Saturday, July 13, 2013

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 wo rn 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, engag ing 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 hairsty le 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. :) 

(For recommended books on geisha, maiko, and oiran, check out the "Geisha" section in the TKL bookstore.)

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

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