A maiko learns the proper etiquette for parties (ozashiki) at teahouses (ochaya). But what behaviors must she avoid?
Maiko Ichimame describes some basics in her 2007 book, Maiko Etiquette. The book’s illustrator Katsuyama Keiko catches our attention with her comic of maiko taboos, featured here.
What do the taboos tell us about the maiko’s role at teahouse parties? First of all, we see a concern for aesthetics: the maiko must move beautifully. We also see that attending parties is part of a maiko’s job. She is not there to have fun, but to ensure the guests enjoy themselves. She must remain alert to the guests’ needs. This way she shows respect and concern for her guests.
As I describe in Maiko Masquerade, etiquette training, along with dance lessons, mark the most important aspects of maiko training. Contemporary guides to the hanamachi in Japanese celebrate the maiko’s performance of Japanese etiquette. Although Ichimame explains many aspects of her maiko life in this personal account, she titles her book, Maiko Etiquette. Katsuyama Keiko’s lively illustrations keep the book’s mood light, making even a lesson about taboos fun to contemplate.
Do not pour backhanded.
Always face the guest to pour a beverage. Ichimame explains that in the past when a warrior would commit seppuku, he would wield the sword backhanded. (Not a good look at a party!)
When the client offers to pour your drink, do not offer your cup with one hand.
Hold your cup with both hands when offering it and when drinking from it.
Hold the sake cup in your right hand and support it with your left hand. Do the same thing with cups or glasses for other beverages.
If you absolutely must use one hand to pass something to the guest who is somewhat distant from you, say, “Onīsan (Elder brother), I apologize for passing with one hand.” お兄さん、片手ですんまへん。
[Male clients are generally addressed as Onīsan (elder brother), female clients as Onēsan (elder sister). Ichimame’s reference implies that clients are typically men].
Rest your hands on your knees when talking with clients.
Don’t rest your hands on the table. Of course, never rest your elbows on the table either.
Do not rest your hips directly on the tatami.
Even when sitting formally (seiza) makes your legs sore, do not move so that your hips are directly on the tatami floor. Rather, move your feet into the ハ position and rest on them. Sit up straight. Push your weight to the front. If you feel like your legs are going to fall asleep then make an excuse so you can stand up and move. You might say that you need to get more sake or something like that.
An interesting article on how to sit in the formal seiza style.
Do not disrupt the party by getting up too much.
Of course, it’s a maiko’s job to make sure that nothing is needed at the party. If more beverages or something else is needed, she should offer to take care of it. But even if moving quickly to replenish drinks, the maiko must do so quietly, not making a lot of noise.
Do not talk with guests from a standing position.
At parties held in a tatami room, everyone will be seated on cushions on the floor. Sometimes a guest will start talking with a maiko just when she has stood up. It would be rude for her to answer from this “higher” position. She should only respond after sitting back down on the tatami herself.
Do not become intoxicated.
Sometimes at parties, maiko Ichimame, too, is offered sake. While she may taste a little, she also asks for water or tea to drink rather than sake. No one wants to see a tipsy maiko!
Kamishichiken Ichimame. Maiko etiquette. Copyright © 2007. Daiwa Shobō. pages 84-86. Illustrated by Katsuyama Keiko, p. 86.
Jan Bardsley, “A Maiko’s Party Manners: Taboo Behaviors at Ozashiki,” Janbardsley.web.unc.edu. July 8, 2021
A lot of those taboos also apply to proper ladylike manners for “civilians,” too, which just underscores your point about the maiko performing national girlhood. Since many of these everyday manners are being ignored, the maiko is there to preserve them. I especially appreciated the tips on how to sit seiza and still survive!
Great observation, Rebecca. Popular guides celebrate the hanamachi as a community where Japanese manners are still taught and performed, underscoring its importance as a cultural site worthy of preservation.
I can imagine that all your training in Japanese dance helped you learn to sit seiza, too. Thanks, Jan
As Rebecca pointed out, those smaller details are too formal and a little old-fashioned for present Japanese since Japanese-style rooms and Kimono aren’t familiar today. I think many of these were common behaviors for Japanese women in the past.
Thanks, Haruka. Your comment makes me wonderful if older Japanese movies, like those in the 1950s that would show people interacting in tatami rooms, might display these kinds of old-fashioned manners. Jan
These manner instructions coming from a maiko must be easier for young women today to learn than from their mothers or teachers of traditional arts.
Isn’t it interesting that standing indicates respect in the West, an opposite of Japanese manners?
Thanks, Aki. What an interesting point indeed. Now it seems natural to me to stand when greeting someone coming into an office where I’m waiting, for example. But I don’t think I learned that until I was in my thirties and had more formal interactions. I remember in Japanese classes how students enjoyed learning Japanese manners new to them.
Very interesting post. Ichimamae was a sweet girl and took some heat for her blog so it was carefully monitored. Unfortunately, educating the maiko in ozashiki etiquette is not enough. If the customers don’t know the proper etiquette they won’t be able to correct them(the maiko) or compliment them. A good client should be an educator, not just of etiquette but all around as well as a recipient of entertainment. Of course, this applies more to a regular clientele. Unfortunately, a large number of clients these days have never studied the arts, and do not know ozashiki etiquette, banter etc. and are along for the photo ops for social media. The generic, dances and games have become a set menu with the teenage maiko doing the teaching. But that is a whole different topic. Looking forward to reading your book-Maiko Masquerade.
Thank you, Peter, for your first-hand account. Praise for the client steeped in the customs of the hanamachi and able to participate well certainly does come up in the literature a lot. Once I saw online a movie you made–fascinating interviews! Jan