Photographing Geisha: They Are Not Movie Stars

The geisha Fukunami of Miyagawa-cho looks skyward
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.