How to Photograph Geisha: Unwritten Rules


There are several unwritten rules about photographing geisha and maiko in Kyoto that you should follow to ensure you do not offend or embarrass them. Two of the biggest are:

  1. Never photograph a geiko or maiko when she is with a client.
  2. Never show a photograph where a geiko or maiko's leg is exposed beneath her kimono.

I learned the first rule the hard way (I broke it),  but I learned the second before I broke it and avoided an unfortunate situation.

The only time I've actually been told to stop photographing a maiko was one evening when I had just started photographing them. It was relatively late, between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m., and I was standing at one of my favorite crossroads in Gion Kobu. A maiko and three of her customers came out of a restaurant down the street and started walking right towards me. I took a few steps forward to photograph the maiko and made a few photos, making sure not to get too close to them. They passed in front of me and turned right, so I was now behind them. The maiko stepped under a streetlamp, so I made a few more photos.

At this point they were quite far away from me, and I was not following them. I guess the maiko heard the sound of my shutter on the quiet street, because she turned back to me, wagged her index finger at me, and said in English, "No, no, no." I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I knew I had done something wrong, but I wasn't sure what. I stopped photographing them immediately, bowed and apologized in Japanese, and moved as far away from them as I could.

I went over my actions in my mind to try to understand what I had done to make the maiko so angry. I had photographed other geiko and maiko at the same time and on the same street, and I had never had any problems. In fact, one geiko had actually stopped and posed for me in the very same spot, and that's why I had returned there. Then I realized that this was the first time I had ever tried to photograph a maiko when she was with her clients. I knew what my mistake was.

I learned later on that there is kind of a bubble of privacy around a geiko or maiko and their clients that should be respected. They should not be interrupted unless you are invited into the group by one of those customers. I have actually been in a bar sitting right next to a geiko I know quite well, and she ignored me the entire time she was there after she said, "Good evening, John-san." I was not surprised or offended at all. Her customer was sitting on the other side of her, and he was the focus of her attention. I continued my conversation with the people I was with as if the chair next to me were empty, except when I said good night to her.

Fortunately, I learned about never showing a photograph of a geiko or maiko with her leg exposed beneath her kimono in a much better way. I was visiting all the okiya in Gion Kobu and Miyagawa-cho to get permission to include photos in my first book, One Hundred Views of Maiko and Geiko. There was one photograph I was particularly curious about. I loved it, but I thought there might be a problem. Two geiko were walking towards me down Aoyagi-koji after Miyako Odori, and they were engaged in an animated discussion. In the photograph, I had captured them both laughing. The only problem was that a centimeter or two of one of the geiko's legs was visible beneath her naga-juban (under kimono). They were walking so fast that her juban had flipped up, revealing a small bit of skin. I just had a feeling that the geiko wouldn't like that and wouldn't let me use the photo.

I was right. My assistant and I went into the okiya and talked to a very friendly older woman who worked there. We showed her the photo, and she started laughing. She said I had really captured the geiko's personality in the photo. Then the woman noticed the kimono, and her expression changed. She explained that geiko were supposed to wear their kimonos perfectly at all times, and that meant that you should never see a geiko's legs. They should be covered by the naga-juban. Then the woman said with a laugh, "Of course, in real life, no one is that perfect, but still..."

The woman said she would check with the geiko just to make sure since it was such a lovely photograph, but I knew I already had my answer. I couldn't use the photograph in my book. If I did, I would be unintentionally embarrassing the geiko, and that was certainly not my intention. Sure enough, the woman called back a few hours later and confirmed my suspicion. The geiko asked that I please not include that photo in my book, and I didn't.

I'll cover a few more unwritten rules later, but these are the biggest two I've discovered. If you don't want to offend or embarrass a maiko or geiko, don't photograph them with their customers or show the world a photo of them when their kimono is not quite as perfect as it should be.