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

Author: Janice Bardsley (Page 1 of 5)

Asian Studies

Have Fun with Kaishi Paper, a Maiko Favorite

Learning about maiko customs takes us to many delightful Japanese things and their charming uses.  Like the maiko’s thoughtful “stroke of a pen” notes that build friendships in the hanamachi.

In her book Maiko Manners, Kyoko Aihara emphasizes how training by her arts teachers and her okiya mother develops the maiko’s poise. The apprentice also learns ways to use pretty Japanese products common in the past in her daily life. This enhances the maiko’s aura as a figure of nostalgia and tradition.

But, as Aihara also advises, readers can take tips from the maiko’s style to bring elegance into our own lives. Using kaishi 懐紙, a kind of Japanese paper associated  with the tea ceremony, offers one way.  Aihara shows many creative ways to use this lovely paper. Carry these in your handbag, she says, and you’ll find many unexpected uses, too (104).

Intrigued, I also searched online for images and videos. It turns out that there’s online videos that model a host of kaishi uses. They’re well illustrated, so you don’t need to know Japanese to understand them.

Today’s post introduces kaishi.  I wrap up with a few attempts at trying these tips, too.

What are kaishi?

Kaishi for tea ceremony. Posted at Sazen: Peace and Harmony with the joy of tea. Accessed Mar. 20, 2022.

Kaishi are squares of Japanese (washi) paper. Made of natural fibers, they’re soft to the touch. And they’re absorbent. Kaishi are also strong enough to serve as an impromptu plate, bookmark, and for other creative uses, as we will see.

Searching various sites, I found lots on the role of kaishi in the tea ceremony.  Packets of the plain white, folded paper are easy to purchase online.  Apparently, they’re also gendered: men use a larger size than women do.

Kaishi in the Japanese Tea Ceremony

MIMARU Travel Guide. Sept. 27, 2021. A tea ceremony sweet on kaishi.

How do guests at a Japanese tea ceremony use kaishi?  “Julia from Germany” explains in her photo essay for MIMARU Travel Guide.

Julia writes, “Upon bowing while sitting in the traditional seiza style, I was served a Japanese sweet on special paper called kaishi. I received a sweet dumpling called a manju. After I finished eating it, I tucked the kaishi into the breast of my kimono and a nearby woman started preparing the tea with a ritual to purify the utensils.”

Once “an indispensable tool” in Japanese daily life

Holmes of Kyoto. Vol. 7. Mai Mochizuki. Trans. Minna Lin. J-Novel Heart 2021. Posted to Goodreads.

Here’s a fun discovery. I found kaishi history in an unexpected source. In the light mystery novel, Holmes of Kyoto: Vol. 7, by Mai Mochizuki and translated by Minna Lin, one character explains:

“The word kaishi means ‘paper carried inside the kimono.’ Back when kimono were commonly worn, people would carry these around in everyday life. They were an indispensable tool that served the purpose of modern-day tissues, handkerchiefs, and note pads.”

Geiko used kaishi creatively in the past, too. 

Aihara explains how a geiko would twist a kaishi and wrap it around her little finger as a reminder. Seeing it, she’d recall, “Oh yes, my samisen teacher is coming at 3pm.” (107).

Kabuki actors used kaishi in certain roles.  Kaishi also served those who wished to write a short poem.

But let’s get back to the present.  How might we use kaishi today?

Maiko Manners & Kaishi

Macarons on kaishi. Posted to Hakkoubishoku. Oct. 10, 2010.

In Maiko Manners, Kyoko Aihara gives over 20 clever ways to use kaishi in daily life.  Most aim to make little moments in dining lovelier and cleaner. One can imagine a maiko in her formal costume using these tips to maintain her “maiko-like” (maiko rashii) performance, as I discuss in Maiko Masquerade.  Especially on outings to restaurants with favored clients.

What are some examples?  You might fold a kaishi into a rest for your chopsticks or to brush off bits of food clinging to chopsticks. Use kaishi to wipe your hands or to clean dribbles on the table. Wrap chopsticks after use.  Press kaishi against your mouth when you feel a cough coming one.

Want to show that you’re not having any sake at a party?  Place your sake cup upside down on kaishi.  A chic signal.

Aihara describes how in Germany, she happened to use a kaishi when eating a cookie.  Curious, her German friends asked, “What’s that lovely paper?” Aihara uses this example to show how using kaishi, especially the kind with cheerful patterns, can give observers, too, a feeling of ease and comfort (107).

Kaishi make the practical pretty as memo paper

Kyoto store Tsujitoku recommends its kaishi for memo writing. Accessed Mar. 23, 2022.

Aihara advises using kaishi for a quick message. Imagine you happen to visit a friend only to find she’s out. Just pen a short note on this distinctive paper to say you missed her. Tsujitoku of Kyoto recommends this as a chic practice, too.

                      It’s very fashionable to use kaishi for memos     
                                                                  –TSUJITOKU, Kyoto store website


Putting Kaishi Tips into Practice…and some failed attempts

My kaishi readings made me eager to try out these tips myself.  I used kaishi that I had bought in Kyoto a few years back, but had no idea how to use.  This packet of spring-green kaishi with chicks is the featured image today, too.

Use Kaishi as a Bookmark (shiori). This is an easy one!

Kaishi bookmark (shiori). Jan Bardsley. Mar. 20, 2022.

Use Kaishi to Blot a Damp Brow. Hello Kitty Assists.

Mar. 20, 2022.

Kaishi for a quick “note to self”

Kaishi memo. Jan Bardsley. Mar. 22, 2022.

Kaishi are perfect for wrapping cash tips. I enjoy following this Japanese custom, though I usually use small envelopes.

Kaishi as tip wrapper. Jan Bardsley. Mar. 22, 2022.

Kaishi — handy for eating fruit at a picnic lunch. (But maybe not for Sumo Mikan).

Attack of the sumo mikan. Jan Bardsley. Mar. 22, 2022.

Guides to using kaishi advise placing fruit peels on the paper.  Nice for a picnic lunch.  I tried it with the fruit on hand, a Sumo Mikan.  This seedless, sweet kind of satsuma orange is also called dekopon. Oops! Not the small fruit the kaishi guides show.  Here, the poor chick looks distraught. The Attack of the Sumo Mikan!

The Fun of Kaishi

Kaishi paper. Jan Bardsley Mar. 20, 2022.

Online, we see many more ideas for bringing this bit of Japanese paper prettiness into daily life. Kaishi transform the humdrum and practical into moments of pleasure.

FEATURED IMAGE:  Patterned kaishi purchased in Kyoto in 2019 at Washi Kurabu:    Washi Kurabu has a beautiful website, too.


Aihara Kyoko. Gokujō sahō de miseru maiko-san manā-shū [Maiko Manners: The First-rate Etiquette that Enchants].  Sankaido, 2007.

Mochizuki Mai. Translated by Minna Lin. Holmes in Kyoto. Vol. 7.
J-Novel Heart, 2021.  (The series is also in manga and anime formats).

Jan Bardsley, “Have Fun with Kaishi Paper, a Maiko Favorite.” Mar. 31, 2022.

The Kimono Tattoo Wins Indie Book Award

Happy news for fans of mystery writer Rebecca Copeland.  Her book The Kimono Tattoo has won the 2022 Independent Press Award in the category of Multi-Cultural Fiction.

Silk unravels. A tattoo is forever.
Layer by layer the truth is revealed.
                         —  The Kimono Tattoo

A fast-paced mystery set in Kyoto, The Kimono Tattoo  follows American translator Ruth Bennett on her risky quest for the truth about a bizarre murder. Ruth’s expertise in kimono history and fluency in Japanese give her the tools.  Her host of friends come to her aid. Readers enjoy traversing Kyoto, too. From ancient temple grounds to convenience stores and hidden tattoo parlors, we’re soon on the beat with Ruth.

Let’s catch up with Rebecca Copeland to get her thoughts on this well-deserved Indie Award.

What is the Independent Press Award?

JB: Congratulations, Rebecca.   What’s the story of this award?

RC:  Thanks, Jan.  The Independent Press Award aims to bring attention to independent publishers across the country and the great variety of books they publish. I’m grateful to my publisher Brother Mockingbird for nominating The Kimono Tattoo.

The Independent Press Award recognizes excellence by category. As you can imagine, they need lots of categories to cover the myriad kinds of books published every year.  There’s action and adventure, horror, historical fiction, advice guides, and many more. The Kimono Tattoo won in “Multicultural-Fiction.”

Experiencing Multicultural Kyoto — Past and Present

Kyoto Trademark: Maiko. Posted to Wikimedia Commons by Bermi Ferrer. Oct. 15, 2010.

A window on how people experience cultural identity…
a sense of home and belonging

JB:  Thinking about The Kimono Tattoo as multicultural gives me a new way to look at your mystery.  One that draws on my own experiences of Kyoto.

I recognized the mystery’s setting and the kinds of characters right away…..well, except for the criminal ones…from my times in Kyoto and the people I met. There’s the lead, Ruth, a bilingual American expat, and her sidekick Maho, who feels more American than Japanese, and the elegant Japanese entrepreneur, Mrs. Shibasaki.  This kind of “expat in Japan” circle felt so familiar to me.

But, in fact, The Kimono Tattoo does more than that. You give us a window on how people experience cultural identity and work to achieve a sense of home and belonging.

Creating complex characters

The Kimono Tattoo, 2021.

RC:  Thanks for that point.  Yes, as I imagined Ruth and the other characters, I inevitably mapped them onto my understandings of Japan society, especially its literary traditions and kimono design world.  And I built some — especially Ruth and Maho — around lives shaped by bilingual and bicultural experiences.  But I also saw each character as unique, as more than the sum of their language, education, and social class.

The Brilliant, Elusive Satoko —  Mastermind of the “Kimono Tattoo”

JB:  Satoko, the elusive mastermind behind the “kimono tattoo,” certainly strikes me as motivated by more than her background and even her family’s commercial involvement with kimono. She’s a brilliant artist. And her creativity ties her to the material and cultural history of kimono, and even ghosts!

Unlined Kimono for a Woman (Hitoe) Motif: Swallows flying over and streams (1910-1920). Khalili Collections. Wikimedia Commons.

RC:  I find Satoko’s trajectory fascinating, too.  Part of the fun of writing The Kimono Tattoo came from doing the research needed to depict that history well and to invent new legends that furthered my own plot and helped build Satoko’s character.

JB:  In that way, The Kimono Tattoo  not only opens our eyes to the multicultural interactions of people in contemporary Kyoto but invites us to consider a multicultural past.  Japanese characters and customs do not emerge as monolithic or uncomplicated.  That is, we learn about customs, dance, fashion, family structures, and even Japanese literature, too.

RC:  Thank you for noticing that.  So many in the States still think of Japan as such a remote and strange place.  I’ve spent my career—as have you—trying to make Japan more approachable, teaching students about Japanese culture while at the same time challenging them to think more deeply about their own cultural practices and biases.  Travel is one way we learn more about ourselves!

A novel slips readers into a new space

I hope that The Kimono Tattoo will carry readers to Kyoto, enticing them to learn more about Japanese culture. At the same time perhaps it will push readers to question their own assumptions and misunderstandings.  I don’t know. It’s a lot to ask!  And I want the novel to also be “entertaining.”  I think that’s what distinguishes the novel from my earlier academic books.  A novel slips readers into a new space without making too many demands, and before they know it, they’re walking around in a different world.

The Kimono Tattoo – An Official Book Club Pick for June

Official Selection. The Intl Pulpwood Queen & Timber Guy Book Club, June 2022.

JB:  I see, too, Rebecca, that The Kimono Tattoo has earned yet another honor!  It’s been chosen as the “International Book of the Month” for the month of June by the International Pulpwood Queens and Timberguys Book Club.

RC:   Yes!  I was so excited about that.  The International Pulpwood Queen and Timber Guy Book Club is the largest book club in the world with regular meetings and discussions.  There are over 800 chapters with 20 chapters in foreign countries.

The Club holds an annual convention. This year the convention was virtual with zoom meetings all day long for a week!  My publisher and I were invited to have a conversation about The Kimono Tattoo on one of the afternoons.  The amount of participation and enthusiasm for BOOKS and for reading that this Book Club generates is truly invigorating.  It’s an honor to have The Kimono Tattoo represent the month of June.

JB:  Congratulations again on these honors, Rebecca.  And I can’t wait to read the next of Ruth’s adventures.

Rebecca Copeland

For more on how Rebecca Copeland created The Kimono Tattoo, visit her blog:

For my other interviews with Rebecca, see these past posts:

Dance, Mystery, and Murder in The Kimono Tattoo

Yamamba: In Search of Japan’s Mountain Witch

Jan Bardsley. “The Kimono Tattoo Wins Indie Award.” March 24, 2022.




The Kimono for Ukraine

It’s Girls’ Day, time for the “Doll Festival.”   A day to celebrate girls at play, having fun with other girls, and enjoying the coming of spring.  In Japan, I often had the privilege of visiting homes to see the classic doll arrangement and hear stories about how friends had collected their dolls.

Hina doll celebration by Mizuno Toshikata, ca.1900.” Judy Shoaf.

If only  children everywhere had the freedom to play with dolls, today.  The fear and violence gripping Ukraine remind us of children there and around the world robbed of their safety.

Looking for connections among Ukraine and maiko, I discovered that in 1971, Kyoto and Kyiv became sister cities.  “Ukrainian folk music groups have held joint concerts with Kyoto citizens, while tea ceremony practitioners and teachers from Kyoto have visited Kyiv,” according to The Japan Times.

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, Japanese reached out to the citizens of Odessa, Ukraine, survivors of the Chernobyl tragedy, who, in turn, sent donations to Japan.  The Washington Post reports that in recent days, protests in Japan, including  in Kyoto, and throughout Asia have voiced support for Ukraine. Japanese are also sending donations to Ukraine.

Today’s post, “The Kimono for Ukraine”  takes us back to a recent and hopeful moment for world peace.  For this post, I tried to learn about auspicious Ukrainian symbols — sunflowers, storks, and Easter eggs.

The Kimono Project  –  Art Transcending Boundaries

Imagine One World. Posted on Facebook. Accessed March 3, 2022.

Initiated in 2014 by Imagine One World Organization, the Kimono Project aimed to honor the 2020/21 Olympic and Paralympic Games held in Tokyo.   Yoshimasa Takakura, a third-generation kimono designer from Fukuoka,  headed the project.  Initially, he wanted to see 206 kimono, one for each country participating in the Olympics. In the end, it appears that 213 kimono were created.

According to Inspirations, Takakura came up with the Kimono Project idea after participating in a fashion show in Paris in 2013.  Here, he showed kimono designs that blended 18th century Japanese flower motifs by Itō Jakuchū  with art nouveau.  This moment inspired Takakura to imagine a transnational project honoring diverse cultures through kimono.

You can see the kimono displayed online:

The Project was awarded the Diplomas of Honor from the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports in Ukraine (Wikipedia).

The Kimono for Ukraine Features Sunflowers

The sunflower, Ukraine’s national flower,
is becoming a global symbol of solidarity

Washington Post, March 2, 2022

Now “a global symbol of resistance, unity and hope,”  many are wearing sunflowers (real and artificial) to show their support for Ukraine (Washington Post).  First Lady Jill Biden wore a blue dress with sunflower at one cuff to the State of the Union address on March 2.  Many members of Congress also wore sunflower charms or the yellow and blue colors of Ukraine.

We see these colors, and of course, glorious sunflowers on the kimono for Ukraine designed by Masanobu Oota.

The Kimono for Ukraine Designed by Masanobu Oota 太田正伸

View online at

Ukraine kimono. Sponspr Ide Shunta. Imagine OneWorld Project. Sora News July 30, 2021.

Notice the storks on the kimono, magical symbols of prosperity and protection in Ukraine. We see embroidered flowers on the kimono sleeve (see detail below) as found in Ukrainian folk costumes.

Author Marek Silarski. Ukrainians in from Maramureș Mountains (Inner Eastern Carpathians, north of Romania) wearing the regional folk-costume of Poltava in central Ukraine; photo – village Mokre, 2007. Wikimedia.


Ukrainian Easter Eggs in Obi Designed by Nishijin-Maizuru

Nishijin-Maizuru, Ltd.

Detail of obi by Nishijin-Maizuru, Ltd.

Handcrafted with the Nishijin-ori technique, the obi’s motif displays pysanka, Ukrainian Easter Eggs. The Ukrainian Museum explains how in ancient times women and girls would decorate fertilized eggs. Each color and symbol had meaning. No longer considered talismans today, they are appreciated as beautiful art objects.

Detail from obi for Ukraine.

Ukrainian Easter Eggs. The Ukrainian Museum, 2010.


FEATURED IMAGE:  Sunflowers. Odessa, Ukraine. Jul 4, 2012. Author Анатолий Зубанюк.
Wikimedia Commons.

Jan Bardsley, “The Kimono for Ukraine,”  March 3, 2022.


Maiko at the Plum Blossom Festival

February 25th is a busy day for women in the Kamishichiken hanamachi. Clad in formal kimono, maiko, geiko, and teahouse managers serve tea to numerous guests. All to celebrate the Plum Blossom Festival (Baika-sai) at Kitano Tenmangū Shrine.

How do maiko dress for the event? What’s the meaning behind this festival?   Today’s post takes a look.

The Discover Kyoto website has spectacular photographs and a video of the event.:

Maiko Dance & Greet the Public

Maiko Plum Blossom Festival, 2011.

Plum Blossom Festival, 2011.
Nils R. Barth. Wikimedia Commons.

The image above shows a maiko at the festival wearing the February kanzashi hair ornament. It follows the plum motif, too. A cluster of fabric blossoms in red, white, and pink.  In various photos of the event, I notice some maiko wear kimono with plum blossom patterns.

The photo shows the maiko participating in the festival’s open-air tea ceremony (nodate) at the shrine. It’s been performed annually since 1952.  As the Discover Kyoto clip shows, maiko, geiko, and teahouse managers work together to serve the tea.  Friendly and formal, the women manage to serve hundreds of guests.  Due to pandemic precautions in 2022, however, they will perform a tea ceremony, but not do the public service (Sharing Kyoto).

Kamishichiken maiko Ichimame describes how performing at Baika-sai offers a chance to show how she has progressed in her arts practice. “When we bring the tea, everyone looks truly happy, and that makes us feel pleased, too” (34).

Whom does the festival honor?

Portrait of Sugawara Michizane, Japanese. Muromachi period, 15th century, ink and color on silk, Honolulu Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons.

The festival takes place on the death anniversary of Sugawara no Michizane (845-903).  The legendary Heian scholar of Chinese literature wrote poetry in Chinese and Japanese.  As a civil servant, he rose to a powerful position at court. Accused of treason by a rival, Michizane found himself banished from court. He was sent to an administrative post in Kyushu where he later died.

But a series of disasters struck only two years after his death. Was this a sign of Michizane’s vengeful spirit?  Efforts to appease his spirit led to restoring his title and recognizing Michizane as the heavenly diety (tenjin) of learning.  The year 947 saw Kitano Tenmangū Shrine erected in his honor.  The Kitano website states, “There are as many as 12,000 shrines that are dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane in Japan, but the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is the origin and the main shrine.”  Hoping for success in their own exams, students travel to Kitano Tenmangū Shrine with their prayers to this diety of learning.

Sugawara no Michizane, 1886 print. Artist Yoshitoshi, 1839-1892. Lib. of Congress. Wikimedia.

The Baika-sai festival commemorates Michizane’s fondness for plum trees. 

Yoshitoshi’s print (above) captures Michizane, the poet, enthralled with the sight of plum blossoms. The Claremont Colleges Digital Library explains its context.

The plum blossom was Michizane’s favorite flower, and he would often write about its fragile petals and delicate fragrance. Here the artist has depicted the young poet writing on a folded sheet of paper held on a fan. The gnarled plum tree trunk is rendered in strong calligraphic strokes, which suggest the powerful brushwork for which Michizane would become famous.”

Homage to Hideyoshi’s Famous Kitano Grand Tea Ceremony

Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Wikimedia Commons.

The tea ceremony at Baika-sai also pays homage to another famous figure in Japanese history, the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi  (1537 – 1598).  He held the Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony  at Kitano Tenmangū Shrine in 1587. Since the teahouses near the shrine served as resting places for Hideyoshi’s spectacular event, this  may be the origins of the Kamishichiken hanamachi.

Plum Blossoms Past and Present

The annual Plum Blossom Festival at Kitano Tenmangū Shrine gives the public a chance to see maiko and geiko.  They bring the past to the present through costume, dance, and tea ceremony.  The festival recalls legends of the past, the blossoms coax one to enjoy the moment.

Next Post: Hello Kitty!Hello Maiko!

Tenugui (hand towel). EIRAKUYA Co. Ltd.

Next week, we celebrate Girls’ Day and the Doll Festival (Hinamatsuri) in Japan.
What do playful icons of maiko and Sanrio’s “Hello Kitty” character have in common?  How about when Kitty-Chan performs in Maiko cosplay?  What’s the difference between these two as dolls of contemporary Japan?

FEATURED IMAGE: Lovely photo posted in 2011 by 663highland to Wikimedia Commons. It’s taken at Kitano Tenmangū in northeast Kyoto.


“Baikasai and Nodate Ohchanoyu (Ume plum blossom festival).” Sharing Kyoto.
Feb. 08, 2022.

Kamishichiken Ichimame. 2007. Maiko no osahō (Maiko etiquette). Tokyo: Daiwa Shobō.

Jan Bardsley, “Maiko at the Plum Blossom Festival,”, February 24, 2022.

The Maiko’s Paper Umbrella

There goes a maiko, carrying her trademark umbrella It’s called janomegasa 蛇の目傘, the “snake’s eye umbrella.”  A slender handcrafted oiled-paper-and-bamboo umbrella. Like other elements of hanamachi fashion, it conveys respect for Kyoto craftsmanship.  On sunny days, we see maiko carrying a parasol.  Crafted from paper or fabric,  these parasols — higasa日傘 — are not waterproof.

Maiko on a walk, 2007. Posted by Greg. Wikimedia.

Today’s post follows the maiko’s umbrella and parasol into a different world, trainee mistakes, and even geiko headaches. What stories do they tell?

*For more on the history and crafting of these Japanese umbrellas, see the websites listed at the end of this post.

Janomegasa as Invitation to Maiko Play in the 2000s

Lady Maiko Musical, Program

Bright red janomegasa often appear in the opening credits to maiko movies.

Moving with the music, twirling red umbrellas invite movie viewers to a romantic world different from their own.  The image above, the program cover for the 2018 live version of musical Lady Maiko, also displays an umbrella collage. Notice these umbrellas have the janome snake’s eye pattern. (Janome has also become the generic term for this slender kind of traditional Japanese umbrella, even if it is all one color).

An accessory to distinguish the maiko from the ordinary girl.

NHK Drama Guide to Dandan. Magazine Mercari. 2022.

This signature maiko item tells a story.  Above, we see the twins starring in the 2008-09 NHK-TV morning drama, Dandan. Megumi, raised as an “ordinary girl,” holds a guitar and wears blue jeans. Clad in kimono, maiko Nozomi carries the handcrafted Kyoto accessory. Right away, we can tell they come from two different worlds.

Maiko Use Janomegasa as Charm Advantage

The shikomi Haruka dressed by her okiya mother. Lady Maiko, 2014.

How do janomegasa play a role in the shikomi trainee’s life?
Former geiko Kiriki Chizu explains.

During her training period, the shikomi must make a good impression on teahouse managers in her hanamachi.  She needs them to remember her favorably.   She hopes they will call her for teahouse parties once she becomes a maiko.

No wonder Kiriki Chizu sees this positive recognition as “the prime secret to success in Gion” (216).  Shikomi must make the most of even a small opportunity to get better known. Even when fetching an umbrella.

For example, on a night when there’s a sudden rain shower, a shikomi may be asked to bring her elder sister’s janomegasa and raincoat to the teahouse.  When she arrives, advises Kiriki, the trainee should call out her greetings in a bright, clear voice. Coming to the entrance, the okami-san (manager) will say,  “Ah, and your name is?  How charming!” And just like that, the shikomi has made a good impression.

One Trainee’s Epic Umbrella Fail

Lady Maiko poster. Wikipedia.

One movie, however, imagines the same teahouse scene going all wrong for the trainee. Lady Maiko (2014), an adaptation of My Fair Lady, shows trainee Haruko learning the hard way about umbrella etiquette.

The Lady Maiko scene opens on a very rainy night. It’s 10:30pm.  Haruko gets soaked as she dashes out to bring an umbrella to her elder sister at an evening ozashiki.  The geiko is horrified!  Haruko has fetched a common plastic umbrella. It’s the cheap, clear kind everyone buys at convenience stores. The geiko sends Haruko right back out in the rain to retrieve the proper one from the okiya.

Tourists’ Vinyl Convenience

2011. Posted by Mark Donoher. Wikimedia Commons.

For these young women (above), the vinyl umbrella works just fine. But they are not in training to become maiko like Haruko.

Japanology Plus (2015) explains that these plastic umbrellas became widely used in Japan in the 1980s. They account for 60% of the 140 million umbrellas sold yearly in Japan. Although cheap and convenient, they are hard on the environment. While expensive, the bamboo and paper umbrella can last 20 to 30 years with good care.

But let’s get back to Haruko’s umbrella dilemma.

What Umbrella Should Haruko Bring?

Maiko and Umbrella, ca. 1950s. Artist Nakahara Jun’ichi.
artelino – Japanese Prints

Lady Maiko makes clear that only the old-style Japanese umbrella  will do. A later scene depicts three umbrellas opened to dry outside the okiya—two beautiful, richly colored bamboo ones and the offending plastic one.

Cut to the geiko scolding Haruko for failing this basic test of hanamachi culture.  For poor Haruko, it’s the last straw.  She’s failed at learning the dialect, the maiko arts, and now even basic umbrella etiquette. Despondent, she even loses her voice.

Haruko’s Happy Ending

Luckily for Haruko, by the end of the film, she recovers her voice, masters maiko customs, and wins praise from all. Lady Maiko even features a cheerful umbrella scene that shows Haruko’s new confidence.  Breaking into “The Rain in Kyoto Falls Mainly on the Plain,” she even pops open a janomegasa!

Publicity Tool for Lady Maiko

Mokuroku celebrate cast of Lady Maiko.

This promotional event  (above) for Lady Maiko plays with this signature accessory.  The one to the left displays the movie’s title in Japanese. The one to the right reads, “Big hit! Big hit!”  For stories about the maiko’s celebratory mokuroku posters behind the cast members, see my April 5, 2021 post

A Geiko’s Umbrella Headache

Traditional Janome Wagasa Umbrella from Kyoto Purple. Unique Japan. 2022.

Geiko Kokimi admires the Gion geiko’s purple janomegasa. Its finely crafted beauty, the look of the washi paper when exposed to the light.

But she ruefully confesses, these precious umbrellas can be a hanamachi headache. One can forget one of these as easily as any other umbrella. When that happens, well, “there goes another 10,000 yen.”   (In 2022, these umbrellas cost much more.)

In fact, Kokimi adds with chagrin, she gets nervous every time it looks like rain. She still has not replaced her last expensive janomegasa (48-50).

An Essential Prop in Maiko Stories

Maiko at Nashinoki Shrine Noh Stage, 2018. Wikimedia Commons.Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

So much more to learn about the janomegasa and higasa parasol as essential props in maiko stories.  How did these umbrellas figure in maiko art and photography in the past? Did books on maiko and geisha in English, including images of janomegasa and higasa, stimulate readers abroad to purchase their own Japanese umbrellas?  This brief foray into maiko umbrella culture makes me curious to find out more about its early 20th century maiko history.

Next Post: Maiko at the Plum Blossom Festival

Kitano Tenman-gū, 2011. Author 663highland.  Wikimedia Commons.

The annual Plum Blossom Festival at Kyoto’s Kitano Tenmangū Shrine takes place on February 25th.  What’s the story behind this festival?  How do maiko and geiko of the Kamishichiken district participate?  Our next post explores this popular event.

Learn More about Japanese Umbrellas Online

The websites of Kyoto’s legendary umbrella shops Hiyoshiya and Tsujikura offer excellent guides in English and Japanese.  Spectacular photos, too. I also found informative the websites Japan Objects and Tofugu .

A good find!  The Japanology Plus series offers an episode on “Umbrellas.” It explains the old and the new, even showing baseball fans cheering on their team with small vinyl umbrellas. It includes an interview with Hiyoshiya manager and umbrella maker, Mr. Kotaro Nishibori, who also invents new forms and uses for the traditional techniques and materials.

FEATURED IMAGE: Janomegasa. Tsujikura website. 2022.

辻倉オリジナルブランド 極み 蛇の目柄 紅緋


Japanology Plus. Peter Barakan. Episode Number 46, Season1.
Originally Aired : Thursday, June 18, 2015

Kiriki Chizu. Aisare jōzu ni naru Gion-ryū:Onna migaki [The Gion way to skill in becoming loveable: A woman’s polish]. Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2007.

Suo Masayuki, dir. Maiko wa redī [Lady Maiko]. Tokyo: Toho, 2014.

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

Jan Bardsley, “The Maiko’s Paper Umbrella,” February 18, 2022.

Otafuku:  Goddess of Everyday Life

Who is this character with the chubby cheeks, tiny red mouth, and impish smile? You see her everywhere in Japan.  Antiques, fine art, everyday cloth and tableware celebrate her.  She’s commonly called Otafuku or Okame. What’s her story?

Okame. 19th c. ceramic. LA County Museum of Art. Wikimedia.

To find out about this happy figure, I turned to Otafuku: Joy of Japan (2005).  Today’s post introduces this book, learning something about Otafuku’s many meanings, forms, and stories.  Wrapping up, we see how maiko join Otafuku in  Setsubun festivities.

Otafuku: Joy of Japan by Amy Sylvester Katoh

If you’re looking for something fun, visual, and upbeat to read, this is the book for you.

Here, Amy Sylvester Katoh, a true Okame fan for over 25 years, offers personal stories and legends. She uses the terms Okame and Otafuku interchangeably. A bilingual book, Otafuku has short essays in English followed by Japanese translations. What Japanese might call kansō — essays about one’s thoughts and impressions. Otafuku inspires Katoh’s pursuit of play and pleasure in everyday life.

A collector, Katoh shares many color photos of her varied Okame treasures.  We find delightful toys, textiles, teapots, comic stage masks, and even Okame sushi. Otafuku is a brand name for food products, too.

Posted by JaggyBoss, 2015. Wikimedia.

This variety of images illustrates the “100 Faces of Otafuku.”  Her big cheeks, tiny red mouth, and high forehead stand out as trademarks. Katoh also shows Okame’s multiple “shapes and attitudes — charming, coquettish, vulgar, cutesy, and downright ugly” (49).

Issa’s Poetry Fits Otafuku

out drinking–
      ah! the moonlight!

Haiku enlivens Otafuku. Katoh quotes charming poems by the wandering poet-priest Kobayashi Issa. Above, he paints the scene of an eldery woman enjoying the moonlight and her rice wine. It reminds me of this laughing Okame, chuckling at a rather suggestive mushroom’s shadow (below).

Okame Laughing at the Shadow of a Mushroom, 1882. Artist Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). LA County Museum of Art. Wikimedia.

Katoh also refers to the lighthearted Okame-themed art of Zen priest Hakuin. Her friend painter Mayumi Oda introduced Hakuin to Katoh. Oda’s plump goddesses exude the joy of Otafuku, too. But their divinity seems freer, more associated with nature and the great outdoors, and less domestic than Okame.

Mayumi Oda, 2017.

A Goddess of Everyday Life

Otafuku Glasses Case.  Blue & White Store.

Although she concentrates on Okame, Katoh aims her book as a catalyst to a broader message about the everyday.  She writes, “This book is about the little things that make our days flow” (38). It’s also about “celebrating the everyday ceremonies of life” (34). Imperfection is okay, and even desirable.

For Katoh, Okame characters invoke benevolence and creativity.  She describes her as “fun and playful and open,” a soothing presence that invites one to pause to share tea and chat.  Finding Okame “warm, cozy, loving, accepting,” Katoh takes heart from her “joyful attitude toward life” (75-76).

Traditional Kyoto gives English glosses for her names. “Otafuku literally means “Much Good Fortune”, and Okame means “Tortoise”, also a lucky symbol for long life.”

But where did this character originate?  There are multiple stories.  Here are two.

An Ancient Fable of Origin

Ame no Uzume no Mikoto Dancing to Lure Amaterasu Ōmikami from her Cave, 1879. Artist Yoshitoshi.
Phil. Museum of Art.

Katoh likes to connect the folk image of Otafuku to the ancient Kojiki myth of Japan’s origins and the story of dancer Ame-no-Uzume.  Here’s the story of the mythical performer who saved the day (pun intended).

Crisis occurred when the sun goddess Amaterasu, angry at her brother, secluded herself in a cave. Her retreat plunged heaven and earth into darkness. But when charismatic Uzume danced nearby, eight million gods erupted in rip-roaring laughter.  Curious, Amaterasu peeked out at the scene. In that moment, one of the gods pulled her outside the cave. “Thus light and order were returned to the world because of Uzume’s comic dance” (93).

The statue of Ame-no-Uzume at Amanoiwato-jinja. Miyazaki, Japan. Wikipedia.

For Katoh, Okame’s character reflects traits of the mythical Uzume. “Uzume’s basic primal strength, her pure and unsullied humor and goodness are all contained in the myth of saving the universe from darkness and chaos with courage and laughter” (104).  Katoh sees humor, goodness, and play in Okame figures, too.

A Gruesome Okame Origin Story in Kyoto

Daihōonji Temple. Wikimedia Commons posted byPlusMinus, 2005.

But not all Okame stories are happy ones. One myth reveres female sacrifice.

This story comes from Senbon Shakado, also known as Daihōonji. It’s reputedly Kyoto’s oldest Buddhist temple. The temple has an Okame statue (see image above). It also has “hundreds of Okame figures” in its collection “donated by believers” (176-77).

As the temple story goes, Okame prayed to the gods for advice to salvage her carpenter husband’s mistake in building the temple.  Her “clever solution” worked. Katoh explains that Okame then gave her life in gratitude to the gods (167).  Others say she sacrificed her life to save her husband’s reputation. Perhaps he’d lost face by relying on his wife’s cleverness and plea for divine intervention.

Okame as Good Fortune for New Construction

In honor of Okame, the husband placed her image on the roof beams of the temple.  Katoh explains that even today, some carpenters and construction companies in Japan hang an “Okame mask with a circle of three open fans on the roof beams of a new building” (168).

Okame at Setsubun Festivals

Fan painting, 1794. Artist Tōshūsai Sharaku. Art Inst. of Chicago. Wikimedia.

Our last post discussed the early February holiday Setsubun. These festivities mark both the last day of winter and the last day of the year. A goddess of happiness, Okame often figures in Setsubun festivals. After all, they are dedicated to banishing evil spirits and welcoming good ones.


Posted by Nissy-KITAQ, 2010.
Wikimedia Commons.

In Fukuoka, Kyushu, an immense Okame (see image above) serves as the entrance to Kokura Yasaka Shrine. In Kyoto, the Setsubun festival at Senbon Shakado Temple starts with maiko from Kamishichiken dancing. A comic kyōgen play featuring Okame follows. The event ends with the mamemaki ritual of tossing soybeans to banish evil spirits (Sharing Kyoto).

Fun Spending Time with Otafuku: Joy of Japan

After reading Katoh’s lively book, I have even more curiosity about Otafuku/Okame. I’ll be on the lookout for her, too. Otafuku: Joy of Japan offers a positive look at the imperfections and possibilities in every day life.

Next post:  The Maiko’s Paper Umbrella

Maiko & Geiko, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

No vinyl umbrellas for the maiko! Our next post looks into her traditional paper and bamboo umbrella (wagasa).  This topic takes us into romantically rainy (and comic) moments in Japanese art, folklore, and maiko fiction.

FEATURED IMAGE:  Book cover. Otafuku: Joy of Japan. Amy Sylvester Katoh. Tuttle Publishing, 2005.


Here’s an interview with Amy Sylvester Katoh about the process of writing Otafuku:
Shulenberger, Damon. “Otafuku Encounters.”  SWET: Society of  Writers, Editors, and Translators. March 31, 2006.

Here’s the website for Katoh’s store Blue &  White:

“Setsubun Festival.”  Sharing Kyoto. Aug. 18, 2017.

“Otafuku/Okame.” Short article and informative video at site, Traditional Kyoto:
Interestingly, this site explains that “Japanese scholars theorize that long ago, when the first Okame images were created, they may have represented an idealized form of feminine beauty.”

Jan Bardsley, “Otafuku:  Goddess of Everyday Life,”, February 7, 2022.



Out with the Demons! In with Good Fortune!

Setsubun festivities are among the liveliest in Kyoto’s hanamachi. Maiko and geiko take part in public rituals and teahouse party fun.  Today’s blogpost explores the meanings of this February event.  Maiko manga, travel videos, and geiko memoirs record its daytime rituals and evening hilarity.

What is Setsubun?

According to the lunar calendar, Setsubun 節分, literally, the “seasonal division,” marks both the last day of winter and the last day of the year.

“a ritually meaningful moment”

Likening Setsubun to New Year’s Eve, Michael Dylan Foster describes it as “a dividing point between the old year and the new and therefore a ritually meaningful moment of transition.  This is a crack in the flow of time, a potentially dangerous bridge between one period and another, during which both good and bad spirits might enter” (124).

The Mamemaki Ritual of Tossing Beans

The mamemaki ritual of scattering roasted soybeans serves to drive out the evil spirits. I remember doing this in college in Japan. So much fun! We tossed beans out the high windows of our residence hall into a yard out back. We shouted,Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi! — Out with the demons, in with good fortune.”  

As we shall see, maiko and geiko practice the mamemaki ritual and dance at major shrines to the delight of crowds.

How do Maiko and Geiko Take Part?

Aiko Koyama, 2017.

In the afternoons on February 2nd and 3rd, maiko and geiko celebrate Setsubun with artistry.  They offer dances to the deity of the new year at public ceremonies at famous Kyoto shrines. Members of the Kamishichiken hanamachi dance at Kitano-Tenmangū Shrine. Those from the other hanamachi perform at Yasaka Shrine.

Checking online, however, I see that many 2022 Setsubun events in Kyoto appear to have been cancelled, likely due to pandemic precautions.

Manga artist Aiko Koyama imagines maiko dancing, then tossing beans.

Aiko Koyama, 2017.

From the stage, maiko and geiko toss out packets of beans to the raucous crowds hoping to exorcise misfortune and catch their own bit of luck.

Oni, Maiko and Geiko Celebrate Setsubun at Kitano-Tenmangū Shrine.

Here’s a 2015 video clip of the Setsubun Festival at Kitano-Tenmangū Shrine. Originally posted by Discover Kyoto, Niwaka Corporation.

Costume Play in the Evening at Ozashiki Parties

In the evening, the hanamachi comes alive as geiko, and in some cases, even their clients appear as obake. That is, they become mischief-makers “transformed” into oni by playful disguises.

You may see samurai and other Tokugawa-era figures, ballerinas, Peking Opera stars, and characters from famous films, anime and manga. We find geiko in all manner of costumes.

Why Costume for Setsubun?

As Liza Dalby explains, this costuming practice recalls superstitions.  In the past, Japanese practiced “customs of inversion” during Setsubun to ward off oni. They believed the oni threatened to come closer to humans during this precarious juncture. It was a time when “high becomes low, old becomes young, women play men and vice versa” (120). Women and girls fooled the oni by inverting their usual fashion to play at being old or young (120-21).

Geiko–and Sometimes Clients, too– in Carnivalesque Obake Costumes 

Geiko often plan months in advance for this event. Many form pairs or groups of three to decide their theme, devise costumes, and create a short act to perform at the evening’s parties.  Clients gather at teahouses and bars in the hanamachi at Setsubun, waiting for the moment when the obake will appear. Clients give generous tips in thanks for the fun.

Yamato Waki, Crimson Fragrance, 2003-07.

Some clients turn the table by dressing as geiko or maiko themselves, as we see in Yamato Waki’s manga above.  The grotesque sight comically flips the beauty, gender identity, and etiquette of geiko and maiko.

What Kinds of Costumes?

Exploring hanamachi festivals, Hamasaki Kanako describes some fantastic geiko costumes.  One year, for example, an elaborate act involved two geiko combining elements of Phantom of the Opera with a surprising costume-switch to Hawaiian dance. For this five-minute performance, the women had prepared for months. They took dance lessons, researched make-up options, edited music, and rented special costumes (95).

Maiko Assist Their Costumed Elder Sisters

In her manga Crimson Fragrance, Yamato Waki explains that maiko do not participate in the over-the-top costuming because they need to maintain their maiko hairstyles. Similarly, Aiko Koyama explains that maiko may assist their elder geiko sisters with their costumes and props.

Fond Geiko Memories of Obake Costuming

“we’re allowed to purposely look a mess”
— Geiko Komomo

Geiko Komomo describes going to over 70 lively ozashiki on the night of Setsubun. She finds freedom in the crazy costuming. “We always have to make ourselves beautiful in our everyday life, so obake is the only time we’re allowed to purposely look a mess, so you can imagine there’s a lot of competition for the male roles!” (132).

Former Gion geiko Iwasaki Mineko recalls going to almost 40 ozashiki on Setsubun in 1972. She stayed only a few minutes at each party.  But she earned enough in tips for a vacation to Hawaii. “That night we made over $30,000, enough to travel in style” (255).

For more on oni demons

Noriko T. Reider explains Oni

Oni (variously translated into English as demons, monsters, and mischief-makers) have a long history in Japanese literature and culture. They range from fearsome spirits to playful ones. If you want to know more, see Noriko T. Reider’s book  Japanese Demon Lore: Oni, from Ancient Times to the Present (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2010).

Next post:  The Happy Goddess of Setsubun Festivals


Posted by Nissy-KITAQ, 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

A cheerful goddess features in Setsubun Festivals. People commonly call her Okame or Otafuku.  We find her image in many forms all over Japan.  In our next post, we find out about this happy figure.

Featured Image:  This undated image of mamemaki is posted on Yasaka Shrine’s website,


Dalby, Liza. Geisha. Berkeley: University of California Press,1983, 2008.

Foster, Michael Dylan and Kijin Shinonome, The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015, 124.

Hamasaki Kanako, “Annual Events in the Hanamachi” (Hanamachi no nenchū gyōji), In Kyō no kagai: Hito, waza, machi [Kyoto’s hanamachi: People, arts, towns], edited
by Ōta Tōru and Hiratake Kōzō, 92–109. Tokyo: Nippon Hyōronsha, 2009, 95.

Iwasaki Mineko and Rande Brown. Geisha, a Life. Translated by Rande Brown. New
York: Atria, 2002.

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

Koyama Aiko.  Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san. Serialized manga. Volume 4. Page 101. Shōgakukan, 2017. “A Drink To Bring Out Your Best” (Episode 39) of the manga with English translation is available online:
You can see the anime version of Koyama’s Setsubun 3 episodes in Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House at:

Yamato Waki and Iwasaki Mineko. Kurenai niou [Crimson fragrance]. Serialized manga. 2003–07, rpt Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2009.

Jan Bardsley, “Out with the Demons! In with Good Fortune!,”, February 3, 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.




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