of my eye, I sense someone else at the end of the hallway. I looked up.

And there she was.

She stood politely, keeping her distance as to not rush us. When our eyes met, she smiled with a small bow. And I just…stared at her.

It’s almost embarrassing because truly I do not get star-struck. I mean, I’m from Southern California. I ran into Pedro Pascal earlier this year and kept my cool. But there was just something about her unexpected appearance that threw me off. Again, I apologized in a jumble of Japanese and English, trying to move to make room for her to pass by, but the hallway was too small.

The geisha said something, and when I looked back to her she was pointing to her own head. “Kawaii!” she smiled at me, and I realized she was complimenting my hair – which was still styled from renting a kimono earlier in the day. And not to toot my own horn, but it was a pretty cute style.

“Arigato gozaimasu!!” I didn’t know what to do so I bowed. Just then, the hostess came back in as Amanda left and I moved to hurry and put on my own shoes. The hostess helped collect the geisha’s items and her umbrella, since it was raining, and we all stood outside so she could have room to exit. On her way out, she offered us another smile and bow, then quietly made her way down the alley to the taxi car waiting for her without running into anyone else.

Can You Dress as a Geisha?

Renting a kimono is one of the best things to do in Kyoto, and I do admit it was a highlight for me during the trip. Buuut can you take it a step beyond and dress up as a geisha? Is it offensive to dress up as a geisha?

Well, one, I’m not the correct person to ask. But based on what I’ve read from those in the geisha industry, you do not have to be of Japanese descent to be a geisha. Because it is a job. But at the same time, it is a profession that should be respected for its contribution to preserving and sharing Japanese culture. SO with that in mind, you should probably NOT buy a Spirit Halloween off-brand geisha costume and paint your own face to walk around Kyoto.

Aside from that discounting all of the hard work and YEARS it takes for a geisha to earn their status, you’ll probably look goofy cuz you won’t do it right.

But…you can go to a professional and have them dress you up (as a maiko), teach you a bit of geisha etiquette, and take photos in a private studio! While I didn’t personally do this a 2-hour maiko makeover, it has great reviews and seems pretty cool if you want to do it while remaining respectful!

How to find Geisha Performances

But what if you want to experience a geisha performance and get a taste of proper geisha etiquette in person? Well, hiring a geisha yourself (as a traveler) is kind of difficult, so the easiest way is to catch a performance at Kaburenjo Theater!

There are a variety of performances, but…it will all be in Japanese, just…in case you forgot you were in Japan haha. If big performances aren’t your thing, or you’d like explanations in English, then you can also join a smaller group geisha performance and cultural tour. Then you can get a bit of better understanding of geishas and geisha etiquette because it is created with foreign travelers in mind. This is also something I didn’t do, but it has great reviews and I’d love to sign up for one the next time I’m in Kyoto!

Conclusion: Geisha Etiquette

Okay I lied this was a longer blog post about geisha etiquette than I intended hahah. But oh well whatcha gonna do. Hopefully this post has helped answer any questions you might’ve had about geisha and the proper geisha etiquette you should have toward them. Basically, don’t be weird, give them space to move around, and appreciate them by attending a geisha performance!

And kindly re-educate other visitors on geisha etiquette as well!

Did you learn anything new in this post about geisha etiquette? Have you ever seen a geisha or maiko? Let me know in the comments below!

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8 Comments

    1. Thank you so much for reading!

  1. Great combination on history and etiquette with your real life encounters with a Geisha!

    1. hehe thank you! Appreciate you reading ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I had no idea what the proper geisha etiquette was. I did not know that they were trained to be entertainers and not just companions. Good to clear up that Geishas are not sex workers or โ€œcomfort womenโ€. Fascinating read.

    1. omg yayy I’m glad you found it helpful! Thank you for reading!

  3. Thanks for sharing this Geisha post, very informative! I visited Kyoto this year, but didn’t see one, unfortunately. But if I go back, I’ll definitely read your post again ๐Ÿ˜ƒ

    1. Ahh hopefully next time!!

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