Photographer's Note

Geisha are traditional Japanese female entertainers whose skills include performing arts such as classical music and dance. Apprentice geisha are maiko; their white make-up, elaborate kimono and hair is the popular image held of geisha.

A maiko is bonded under a contract to her geisha house (okiya). The okiya supplies her with food, board, kimonos and other tools of her trade. Her training is expensive and her debt must be repaid to the okiya with the earnings she makes. This repayment may continue after the maiko becomes a fully-fledged geisha and only when her debts are settled is she permitted to move out to live and work independently.

There are three major elements to a maiko's training. The first is the formal arts training. This takes place in special geisha schools which are found in every hanamachi (geisha district). The second element is the entertainment training which the maiko learns at various teahouses and parties by observing her onee-san ('older sister' - an older geisha acting as her mentor). The third is the social skill of navigating the complex social web of the hanamachi. This is done on the streets. Formal greetings, gifts and visits are key parts of any social structure in Japan and for a maiko they are crucial for her to build the support network she needs to survive as a geisha.

Maiko are considered one of the great sights of Japan and look very different from fully qualified Geisha. They are at the peak of traditional Japanese femininity. The scarlet-fringed collar of a maiko's kimono hangs very loosely in the back to accentuate the nape of the neck. She wears the same white makeup for her face on her nape. Her kimono is bright and colorful with an elaborately tied obi hanging down to her ankles. She takes very small steps and wears traditional wooden shoes. There are five different hairstyles that mark the different stages of her apprenticeship.

Around the age of 20-22, the maiko is promoted to a fully-fledged geisha in a ceremony called erikae (turning of the collar). Geisha remain as such until they retire.

Kyoto is where the geisha tradition is strongest today. In modern Japan, geisha are now a rare sight outside hanamachi. In the 1920s there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today the number is estimated to be under 2,000.

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Additional Photos by Chris Whitley (chriswhitley) Gold Star Critiquer/Silver Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 133 W: 31 N: 173] (2027)
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