Professor Emerita, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, UNC Chapel Hill

Month: August 2021

The Maiko’s Look: Lipstick or Lip Coloring?

The Gion maiko Chiyofuku looks intent here as she carefully brushes color on her lips.  Artist Hashiguchi Goyō (1880-1921) created Woman Holding a Lip Brush in 1920. His print makes me curious about this cosmetic moment.  In English, should we say that this maiko wears lip coloring or lipstick?  What’s the difference? How can prints from the 1920s and 1930s help us appreciate maiko makeup today?

The Difference between Lip Coloring and Lipstick

I found Goyō’s print in the fascinating book, The Women of Shin Hanga, edited by Allen Hockley.  He defines shin hanga (new print) as a movement spanning the 1910s to the 1950s that “revitalized the traditional Japanese art of woodblock printing” (Introduction).  Many of the prints show women with bright red lips. They draw our attention to public and private cosmetic moments.

“Western scholars inaccurately substitute ‘lipstick’ for benifude.”

But, as Hockley observes, “Western scholars inaccurately substitute ‘lipstick’ for benifude. Lipstick is a term specific to the tubular applicator used in Western makeup. A benifude refers to the fude (brush) used to apply kuchi-beni, the term for beni (red/pink) lip coloring ” (138, note 1).  Aha!  Goyō’s model is wearing lip coloring.

Interesting!  I never thought about lipstick as defined by its applicator–only as a product that colored the lips. But these modern Japanese prints make clear that ‘lipstick’ was a distinctly new kind of tool. And they make us look more carefully at the benifude used by maiko. Remember when we saw star skater Asada Mao costumed as a maiko? Note the geisha brushes on her lip coloring.

Asada has maiko make-up applied for the August 17, 2014 SMILE event at Kyoto Takashimaya.

Capturing Cosmetic Moments Private and Public

Many contemporary photo books and films show maiko applying makeup before heading to the evening’s ozashiki. They sit before a small, low table of pots and brushes.  A magical assemblage, these cosmetics create the aura of old-fashioned elegance. We see the “ordinary girl” of the 2000s about to transform herself into a figure of the past in the present.

Cotton Kimono with Japanese Iris Pattern, 1930. Torii Kotondo.

This 1930 print Cotton Kimono with Japanese Iris Pattern by Torii Kotondo (1900-1976), another in The Women of Shin Hanga fascinates viewers in the same way. We learn how viewers would have been attracted to this “depiction of the array of paints and powders that constitute Japanese makeup and the various brushes used to apply them” (208).



Modern Fashions, 1931.
Kobayakawa Kiyoshi (1889-1948). Gallery Sobi Pallas.

At the same time, we find prints of women in the 1930s using modern lipstick.  For example, let’s look at the 1931 print No. 6 Lipstick (Roku: Kuchibeni) in the series Modern Fashions by Kobayakawa Kiyoshi (1889-1948). Hockley observes that while “she wears traditional dress, her permed hair with curls falling around her face, her lipstick, clutch purse with hand mirror, ring, and wristwatch indicate her modern girl affiliations” (220).  He notes that even though the print’s title uses the term kuchibeni, unlike Goyō’s 1920 maiko, this woman “uses lipstick from a modern applicator” (220).


What is Kuchibeni?

BENI by Shiseido. 2021.

In her excellent book, Geisha: A Living Tradition, Kyoko Aihara explains that this lip color “comes in a small stick that is melted in water after which crystallized sugar is then added to give the cosmetic lustre” (77). In Guide to Maiko Accessories, Aihara writes that when a maiko carries kuchibeni in her handbag, it’s stored in a small container.  She brings along a spray container of water to use to soften it (86).


Souvenir. Rakuten.

Aihara notes, “Originally, the rouge was stored in a pretty painted clamshell of the kind that is now sold as a souvenir in Kyoto ” (1999: 77).



The Millennial Maiko Ichimame Wears Lipstick too

Maiko-san’s Makeup. 2007.
Katsuyama Keiko. Page 63.

Makeup worn to lessons. 2007. Katsuyama Keiko. Page 39.










In her book Maiko Etiquette, Ichimame (featured in my book Maiko Masquerade) talks about changing her makeup to fit her outfit. Katsuyama Keiko illustrates.

The black-and-white graphic shows her “maiko-san’s makeup.”   This is her formal look, so she wears kuchibeni. Next to the mascara wand at the lower right, we see the images of the “water-soluble” beni and lip brush.

Turning to the color image, we see Ichimame dressed more simply to go to her dance lessons. Here, she wears a light pink MAC lipstick and lip cream (39).  She also wears sun screen.

Illustrations of Ichimame’s makeup convey the spirit of her own times.  But they read like a visual guide to the maiko’s makeup for girl readers. There’s a sense of transformation and play here. We learn that Ichimame, a maiko in 2007, wears lip coloring and lipstick to suit her looks. Thanks to this brief foray into Shin Hanga, I understand the difference.


Aihara, Kyoko. Geisha: A Living Tradition. London: Carlton Books, 1999; Maiko-san no odōgu-chō [Guide to maiko accessories]. Tokyo: Sankaidō, 2007.

Hockley, Allen, Kendall H. Brown, Nozomi Naoi, and Allen Hockley. The Women of Shin Hanga: The Judith and Joseph Barker Collection of Japanese Prints. Hanover, New Hampshire : Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 2013.

Kamishichiken Ichimame. Maiko Etiquette.  Tokyo: Daiwa Shobō, 2007.  Illustrated by Katsuyama Keiko.

For more on women in Shin Hanga and many more images, see “The Female Image in Shin Hanga Prints”  at Haverford Libraries:

Jan Bardsley, “The Maiko’s Look: Lipstick or Lip Coloring?,” August 27, 2021.


Hanameishi: The Maiko’s Cheerful Name Card

What’s the story of hanameishi 花名刺 ?

The maiko hands her guest a small card.   Like other small things associated with maiko, the cheerful card evokes a sense of girlish play.  A sweet souvenir, it’s also a saavy marketing tool.

What’s the story here?  Today we learn about the maiko’s name card, its history, and uses.

The maiko’s pretty name card

Japanese are famous for the ritual of exchanging business cards. Maiko and geisha have their own style of name cards (hanameishi, literally, flower name cards). These bear their professional name and the name of their hanamachi.

Clients should never contact maiko directly, but only ask for them through teahouse managers. That’s why these cards do not give addresses or telephone numbers. About 2.5 by 8 centimeters in size, they are smaller than the usual business card.  Maiko carry their cards in pretty fabric cases.

Who created the first hanameishi?

This 1930s travel poster of Kyoto features a maiko, giving a flavor of the era.

Japanese Government Railways, 1930. Wikimedia.

Kyoko Aihara explains their origins. From the late Meiji period (1868-1912) through the Taishō era (1912-26), some geisha had their names printed on small, colorful match boxes. They used these as their calling cards.

Artist Matsumura Suihō (1888-1967), kimono designer and Gion aficionado, came up with the idea of creating small paper cards for maiko with playful designs. Matsumura hand-printed his cards on  washi paper. His granddaughter Hayashi Hisako still makes these cards in the old style. She uses the vast storehouse of prints that Suihō created (Aihara 2011:120-23).

How do hanameishi bring good fortune?

Today hanameishi in sticker form are popular and associated with comic word play. Maiko joke that clients will profit by attaching the hanameishi to their wallets. This will inspire  okane ga maikomu, that is, “money will come dancing in”— a pun on the word maiko. Geisha say that using their stickers will lead to motto maikomu, even more money will come in,” a play on motto (more) and moto maiko (a former maiko) (Ota, et al., 2009:148, n21).

Hanameishi recall the name cards of Edo-era pilgrims

Rather than storing them in their wallets, some clients become avid hanameishi collectors. They carefully preserve them in albums. These stickers recall the ancient custom of pilgrims making name cards (senjafuda). They would stick their cards to shrines and temples to seal their good fortune. Edo-era merchants created unique woodblock-printed cards, which also were associated with humorous word-play, to exchange (kokan nōsatsu) (Salter  2006: 101-104).

What shapes and designs do today’s name cards feature?

Colorful calling cards used by maikoMaiko and geisha order different hanameishi to express the seasons. They may use as many as one thousand a year. Patterns may include signs of nature such as flowers and birds, that year’s sign of the Chinese zodiac, cute animals, and toys.


Gion geiko Kokimi designs her hanameishi with flair

Gion geisha name card. Name in pink against deep gold background.Pondering the design for her newest hanameishi, geiko Kokimi asked to see what designs others were using.  She was amazed at the creativity and variety. She observed that some altered the usual shape, making theirs round or square. Some signaled their favorite food or sport.  Here, Kokimi’s card bears her name in vivid pink. We see Gion Kōbu’s crest top left. This is only one of many creative hanameishi used by Kokimi (Yamaguchi 2007: 102-03).

An artful design from Miyagawa-chō

The name card of Miyagawa-cho okiya Kaden.

The name card for the Kaden okiya in Miyagawa-chō. 2019.

This hanameshi comes from Ikuda Takeda (Koito), who leads the Kaden okiya. We see the district name at the top (Miyagawa-chō) and the name Kaden within the folded paper design. The folded paper recalls koibumi, the Japanese love letter, that we explored last week.

You can read about the maiko’s life at Kaden in A Geisha’s Journey. Photographer Naoyuki Ogino collaborated with former maiko, now geiko Komomo, for nine years. His photographs of her daily life at Kaden and Komomo’s own account reveal the rigor and fun of maiko life in the 2000s.

A Geisha’s Journey, 2008.

Create or order your own hanameishi

Hanameishi are not the sole preserve of geiko and maiko.  Teenagers enjoy printing their own inexpensively at Kyoto game centers.  You can also order maiko-style name cards from specialty shops; I found one online.  The National Saturday Club offers a wonderful online tutorial and template,  Design a Japanese Senjafuda.


Aihara Kyoko, Kyoto hanamachi fasshon no bi to kokoro [The soul and beauty of Kyoto’s hanamachi fashion]. Tokyo: Tankōsha, 2011.

Komomo and Naoyuki Ogino.  A Geisha’s Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008.

Ōta Tōru and Hiratake Kōzō, eds. Kyō no kagai: Hito, waza, machi [Kyoto’s hanamachi: People, arts, towns]. Tokyo: Nippon Hyōronsha, 2009.

Salter, Rebecca.  Japanese Popular Prints: From Votive Slips to Playing Cards. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006.

Yamaguchi Kimijo. Suppin geiko: Kyoto Gion no ukkari nikki [Bare-faced
geiko: My haphazard diary of Gion, Kyoto]. Tokyo: LOCUS, 2007

Jan Bardsley, “Hanameishi: The Maiko’s Cheerful Name Card,” August 19, 2021




The Magic of Koibumi: The Japanese Love Letter

What does this girl hold in her hand?  The white paper, carefully folded, draws our attention.  What is inside? Does her glance backward express concern about keeping the object a secret?

Looking closer, we see the print’s title, Girl with Love Letter. That identifies the object. It’s a koibumi (love letter). But what about its shape and folds?

A Conversation with Dr. Aki Hirota, Scholar of Japanese Arts and Culture

To learn more about koibumi, I asked Dr. Aki Hirota. An expert in classical Japanese literature and practitioner of several Japanese arts, Aki gave me wonderful insights.

Tied Letters: An Ancient Custom

“Before envelopes, everyone tied letters, including business letters. But people today looking back to these traditions most often think of love letters,” explained Aki.

“We know that noble men and women tied their letters in this fashion. We know much about their love letters. They often tied the letter onto a flowering branch of a tree and handed it to a messenger who delivered it to the intended person.”

Ah, yes!  That Heian classic, The Pillow Book has beautiful examples of this.

Sei Shōnagon. Wikimedia Commons.

Sei Shōnagon describes a love letter “attached to a spray of bush-clover, still damp with dew, and the paper gives off a delicious aroma of incense” (62).  She also observes, “Very elegant men enclose long iris roots in their letters, and it is a pleasure to watch the women who have received the contents discussing them with their companions and showing each other their replies” (65).




“This custom is still practiced in Japan by shrine worshippers,” Aki continued. “Shrine visitors tie their o-mikuji onto a tree branch.”

That made me curious about o-mikuji. In English, you might call them, “sacred lots.” They are narrow, white strips of papers, each bearing a fortune.

O-mikuji: Good Fortune and Bad Omens

Visiting Shinto Shrines, you often see trees filled with knotted fortunes.  What’s the story here?

Omikuji near Nikkō Tōshō-gū, 2016. Wikimedia Comm.

“When the o-mikuji is a 凶 (bad omen),” said Aki, “lots of people leave it behind–along with the bad luck– by tying the o-mikuji to a living tree. Doing this is supposed to bestow you with life force.”



Heart-shaped rack.三浦半島散歩多摩 @miurasanpo


Pointing to photos of overloaded trees, Aki explains, “But in reality, the tips of tree branches themselves could wilt from the lack of sun that too many tied o-mikuji cause. That’s why  shrines ask you not to use their ancient divine trees. They build racks and the like to serve as a tying space. There are even some racks fashioned in a heart shape.”

Europeans Tied Letters Too

Folded letter. Unlocking History Research Group.

Aki observes that not only Japanese folded messages in the past.

“In Europe, from the Middle Ages down to fairly recent times, letters were folded and sealed with red wax. The writer then stamped the letter with a seal instead of using an envelope.”

Koibumi Style: Obi Fashioned with Love 恋文結び

Obi in Love-Letter Knot Style. Satomi Miyadera.  2018.

Returning to love letters bring us to fashion.  How does the folded koibumi inspire romantics still? Aki explained how the legacy of the tied love note shapes obi fashion today.

“Among the zillion ways of tying an obi on kimono, the koibumi musubi is especially popular now for yukata.”



“People say it’s great for a date! Of course, today your date may not know anything about the message that it’s supposed to deliver. You’d need to explain what this way of tying is meant to signify.”

Age-old Custom of Japanese Love Letters

Woodblock print of Japanese girl with knotted love letter, 1910

Girl with Love Letter. Circa 1910. Artist Ikeda Terukata(1883-1921). Wikimedia Commons. MFA Boston.

Even this brief foray into koibumi takes us to ancient Japanese customs, art and literature, and obi fashion.  It recalls European folded letters, too. And we know the Girl with Love Letter points to an age-old custom in Japan. Still, the print piques our curiosity about this particular letter.



For more on koibumi, you can visit the National Diet Library, Japan site, Book Kaleidoscope: The World of Love Letters.  Access this site in English through Google Translate. This site takes you from ancient to modern koibumi in Japanese arts and literature:

Many thanks to Dr. Aki Hirota for sharing her insights into the koibumi, unfolding some of its history.


Sei Shōnagon, and Ivan Morris. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Jan Bardsley, “The Magic of Koibumi: The Japanese Love Letter,”, August 12, 2021.

Mask up like a maiko

Summer 2021.  Sadly, the pandemic continues. Following precautions, maiko wear masks.  And some people wear “maiko masks.”  Today we learn about summer greetings in the hanamachi and mask advisories in Japan.

How did maiko perform summer greetings in 2021?

On August 1, Kyoto’s hanamachi celebrate Hassaku八朔. Geiko and maiko visit their arts teachers to pay their respects. They also call at the teahouses in their district to thank them for their patronage.  Hassaku originated in farming communities. Farmers performed rituals on the first day of the 8th lunar month in hopes of an abundant harvest.

The photo shows maiko wearing masks to make Hassaku greetings

“Wearing masks, taking ample precautions, geiko and maiko pay Hassaku respects.” Kyoto Shimbun August 1, 2021.

This August, Kyoto Shimbun featured this photograph of geiko and maiko wearing masks during their greetings.  Also, they had to take care in the scorching heat.  Kyoto Shimbun reports that some in the hanamachi called for suspending the ritual this year. Those participating wore lighter summer kimono instead of the formal black kuromontsuki.  They also made their rounds in small groups this year.

Since 2020, videos of masked maiko in dance practice have also popped up on YouTube.

Add a touch of maiko fun to masking

Mask with maiko figures.
Creema 2021.

Mask case. Eirakuya 2021.







We also find examples of “maiko masks” and mask cases. Creema offers this pink, maiko-laden mask. I found maiko masks sold on several other sites, too.

The Kyoto textile firm Eirakuya produced a mask case featuring a maiko walking among the torii at Fushimi Inari Shrine.

When not to wear a mask: Heat Advisories

In Order to Avoid Heatstroke. Amagasaki . Jun 1, 2021.

This heat advisory posted in Amagasaki City in Hyogo Prefecture warns residents to avoid heat stroke.

Outside and safely distanced, it’s better to take off your mask in the summer heat.


The fun of teacher-student greetings in August

Thinking about Hassaku greetings in the hanamachi reminds me of greeting teachers in the U.S.   As a graduate student at UCLA, I loved visiting my professors in August, excited to tell them about my summer research in Japan. I appreciate their encouragement all the more now.  Later, as a professor myself, I enjoyed meeting my students and hearing about their summer adventures.  Trips abroad, summer camp counseling, internships–so many experiences they’d had.

I do look forward to the return of easier face-to-face communication.

I am vaccinated and I do wear my mask in public places.

Jan Bardsley, “Mask up like a maiko,”, August 10, 2021.


© 2024 Jan Bardsley

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑