The Long Journey of Becoming a Maiko

August 28, 2016

by Mayumi Otsuka, Mai Takezawa, & Kanako Wakamatsu

In Japan, geiko are women who wear beautiful kimono, paint their face white, perform songs or dances, and play a traditional Japanese stringed instrument called the shamisen. Geiko have existed for about 300 years, and are more commonly known as ‘geisha’ outside of Japan.

Originally, geiko were the girls who served tea. Later, the tea was changed to alcohol, and the girls came to not only serve alcohol, but also perform songs or dances. At this time, the girl was called a geiko. To become a geiko requires lots of training. Girls who train to be geiko are called maiko. Now, geiko and maiko are one of the most popular symbols in Kyoto. Not everyone can be a maiko; there are certain qualifications. In this article, we are going to introduce 3 important points related to how to become a Maiko: age, house rules, and strict training. We are going to reveal some surprising facts about Maiko, too.

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Maiko


Age of Maiko

Only girls between the ages of 14 and 17 can start their training, and the age limit is 20. The reason is due to child labor laws. These girls must decide their future after they graduate from junior high school, but they do not need to worry about their school career and other requirements. Maiko must also have Japanese nationality.

House Rules

Maiko must live and train in a training house called an ‘okiya’. In the old days, because being a maiko was thought of as deeply traditional work, generally families who had connections or relationships with an okiya could send their daughters to become maiko. But nowadays present Japan is modern, so there are some websites for finding the right okiya and also for the recruitment of new maiko.

There are 5 main organizations of maiko and geiko. It is called ‘Gokagai’ in Japanese. They are Gionkoubu, Miyagawachou, Pontochou, Kamishitikenn and Gionhigashi. When a girl is introduced to one okiya, she can meet the landlady. However, nowadays maiko is an especially popular job among woman, so if there is no financial support from the okiya, she cannot go to train.

The last trial is an interview with the landlady. The landlady looks to see if the girl can put up with the hard training of being a maiko. She also looks at how much mutual understanding their is between the girl and her parents. If she judges that the girl cannot put up with the hard training or is not suitable for this work, then she rejects the girl.

Life in an okiya is unimaginable for us. Maiko is a traditional thing, so there are many strict and traditional rules. Okiya is a place where people gather, so maiko have to live in a community-style life. Okiya is not a for-profit business; they pay for all of the girls: their life, their food, clothes, makeup tools and more. For this reason, the landlady is always very strict. She always judges the girls, and tests their strong intentions and humanity. It is said that one’s look is not the most important qualification of being a maiko, but you have to improve both your humanity and figure.

Maiko Training

After the final interview, at last the training will start. The training term is called the ‘preparation term’. The girls live in the okiya, and learn Japanese dance, Kyokotoba, behavior, and the manner which is called ‘iroha’ in Japanese. The landlady and other trainers check the girls behavior in daily life. The girls have no free time of their own. Half of applicants fail on this point. It means the training is so hard, and they must do their best every time. Maiko is beautiful work on the outside, but the hidden side is strenuous and challenging. At this point, it is hard for the girls to imagine that luxurious work of a geiko is in their near future.

Once girls finish the preparation term, they can be a maiko. Before then, they are called ‘minaraisan’ which means ‘not enough’. The main work place is called ‘ozashiki’, where the girls can treat customers with their dance or song. After 5 years of being a maiko, it is called ‘nennki’ in Japanese. They cannot receive a wage because they have to give the okiya their money during the training term. Also, they cannot quit their job.

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Maiko in Ozashiki


Being a maiko is a specific job because maiko is not the end goal; it is a training position. When girls become about 20, they are eligable to be a geiko, which is the main goal for a maiko.

How to Become a Maiko

The shape of a girl’s body is certainly an important point toward being a maiko. Girls must wear shoes called ‘oboko’, which are 10cm high, so the girls cannot be too tall. Also, a Maiko must be accomplished in several areas, so they must develop skill in Japanese dance, Japanese songs, and in playing the shamisen. They also must learn kyokotoba, which is the traditional Kyoto dialect. The work of Maiko is hard, so girls must find ways to work hard and overcome their difficulties.

Maiko Puts On Oboko


Surprising Facts About Maiko

There are some prohibitions in the maiko world. The first is that girls cannot take a bath for a week, because their hairstyle is difficult to make again. Second, is that girls must not enter food stores and cafes, because the image of the maiko is important. Maiko must maintain the pure image of traditional culture. Third, maiko are prohibited from using a cellphone in the presence of other people. This is also related to the problem of maintaining a traditional image. Finally, maiko are not supposed to talk while they are walking. It is a kind of maiko manner.

Finally, after finishing this strict training, maiko can become geiko. As we said before, it is very strict. However, it is a traditional thing, so we should not be quick to change the rules, but rather protect the traditions to maintain the image of Kyoto throughout the years.

Conclusion

A maiko is a woman who trains as a Geiko. To become a maiko you have to be 14~17 years old, and have Japanese nationality. To train as a geiko, maiko have to live in okiya and do a lot of strict training related to performance, behavior and so on. Maiko is one of symbols of Kyoto and also one of the old Japanese traditions, so we have to respect this tradition. In addition, one of the maiko’s manners is that they cannot talk while they are walking, so if you see Maiko on the road, you cannot talk to them. This is the reality of the maiko.

2 Responses to “The Long Journey of Becoming a Maiko”

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  1. Anne Ridders says:

    Hello, thanks for the interesting article with lot of factual informations about maiko training and geiko work. I have a question, I hope someone could enlighten me about it. The article says, I quote : “They cannot receive a wage because they have to give the okiya their money during the training term. Also, they cannot quit their job.” I fail to understand why they aren’t allowed to quit their training if they want ? Is it because of the okiya advancing money for training, and therefore a debt is made ? And if they give the okiya their money during the training term, what is the reason behind ?

    Thanks in advance !

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