Tourists In Kyoto Are Making Geishas’ Lives Difficult

Tourists In Kyoto Are Making Geishas’ Lives Difficult
Photo: Shizuo Kambayashi, AP for Kansai Promotional Council

If you are visiting Kyoto, you probably want to take lots and lots of photos. But when you do, there are some things to keep in mind, especially when you see geisha.

Recently, the influx of tourists has put a strain on Kyoto. Hopefully, these are growing pains, and the city will develop better infrastructure to handle the crowds and provide more information to tourists regarding what is and is not allowed.

In the meantime, now that everyone has a camera in their pocket and a social networking site to upload those images, there are more photos than ever being taken. In Kyoto, that has lead to disheartening scenes like this:

Groups of tourists chasing after geisha and maiko (geisha apprentices), walking in front of traffic or taking selfies with them sans permission.

The number of tourists in Gion seems to have spiked significantly in the past two or three years. There are also geisha-spotting tips and tours, which no doubt have helped increase the crowds.

The top image was taken for the Kansai Promotional Council to promote the Kansai region for this week’s G20 Summit in neighbouring Osaka. So officially sanctioned publicity photos like this, showing a maiko walking down Hanami Koji in Gion can ultimately cause confusion with tourists. They probably want to take their own version of this photo.

But remember, geisha and maiko are private citizens on their way to work. They are not Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, and Kyoto is not Disneyland.

While it’s understandable why people are excited to see them (heck, Japanese people who don’t live in Kyoto get excited to see them, too), running after them in the street or stopping in front of them to snap photos is dangerous and rude.

Moreover, Japan has strict privacy laws, so that is another thing to keep in mind while taking photos in public.

There are also signs in Gion, the Kyoto nightlife district where geisha and maiko work, telling people not to bother them.

The signs, however, should probably be even more explicit, but knowing how strict Kyoto is about how buildings and signs must look in certain parts of the city (for example, how they must conform to the area’s architecture and colour schemes), that could explain the sign’s relative ambiguity.

The sign seems to indicate that touching geisha is not allowed and neither are selfies, but it doesn’t state the obvious: Don’t chase geisha and maiko down the street and take their photos!

Recently, volunteers have been trying to educate visitors on how to behave while in Gion, passing out booklets with more information. With time, I do people will become better informed as to what behaviour is acceptable. There is a learning curve, and it’s good to see that there is a willingness to inform visitors.

Website Togetter has a collection of tweets about the issue, pointing out how stressful and even scary it must be for geisha and maiko to be hounded and followed like this.

Some Twitter users pointed out that tourists are not the only ones guilty of this practice (Japanese visitors are, too) and if anyone wants to see geisha or maiko, then they should pay accordingly and make reservations at their place of business. Fair enough!


  • There’s a line. Taking pictures at a discrete distance in public is fair enough, but accosting, hassling or touching is not. Geisha and maiko are deserving of the same respect that any ‘man in the street’ is. Be polite and not intrusive, and you will be fine.

  • So imagine you’re trying to walk to work, but being 5 minutes late will destroy your career. And it takes you 4 hours to get ready for work. And your uniform cost $30,000. And hundreds of dickheads start yelling at you in foreign languages and try to touch your uniform and stop you so they can state at you and take photos with you. Every day.

    Don’t fuck with geiko. Let them do their jobs in peace.

  • I got to have a meeting/interview/dinner with a geisha. It was regularly stressed to us by our translator how rare and prestigious a privilege it was to be able to secure a few hours with a geisha.

    Our geisha served tea and food, and we played some kind of hand-clapping rhythm game, and she talked.

    She talked about the constant training that occupied most of her days. About having to leave her family in her early teens to live in the dorms as an apprentice. ‘Geisha school’ sounded like a kind of prison, with every hour of every day planned out for the girls. We asked what she did with her ‘free time’ (answer: sewing kimonos for work, and learning new parlour games to play with patrons), whether she could travel or date, what pop-culture things she liked… (answers: Not allowed, not allowed, not allowed.) She talked about how prestigious it was, how much honour she brought to her family to be living this life, but hell if I wasn’t just staring past the make-up and big clothes at a young woman who had proudly, happily signed away all her teenage years, all her personal freedom for a job that was so demanding that it required the job govern every aspect of her life.

    Just a difference in values. I guess with all the historical and cultural significance, people see something else when they look at a geisha… And I know it’s ignorant, projecting my values onto someone who doesn’t share them, but hell if that interview didn’t bum me out a tiny bit.

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