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

Month: January 2022

Film Review of Hannari: Geisha Modern

It’s wintry weather here in Chapel Hill. Perfect for movie viewing. This weekend I watched the documentary Hannari: Geisha Modern. Initially released in 2006, it’s now streaming on Amazon Prime.  Today’s post reviews the film.

What Does the Word Hannari Mean?

Associated originally with Kyoto’s hanamachi, the word hannari suggests brightness, charm, and tasteful sophistication.  (The film never explains its meaning).

Hannari: Geisha Modern succeeds in conveying respect for the hanamachi, its beauty, its traditions, and its fragility today.  The “brightness” of the hanamachi comes across most strongly in the scenes of gorgeous dance productions.  Yet, by emphasizing the rigor of hanamachi arts and etiquette, Hannari misses the jovial moments in teahouse culture.  Like most documentaries on the hanamachi, this one, too, avoids any criticism of this world.

On a personal note: I enjoyed seeing many people in Hannari whom I interviewed while researching my book Maiko Masquerade.  In fact, I received the Japanese DVD of Hannari as a gift from one of its geiko interviewees.  I recognized others in the film from reading books about the hanamachi.  Hannari reminds me of how small and tightly knit the community is.

Desire to Dispel the Memoirs of a Geisha Impression

Hannari’s emphasis on tradition and virtue over-corrects for the sexualization of geisha in the mass media.

Memoirs of a Geisha, the 2005 film adaptation of Arthur Golden’s novel, irked people in the hanamachi and its supporters. The creators of Hannari aimed to dispel its strong association of geisha and sex work. Hannari promotion underscores its accuracy, Hannari – Geisha Modern is a documentary film that seeks to capture the geisha and their culture for what they are truly meant to be.”

Blogging about Hannari in 2007, Kyoto kimono producer Taizoh Takahashi expresses his strong distaste for Memoirs. He appeared in Hannari as a teahouse guest and later participated in some screening events.

Miyuki Sohara with geiko, posted on Rotten Tomatoes.

Takahashi writes that Hannari director, Miyuki Sohara, a Japanese actress long based in Los Angeles, felt exasperated with Hollywood filmmakers’  sexualization of geisha. Like the geiko of Gion, Sohara, too, studied Inoue School dance. She knows its artistry and difficulty.  Sohara and Takahashi felt inspired to make this film as a way to educate Americans.

No Oscar, but Many Endorsements from Japan

Aspiring for an Academy Award influenced Hannari’s length. Since the Academy requires documentaries be at least 90 minutes, Hannari, at 95 minutes, met that rule.  But aiming for a lengthy documentary may have led to Hannari’s overly broad scope and lack of coherence.

Hannari did not win an Oscar. But the film’s homepage shows that it was screened widely in Los Angeles, and in San Francisco, New York, and major cities in Japan.

Its positive message about Kyoto’s hanamachi resonated well with many. The Prefecture of Kyoto, City of Kyoto, and The Japan Foundation have all endorsed Hannari.

Lovely Moments, Important Interviews in Hannari

What are the film’s strengths?

Hannari is visually beautiful. Lovely moments come in brief nature scenes of flowers and babbling brooks and closeups of quaint hanamachi streets.

Hannari devotes considerable attention to dance. We see the major spring productions at a distance and close-up. We can observe performers’ vivid costumes, facial expressions, and dance moves. Hannari captures the radiant display of ensemble numbers. We also see geiko and maiko dancing in the intimate venues of the teahouse for a few guests. Geiko Ichiyoshi’s dance rehearsal shows her maintaining perfect concentration despite the sweltering heat. These scenes will be valuable archival footage of well-known geiko and their performances.

Katsukiyo. Posted on Kamishichiken Tumblr. 2016.

Interviews with geiko of different ages and a few maiko are surely a strength of Hannari. I most enjoyed the interview with the late geiko Katsukiyo of Kamishichiken and her comic dance performance.  I wish the filmmakers had devoted more time to these valuable interview opportunities and gone further into the veterans’ long lives in the hanamachi. Katsukiyo started attending teahouse parties at age 16 around 1945.  This was a time of desperate poverty in occupied Japan.  How did this context affect Katsukiyo’s early career?  She also served as the long-time leader of the Kamishichiken district’s geiko association. What did this post entail?

Missed Opportunities in Hannari

Its overly broad scope, digressions, and stiff parties scenes weaken Hannari.  Trying to do too much, the film misses the chance to tell a deeper, more coherent story about dance and the geiko’s life.

We see a truncated story of Gion’s famous Oyuki Morgan that ignores the ultimate tragedy of her 1904 marriage to a wealthy American. We spend too long at lackluster teahouse parties that center on self-absorbed men, rendering geiko and maiko passive. Apart from a solid interview with an unnamed specialist in crafting dance fans, the film skims over the contributions of many crafts people, perhaps a topic better left for a separate film.  The digression into the museum-like preservation of the old hanamachi Shimabara does not fit well. At the end, the film descends into a kind of travelogue, explaining how the viewer might get access to the exclusive teahouse world or even visit Gion Corner to see maiko performing.

Hannari obfuscates the changes over time in the role of the danna (patron), conflating this with the contemporary sponsor.  It does not take up how the geiko profession affected women’s private lives or social status outside the hanamachi.

Geiko and maiko often mention parents’ objecting to their daughters joining the hanamachi, even if the mother herself was a geiko.  What were their objections?  We never learn.

Too often Hannari gives male dance teachers the last word on the goals of geiko and maiko dancing.  I wanted to hear more about what the women themselves felt about the experience, their favorite roles, and the difference between dancing on stage and in the teahouse.

Hannari Preserves Glimpses of the 21st-century Hanamachi

What might the perfect Hanamachi documentary provide? How can we encapsulate a living, breathing, growing, changing tradition—even in a film as long as Hannari? Although the documentary has its flaws, we are fortunate it has preserved even a slice of the rich cosmos of the 21st-century hanamachi.

Next Post: The February Setsubun Festivities

Setsubun festivities, marking a “seasonal division,” are among the liveliest in Kyoto’s hanamachi. Maiko and geiko take part in public rituals and teahouse party fun. Our next post explores these rituals and the carinvalesque costuming and comic acts that geiko perform that night.

Jan Bardsley, “Film Review of Hannari: Geisha Modern,”, January 31, 2022.

Backstage with Hungry Maiko in Early January

In early January, maiko return to Kyoto from their New Year’s holidays.  What a change is in store!

Visiting with their families, they had a chance to let their hair down — literally. They wore casual clothes. They hung out with their old pals. And they relaxed into their local dialects.  Back in Kyoto, it’s time to assume the maiko persona once more.

Let’s look at some comic scenes in the apprentices’ return to okiya life.  They savor their last moments of vacation freedom and bring back tastes of home. These food souvenirs, called omiyage, represent an important gift-giving custom practiced throughout Japan. (That’s a topic for a future post).

Tasty Treats from around Japan

Arriving at their okiya, maiko share food gifts unique to their hometowns. Since the vast majority of maiko come from outside Kyoto, many different foods appear all at once. Each nicely wrapped.

For one example, our featured image (above) shows maple-leaf shaped Momiji manjū cakes. Filled with coarse red bean paste, they are famous in Miyajima (or Itsukushima) in Hiroshima Prefecture. Perhaps maiko hailing from Hiroshima would bring these to their okiya.

Describing the bounty of gifts, geiko Yamaguchi Kimijo writes, “It’s as though Gion turns into a department store of famous products from all over Japan.  From the ends of Kyushu in the south to Hokkaido in the north” (128).

Maiko Must Return to the Hanamachi Dialect

Musing on the January return of maiko, Yamaguchi Kimijo observes their lapse into hometown dialects. Even after a short vacation, many find using the hanamachi dialect awkward. Kimijo hears odd intonations popping up as maiko try to get back into the linguistic swing of things. Their hometown dialects are as varied as the hometown foods. Still, the rhythm of hanamachi life soon resumes.

“There’s a point when the famous local specialties from all around Japan and the hometown dialects, too, have disappeared.
That’s when the new year has truly come to Gion” (129).

Kokimi Cover

Bare-faced Geiko, 2007.

Koyama’s Maiko Enjoy Hometown Food Gifts, too

Aiko Koyama, 2017.

Imagining the maiko’s return, manga artist Aiko Koyama shows them fascinated with each other’s food gifts. These maiko munch on all sorts of goodies and take pride in their hometown foods.  “That’s mine, from Hokkaido.” “That’s mine, from Hiroshima.”

 Maiko Momohana and Friends Catch a Fast-Food Break

Aiko Koyama, 2017.

Aha!  The food action in this manga story takes a new turn when their okiya mother gives the maiko money for a last hurrah of fast food.  Off they go in their casual clothes! Once in their maiko hairstyle and kimono, they should not be seen in this contemporary realm of convenience.

At the fast-food place, they meet newly returned maiko from other okiya, too. A flurry of greetings ensues.

Maiko Momohana suggests that her group take their teriyaki burgers down to the bank of the Kamo River. It’s super windy and cold.  But Momohana appreciates the chance for them to gather incognito. Since they are dressed casually, no one knows they are maiko.  As a result, they can enjoy watching others instead of standing out themselves.

A Taste of Teenage Freedom

Aiko Koyama, 2017.

Koyama depicts even proper Momohana and cook Kiyo enjoying every bite of the huge sandwiches.  Looking at her juicy burger, another girl says, “Well, I guess today I’m not back to being a maiko yet.”

The Quest to Become a Maiko-like (maiko-rashii) Maiko

Maiko Masquerade (UC Press, 2021)

These comic moments of maiko reverting to their hometown teenage selves reminds me of the flip side—their ongoing quest to become maiko-rashii maiko.

As we see in Maiko Masquerade, contemporary maiko fiction plays with the idea of the backstage maiko striving to squelch her appetite to perform as the ideal apprentice.  The fiction trains us to admire the maiko’s work, her successful maiko-rashii moments, and empathize with her struggles.  No doubt these moments remind us of our own efforts to conform to a public role. After vacation, we, too, must once again assume our professional persona and get to work.

Formal New Year Beginnings: The Opening Ceremony

Of course, formal rituals and costume help the maiko switch back into her apprentice persona.

Gion Opening Ceremony. Sankei News, 2019.

As we saw in earlier posts, Gion Kōbu and other hanamachi hold their annual Opening Ceremony.  All the maiko and geiko dress formally, and the maiko wear a veritable bouquet of hair ornaments (kanzashi). It’s quite a sight to see them proceed through the hanamachi to the ceremony.

This glimpse into the backstage helps us appreciate the work ordinary girl must do to get in gear for the new year and perform maiko-likeness.

Next Post: Documenting the Hanamachi:  Film Review of Hannari: Geisha Modern

Today’s post explored the comical side of hungry maiko backstage.  In our next post, however, we look at filmmaker Miyuki Sohara’s attempt to capture the serious side of hanamachi culture.  We consider the film, Hannari: Geisha Modern.

Featured image: “Food in Miyajima, Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima, Japan.”
Posted by Daderot, 2001. Wikimedia Commons. This lovely photo features Momiji Manjū  Cake.


Koyama Aiko. Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san. Serialized manga. Volume 3.  Shōgakukan, 2017. “Kyoto, Once More” (Episode 27) of the manga with English translation is available online:

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

Jan Bardsley, “Backstage with Hungry Maiko in Early January,”, January 27, 2022.

Marie Kondo Sparks Joy on American TV: Talking with Alisa Freedman

Marie Kondo’s method for sparking joy has made her a global super-star of tidying.
Today, I catch up with my friend and colleague, Japanese studies expert Alisa Freedman to talk about Kondo’s appeal.

In her superb new book, Japan on American TV: Screaming Samurai Join Anime Clubs in the Land of the Lost, Alisa Freedman gives in-depth analysis of Kondo’s media persona in Japan and the U.S.  Let’s begin by meeting this prolific author.

Let’s Meet Author Alisa Freedman

Alisa Freedman

Professor of Japanese Literature, Cultural Studies, and Gender at the University of Oregon, Alisa Freedman is a well-known scholar, translator, and Editor-in-Chief of U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal. She’s given TED Talks, too.


Promoting Active Ways of Watching Television

Japan on American TV draws from a popular course Alisa has taught at University of Oregon. Taking a serious approach to TV in both the U.S. and Japan, she “strives to encourage debate and to promote active and critical… ways of watching television” (9).  In Japan on American TV, she guides us to looking closely. What do you see in the frame? Importantly, Alisa shows how to connect these observations to their broader cultural and historical contexts and shifts in US-Japan relations.

What’s Marie Kondo’s Story in Japan?

JB:  Good afternoon, Alisa, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on Marie Kondo. Reading Japan on American TV has sparked joy for me.

AF:  Thanks, Jan. Great to talk with you today.

JB:  Your writing about Marie Kondo reminds us that she had a career in Japan well before coming to Netflix.  What’s her background?

AF:  Kondo grew up in an affluent section of Tokyo, attending an old, elite Quaker school. Her fascination with tidying goes back to her childhood hobbies of reading homemaking magazines and straightening up almost every space she inhabited at home and school. She even wrote her college thesis in sociology at Tokyo Women’s Christian University on the topic.

Marie Kondo Draws from Many Streams of Thought

A Miko at Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto. 2008. Wikimedia.

JB:  What ideas shaped her tidying philosophy?

AF:  Two important influences stand out in shaping Kondo’s thought–her interests in psychotherapy and Shinto. As I note in the book, Kondo’s reading in psychotherapy led her to perceive disorganization as a psychological condition. She also realized how ingrained the association between women and cleaning was in world societies.

Kondo’s affinity for Shinto dates to her days as an 18-year-old miko (shrine maiden).  Although Kondo’s incorporation of Shinto is idiosyncratic, she borrows from its values of respect for one’s surroundings, rituals, and cleanliness.

Features of the KonMari Method

JB: What stands out about Kondo’s methods?

How to Greet Your Home
KonMari site. 2022.

AF:  Kondo’s purification rituals and observance of rites of passage are grounded in Shinto.  But her tidying method is premised on “Mindfulness” (derived from popular interpretations of Zen). She also draws on common sense and modes of Japanese cleaning (including those taught in Japanese elementary schools).

KonMari Core Ideas

Her method is a multistep process of assessing emotional attachment to objects, showing gratitude for what you have, and letting go of what no longer helps you.

Start by Sorting

According to Kondo, sorting belongings into categories and then choosing to keep only what “sparks joy” teaches us how to properly own things and to more comfortably inhabit our living spaces.

JB: Some have the impression Kondo is a minimalist.  We find spoofs of her ideal place as completely empty. What do you think?

AF: She does not advocate “minimalism,” owning as few belongings as possible. Instead, she wants people to own things more intentionally. In fact, Kondo operates expensive online stores that sell a lot of knickknacks that might need to someday be tidied and disposed of when they no longer spark joy.

Winning Fame in Japan

JB:  How did Kondo’s tidying career take off in Japan?

AF:  In 2009, she started her own professional organizing business. She won first prize by writing about her tidying method for a contest sponsored by a self-help book publisher. That launched her career as an author.

In 2010, this led to the publication in Japanese, and later English, of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  A global best-seller, it has been translated into around forty languages.

JB:  I remember seeing the book everywhere in the 2010s! I’d meet people young and old who were folding their clothes in the KonMari style. I tried out some of the tips, too.

Marie Kondo as Yamato Nadeshiko

Dianthus Superbus. Stan Shebs. Wikimedia Commons. 2005.

JB: You describe Marie Kondo as enacting “Yamato nadeshiko”, an “ideal Japanese woman.”  What does that mean?

AF: “Yamato” is an ancient term for Japan. “Nadeshiko,” a pink carnation, denotes a “gentlewoman.”

Yamato nadeshiko are devoted to the success of their families, their school team, or their workplace. They are demure but plucky, modest but strong.

Yamato nadeshiko on Japanese TV often wear tasteful but simple clothing–usually skirts, dresses, or kimono. They have long dark hair with bangs and natural makeup.  An approachable Yamato nadeshiko, Kondo chooses soothing colors. She often wears white cardigans. The cardigan suggests a kind of feminine professional note, and white conveys cleanliness.

Whether intentionally or not, Kondo engages the Yamato nadeshiko trope in her Netflix series.  We see this not only in her appearance, but also in how she comports herself, interacts with American families, and incorporates elements of Japanese culture.

The American Aspects of Kondo’s TV Persona

JB: In what ways does Kondo incorporate American custom into her Netflix persona?

AF:  Interesting question.  In her Netflix series, she emphasizes her Japanese origins, speaking Japanese almost exclusively. But she smiles toothy grins, shows personal pride, and enjoys family displays of affection–all would read Americanized to a Japanese audience.

Reactions in Japan to Kondo’s Fame Abroad

Abe Books online.

JB: What was the reaction in Japan to Kondo’s global fame?

AF:  Her appearances in Japan increased after her American success. Kondo’s business model provides a new transnational spin on the long-held belief that celebrity in the US is a road to success in Japan. Her Netflix series has been the most effective medium for mainstreaming her brand. For example, the popularity of the series drove traffic to Kondo’s other media, like her books, websites, stores, and KonMari Consultants training program.

The World of Professional Organizing

AF:  Kondo is not the world’s first “professional organizer.” That is, a consultant offering guidance on how to organize things and declutter spaces.  But she is the first to encourage global discussion and debate. Kondo has promoted international awareness of the job and has associated it with idealized Japanese women. Kondo uses her own original term “tidying consultant” perhaps to distinguish herself from other professionals in her field and to promote her distinct brand.

The number of professional organizers has increased in Japan and elsewhere, especially among women. This is thanks, in part, to the founding of organizations that foster community and provide information, resources, and certification programs.

Criticism of Kondo’s Method 

Some of these professional tidying organizations have offered the most profound critiques of Kondo’s method, even while expressing appreciation for the positive attention she has drawn to their profession. For example, JALO (Japan Association of Life Organizers, founded in 2008 to promote tidying as a way to learn life skills), has questioned the originality of Kondo’s method. Other groups have criticized the method’s rigidity and why tidying should only be accomplished in the order that Kondo proposes. Some Netflix viewers in the US and Japan took offense at things Kondo told her TV clients to get rid of, like books and mementos.

Online Memes Spoof the KonMari Method

50 Hilarious Reactions.
Mindaugas Balčiauskas.
Bored Panda.

AF:  Online memes have parodied people throwing away mean bosses and others who do not “spark joy.” Or, giving up on tidying due to distractions or difficulties.

To the best of my knowledge, Kondo has not extensively responded to criticisms, modified, or updated her methods.  These decisions might lead to her brand falling out of popularity. Kondo seems to learn little from her clients and, thanks to their adoration, remains convinced that her method of tidying is the only right one.

In her media, Kondo does not try to diagnose or treat mental health disorders like compulsive shopping or hoarding. Instead, tidying is shown to cure all. Perhaps unintentionally, Kondo promotes the belief that Japanese women prioritize homemaking and mothering, even as they balance careers and other aspects of their lives. I think many people in Japan view Kondo as an aspirational and Americanized celebrity and entrepreneur, rather than as representing all Japanese housekeepers.

Alisa Freedman’s Tips for Watching Marie Kondo on TV 

JB:  I know there’s so much more on Marie Kondo in Japan on American TV.  But what three tips would you give to readers for watching Kondo’s Netflix series?  What should we look for?

AF:  You ask wonderful questions!  Here are three tips–and one bonus tip.

Tip 1: Please think about how Kondo came to be on Netflix.
Doing so, reveals how American TV curates Japanese culture for international audiences while promoting ideas of US dominance.

For example, it is a little known fact that the Netflix series is based on a 2-episode Japanese NHK World TV series, Tidy Up with KonMari! (May 6 and 7, 2016), in which Kondo helps two female New Yorkers tidy their homes and thereby make room for new chapters in their personal lives. American TV producers also proposed making Kondo’s method the basis of a sitcom (2015) and a scripted program (2016).

Instead, producers combined a Japanese-made documentary for American audiences with conventions of American unscripted, highly-edited “makeover” reality programs. Taking this approach saved money (for example, on scriptwriting and acting) and created an appealing series that seemed both familiar and unique. The series was then dubbed and subtitled in world languages, including Japanese. Kondo has been the only celebrity to become a household name in the US by speaking Japanese on American television. Reflexively, her tidying method, promoted as representing mystical, Mindful, and minimalistic Japanese culture, has globalized in Asia and elsewhere in English.

Tip 2: Please watch how Kondo talks, gestures, and is positioned on screen.
All of this is intentional and shows how Kondo mobilizes stereotypes of Japan and Japanese women. For example, in each episode, Kondo arrives as a tranquil, foreign presence to heal American families suffering from domestic conflicts due to their inability to keep their homes in order.

She is filmed as if she is a mystical presence from a different, better, mysterious world. She speaks Japanese, with the exception of a few simple sentences like “I love mess,” and works through her interpreter, Iida Marie. While Kondo often sits on the floor while consulting and tidying, her American clients sit on chairs; this gives the unintended impression of people looking down at her. The families laugh when she cannot reach high places and make remarks about her size (under five feet).

Her cute gestures make her seem more accessible and less intimidating. Use of lighting and background music add to her calming presence. Kondo’s rituals, steeped in Shinto and Mindfulness, are both important components of her method. They also make great TV visuals for highlighting Kondo’s carefully constructed blends of cuteness and authority, “Japaneseness” and transnationalism. I will leave it up to you to find more examples of contrasts between Kondo and the Americans she mentors on Netflix.

Tip 3: I have learned how to be a better communicator and teacher by watching Kondo. Kondo attracts people because she seems likeable and is personable. On Netflix, she seems like a strict but enthusiastic teacher, reveling in her students’ successes. One reason the TV families follow her advice is because she is gentle and approachable, soft-spoken and patient, never yelling or scolding. Kondo is a carefully constructed yamato nadeshiko for American television and differs from reality stars who yell (Gordon Ramsey), seem aloof (Martha Stewart), or seem too peppy.

Bonus Tip: Kondo’s method takes practice and time.
Throughout the Netflix series, Kondo admits that she is not perfect: some things are out of place in her home; sometimes her children do not listen to her. Although it seems like Kondo’s TV families are making rapid progress, the show in reality is highly edited. Tidying piles make great visuals. Before and after shots encourage positive emotional reactions. To Kondo, the process of tidying is as important as the end result. That is why, she mentors clients rather than doing the tidying for them.

JB:  Thanks, Alisa, for these insights on how to watch Marie Kondo on American TV.

AF:  Happy to talk with you, Jan.  Thanks for your interest.

More to Learn from Japan on American TV 

It was fun talking with Alisa Freedman about Marie Kondo. There’s much more to learn from Japan on American TV.  Alisa gives first-rate analysis of episodes of The Flintstones, The Simpsons, South Park, and King of the Hill, and even Sesame Street’s Big Bird’s adventure in Japan. We also learn about Japan in Saturday Night Live skits. Alisa includes a Watch List so readers can locate the episodes to watch on their own. She encourages us to draw our own conclusions before reading her analysis.

You can hear Alisa Freedman discuss Japan on American TV online, too:

Listen to  Alisa Freedman’s podcast with Tony Vega on Japan Kyo:

Alisa Freedman participates with other Japan scholars in AAS Digital Dialogues: Japan on American TV.  Online at:


Balčiauskas, Mindaugas. “50 Hilarious ReactionsTo Marie Kondo That Will Bring You Joy.”  2019.

Freedman, Alisa.  Japan on American TV: Screaming Samurai Join Anime Clubs in the Land of the LostAsia Shorts, Number 11.  Association for Asia Studies, 2021.

Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, Netflix, 2019.

Jan Bardsley. “Marie Kondo Sparks Joy on American TV,”, January 24, 2022.




Adorned in Good Fortune: The Maiko’s New Year Kanzashi

Bright ornaments (kanzashi) adorn the maiko’s hair in the early new year.  The photo above captures Tomitsuyu wearing hers in 2015.  Look closely at the base of the golden ear of rice on her right.  You’ll see a tiny white dove. To the left, we see a cluster of small flowers.

What do these emblems of good fortune mean?  The ear of rice, the dove, the cluster of flowers?  Today’s blog explores these questions, taking us to maiko customs, a Japanese proverb, and the auspicious “three friends of winter.”

When do maiko wear the new year kanzashi?

Maiko wear these kanzashi when they attend their district’s Opening Ceremony and parties in the early new year.  In Gion, the largest district, maiko wear these from January 7th through the 15th. Dates differ by district.

Gion Higashi 2015.

Let’s look first at the meanings attached to the ear of rice.  In Japanese, the ear is called inaho (稲穂). Inaho is also used as a gender-neutral first name. By the way, the “ear” of rice refers to the “grain-bearing tip part of the stem of a cereal plant” (Thank you Google).

Rice seeds for good luck

Rice and dove hairpin, 2009.

Here we have an ear of unhusked, dried rice affixed to a long hairpin.  A tiny white dove figurine sits at its base. (This one is a version for sale online.) Sometimes we see an artificial plum blossom placed at the base with the dove, too.

Maiko wear this kanzashi on their right. Geiko wear it on the left.

At parties in the new year, maiko and geiko give the seeds from the rice to clients. As the story goes, placing these seeds in one’s wallet makes your business prosper.


What values does the ear of rice symbolize?

Rice Aomori, Japan, 2017.Aomori kuma, Wikimedia.


“The boughs that bear most hang lowest.”

Notice that Tomitsuyu’s ear of rice droops down. This recalls the Japanese proverb, “The boughs that bear most hang lowest.” Midori Ukita explains that ears of rice droop as they grow and ripen. The greater the number of seeds they hold, the more they bow. This combination of bounty and bowing evokes the famous proverb. That is,  “the wiser a person becomes, the stronger sense of humility one develops.”

This fits the ideals taught to maiko and geiko. As artists, they realize that no matter how proficient they become in dance, there’s still more to learn. The inaho kanzashi expresses their resolve to remain humble while continually striving for improvement.

Bonds of Affection and the White Dove

The dove figurine has no eyes. As the custom goes, maiko and geiko paint on one eye. Then, they ask someone they admire (or secretly adore) to paint the other. Supposedly, giving the dove eyes makes the maiko and geiko’s dreams come true.

Of course, this custom can cause difficulty. How does a popular maiko or geiko choose one among many loyal clients for the favor? No wonder, as Kyoko Aihara reports, some women just paint in the other eye themselves (38).

Aiko Koyama, 2017.

The dove-painting quest spurs drama in fiction. Here, we see Aiko Koyama’s star maiko Momohana contemplating her dove.  Koyama also draws a group of maiko overly excited about getting one of their idols to paint the missing eye. They yearn to ask: a kabuki actor, a guitarist, a professional Japanese chess player, and even a secretly admired barista. Unbeknownst to the others and offscreen, Momohana chooses her best pal Kiyo for the honor.

The Auspicious Charm of Pine, Bamboo, and Plum Blossoms

Pine, Bamboo, Plum. Wikipedia.

Lots of color comes from the cluster of fabric ornaments. Here, they represent the famed “three friends of winter”– pine, bamboo, and plum bossoms–commonly associated with  the start of the New Year.  In Japanese, Shōchikubai 松竹梅.  Due to “their ability to thrive even in the harshness of winter, pine, bamboo, and plum together embody steadfastness, perseverance, and resilience,” according to Princeton U. Art Museum.

But this example of a new year’s kanzashi is not the only one.  In fact, the new year’s kanzashi design changes every year. You may see miniature versions of old-fashioned toys such as the spinning top (koma) and wooden paddles decorated with images of kabuki actors and geisha (hagoita). Kyoko Aihara notes that Winter Chrysanthemums have been popular in recent years (38).

Making Connections to the Public Good beyond Maiko

The maiko’s new year kanzashi and participation in her district’s Opening Ceremony affirms her connection to community.   I like the way Midori Ukita connects the humility of the inaho to our life in the pandemic. “The pandemic has served as a reminder that individual virtues are tied to civic virtues.  We are humbled at this time and ever more aware that our personal sacrifices are connected to a broader public good.”

I hope to learn more about the maiko’s new year and her other kanzashi in 2022. I’ll post as I go.

This 2015 photo of maiko Tomitsuyu is posted on the website of her small district Gion Higashi. Born in Kyoto, Tomitsuyu became a maiko in 2013 and a geiko in 2018. Having studied in New Zealand during middle school, Tomitsuyu is fluent in Japanese and English.


Aihara Kyoko. Maiko-san no Kyoto kagai kentei [The Maiko’s Kyoto Hanamachi Test]. Kyoto Shimbun Shuppan Sentā. 2021.

Koyama Aiko. Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san. Serialized manga. Volume 3. Cover art. Shōgakukan, 2017. The White Dove (Episode 30) of the manga with English translation is available here:

For its new online anime adaptation, NHK World translates the manga title as Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House. For New Year customs in the hanamachi, see Chapter 23: Opening Ceremony, Chapter 24: White Dove.  Broadcast on September 23, 2021 Available until September 23, 2022.

Ukita, Midori.  NIHONGO Words of the Week (8). Japan America Society of Houston. May 11, 2020.

Jan Bardsley, “Adorned in Good Fortune: The Maiko’s New Year Kanzashi,”, January 21, 2022.


The Maiko Gets Back to Work in the New Year

How do you focus your energies to get back to work in the new year?  For Kyoto’s maiko and geiko,  the “Opening Ceremony” inspires resolve.  An annual event, it’s replete with formal clothing, auspicious hair ornaments, awards, and later, rounds of greetings to teahouse managers.

Above, manga artist Aiko Koyama imagines lots of maiko and geiko gathered for the Opening Ceremony in their kuromontsuki kimono.  A photo of the event (below) shows how colorful and happy they are.

Gion Opening Ceremony. Sankei News, 2019.

What are some main features of this annual event? What stands out about it in 2022?  Today’s post explores these questions.

A Local Event Becomes a National One

Gion Kōbu, the largest hanamachi, gets the most publicity. Apparently, it was the only hanamachi to hold an Opening Ceremony in 2022.  Online videos and news articles elevate Gion’s Opening Ceremony to a matter of national cultural significance.  

Maiko Tomitsuyu, 2015. Gion Higashi.

Pre-pandemic, every January, each of Kyoto’s five hanamachi held its own Opening Ceremony (shigyō-shiki 始業式).  Guidebooks do not mention when this practice began. They do explain that four hanamachi (Gion Kōbu, Miyagawa-chō, Ponto-chō, and Gion Higashi) hold the ceremony on January 7th, and Kamishichiken, on January 9th.  But that was before the pandemic.  In 2020 and 2021 all districts cancelled.

The pandemic has been hard on the hanamachi.  Public dances and most parties were cancelled.


With little way to earn income,  many geiko have had to rely on savings. Trainees had to postpone their maiko debut.  By last March, the total number of maiko had dropped from 81 to 68 (Onuki).

Celebrating Safely: Masks in 2022 

This JIJI PRESS video shows the joyous  2022 Gion Opening Ceremony. Everyone is masked and the event is reportedly shorter than usual.

About 100 people attended this event. It was held in the building where maiko and geiko take arts lessons, Yasaka Nyokoba Gakuen.

The Gion Kōbu Pledge

At one point in Gion’s Opening Ceremony, all the maiko, geiko, arts teachers, and teahouse proprietors stand to read a short pledge of resolve in unison. Here’s how the pledge opens:


We shall always conduct ourselves beautifully,
with gentleness and kindness.

Gion maiko and geiko pledge their resolve. Gion Shopping Street Promotion Associates.

They also pledge to take pride in Gion traditions, strive to cultivate their hearts and minds (kokoro), and to exert themselves in their arts training. Remaining aware of Kyoto’s global status, they will endeavor to seek new knowledge and broaden their vision, while fostering fine customs and winning favor with all.

Recognition at the Opening Ceremony

Generally, at the Opening Ceremony, each hanamachi recognizes its top-earning teahouse manager, geiko, and maiko of the past year.  However, this year, Gion did not recognize earnings — an acknowledgement of the problems caused by the pandemic.

It’s not hard, however, to understand an emphasis on earnings in most years. After all, the hanamachi must earn income to stay alive. Thus, the Opening Ceremony underscores the importance of artistic and business success to the vitality of the hanamachi.  No wonder leaders reward teahouses that attract the most customers and the geiko and maiko that receive the most requests to appear at ozashiki parties.

Earning Hanamachi Awards Takes Ambition and Effort

Komomo and Naoyuki Ogino.  Kodansha International, 2008.

Artistic merit also earns recognition at the Opening Ceremony. It is not easy to achieve this honor and few manage to earn highest ranking in consecutive years.  In Geisha, A Life, Iwasaki Mineko describes the sheer ambition and physical exertion obtaining this award required (187).  In A Geisha’s Journey, Komomo explains her excitement and surprise at winning two awards in her second year as a maiko. One recognized her for “being one of the ten most successful maiko” in her district and the other for “working so hard in my dance and music lessons” (40).


Photographers like to capture maiko and geiko at the event in their formal costumes.  Our next post explores the significance of the small, bright golden ear of rice the maiko and geiko wear.

FEATURED IMAGE: This comes from Aiko Koyama’s bestselling serialized manga Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san. Serialized manga. Volume 3. Shōgakukan, 2017. p.117. For the animated version, See Chapters 23 and 24 on NHK World.  Available until September 23, 2022.

2015 photos here of maiko in the Gion Higashi district posted online at


Iwasaki Mineko and Rande Brown. Geisha: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

Komomo and Naoyuki Ogino. A Geisha’s Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice. Translated by Gearoid Reidy and Philip Price. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008.

Koyama Aiko. Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san. Serialized manga. Volume 3. Shōgakukan, 2017.

Onuki Satoko. “20 Maiko and Geiko Leave Hanamachi, Annual Income Drops Sharply, the Predicament for Kyoto’s Hanamachi.” (In Japanese). Asahi Shinbun Digital. May 28, 2021.
Access January 11, 2022.

Jan Bardsley, “The Maiko Gets Back to Work in the New Year,”, January 18, 2022.

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