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

Tag: Iwasaki Mineko

The Maiko’s Bald Spot and Repair Party

This is not a psychiatric hospital.
Stop acting like madwomen.

Bored, the Kyoto geiko couldn’t resist boisterous antics. Their famous manners gave way to mischief.

Stuck in a Tokyo hospital recuperating after minor surgery to repair their bald patches, Iwasaki Mineko and her three geiko companions got restless. After all, “it was springtime and we were frisky” (Iwasaki and Brown, 257). Trying to cheer them up, their Tokyo clients sent fine dishes from local restaurants.

Geisha, A Life. 2002

But the geiko sneaked out to shop, going out on the town at night “even in our bandages” (257).  When they line-danced to the local gas station one afternoon, the head nurse lost her temper. “This is not a psychiatric hospital. Stop acting like madwomen” (257).

The sight of four geiko dancing a conga line on a Tokyo street would make a delightful manga.  One of the funniest stories in Iwasaki Mineko’s Geisha, A Life, the incident begs the question, “How did these geiko develop bald spots in the first place?”


What does the maiko bald spot mean?

In today’s blogpost, we explore the maiko’s bald spot. We learn how it can mark both pride and shame, and why present-day maiko are unlikely to develop the patch.  Returning to Iwasaki Mineko’s memoir, we see how the patch emphasized her lack of control over her career in 1970.

A patch the size of a five-yen coin

Specially trained hairdressers form the maiko’s elaborate Edo-era hairstyle from the girl’s own shoulder-length hair. She must take care to keep the style in place for 7-10 days.

Senior maiko in foreground wears ofuku hairstyle. Daniel Bachler. Wikimedia Commons.

5 yen coin, 1970. Photo on ebay April 7, 2021.

Liza Dalby explains how “pulling tight a small bundle of hair for the basis of the maiko’s hairstyle” causes a small section of the hair to fall out (45-46).  It never grows back. Lesley Downer describes the mark as a “perfectly round little bald patch on the crown” of the maiko’s head (115).





The maiko’s bald spot is the same size as a 5-yen coin.  Roughly equivalent to the size of a nickel in the U.S., the coin is small, only 22 mm in diameter (about 3/4 of an inch).  Pronounced go en (5 yen), the coin carries the meaning of “good fortune,” also pronounced go en. This makes it a popular coin offering at Shinto shrines. Similarly, some former maiko view their bald spot positively.

The maiko’s bald patch as “medal of honor”

Liza Dalby recalls how one teahouse manager referred to the spot as “the maiko’s medal of honor” — “a mark of the hardships of the training she undertook” (45-46).  Since today’s maiko undergo a short apprenticeship, many debuting at 17, “their scalps are probably safe” (46). To many elders in the community, as Dalby explains, the lack of a bald spot speaks to maiko training losing the strict discipline of old.  She writes, “from the point of view of most modern Japanese the discipline of the maiko and the geisha is still redoubtable” (46).

Embarrassment at a Tokyo hair salon
“It felt like a slap in the face.”

But not all in Japan interpret evidence of a maiko past positively. As I discuss in Maiko Masquerade, maiko have been stigmatized, especially in 1950s films, as women of the “water trade,” the realm of nightlife entertainment understood to involve sex work. Tokyo stylists, as we see below, sometimes mistook the patch for scalp disease or the mark of an old-fashioned, unstylish woman.

Former Gion geiko Arai Mameji, who debuted as a maiko in 1969, writes about her elder sisters running into trouble when having their hair done in Tokyo.

Arai Mameji. 2015. Gion Mameji: Chotto mukashi no Gion machi
(Mameji of the Gion: The Gion of Recent Past).
Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Publications, Inc.

One stylist took the bald patch as a sign of a skin illness. She rushed to get another brush so she wouldn’t contaminate the ones the salon usually used, mortifying the former maiko.

Once Arai, too, knocked herself out trying to dress in high fashion, complete with high heels, to visit a Tokyo salon.  To avoid the same alarm her elder sisters had caused, Arai mumbled to the stylist that she had a bald patch since she’d been a maiko and wore the elaborate hairstyle of the apprentice. Whatever the reason, the stylist reacted impatiently.

She “shut me up, blurting, ‘You were a maiko, right’, acting as though she couldn’t be bothered with such triviality when she was so busy. It felt like a slap in the face.” The exchange left Arai disheartened. “I felt very disappointed, realizing I am “countrified” after all” (Arai, 60).

“Expo Baldies”: Iwasaki Mineko’s concern 

In Crimson Fragrance,  artist Yamato Waki’s famous manga adaptation of Iwasaki’s memoir, discovery of the bald patch alarms maiko Sakuya (the Iwasaki character).

Yamato Waki’s manga adaptation of Iwasaki Mineko’s autobiography

Having been a maiko since 1965 and wearing her hairstyle for long periods of time, Sakuya has a bald patch forming. This makes her plead to “turn the collar” to become a geiko. Since geiko wear wigs when in formal costume, Sakuya would no longer worry about her scalp. But Sakuya is refused.

“Bald!”. Sakuya’s face shows alarm. Crimson Fragrance, Vol. 3.  Yamato Waki.








Japan’s 1970 World Exposition (Osaka Expo ’70) was coming up.  “The powers that be” requested Gion to have many maiko on hand to perform in the Japanese pavilion to show the traditional arts (Iwasaki and Brown, 207).  Thus, the men in charge of Gion ordered maiko to postpone their transition to geiko until after Expo.

Yamato’s manga shows Sakuya’s frustration.  She cannot gain any sympathy from the men over her fears about baldness. As an heir to an okiya, Sakuya cannot quit Gion easily either.

As a result of their lengthy apprenticeship, “all of us maiko got the bald patch.”  We were teased as “Expo baldies” (Banpaku hage) (vol. 3, 12).

The Maiko Bald Patch Repair Party

In Geisha, A Life, Iwasaki describes the surgery to close her maiko bald patch.  “The operation consisted of snipping the bald skin and pulling the edges together to tighten it, similar to a facelift. My incision was closed with twelve teensy stitches” (256-57).

It’s hard to imagine why such a small surgery meant staying for days in the hospital. But it sounds like Iwasaki and her geiko friends knew how to make the most of it.

Our own vocational bodies?

Reading about the maiko’s bald patch makes me wonder about how all of us wear our life experiences on our bodies to some degree.  I see the small scars on my face left from chicken pox and a minor fall as a child.  But what about signs of my work? In my case, a very loud voice from years as a teacher. For that, I am not sure there is any repair.

I’d like to thank my friend Aki Hirota for help understanding Arai Mameji’s account of bald spot mishaps.


Arai Mameji. Gion Mameji: Chotto mukashi no Gion machi [Mameji of the Gion: The
Gion of recent past]. Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Publications, 2015

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

Downer, Lesley. Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha. New York: Broadway, 2001.

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

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

Jan Bardsley, “The Maiko’s Bald Spot and Repair Party,”, April 8, 2021.




Don’t Harass Maiko

Don’t Harass Maiko


Catching sight of a maiko off to an assignment in formal costume offers an “only in Kyoto” experience.  This enthusiasm has led to the hanamachi (geisha neighborhoods), especially Gion Kōbu, becoming tourist areas.

But this successful promotion of the maiko as Kyoto mascot has led to tourist enthusiasm almost impossible to manage.

Some tourists demand selfies. Others engulf maiko with flash photography.  Videos show tourists crowding around maiko or running ahead to snap photos of maiko coming toward them. Day and night. Tourist exuberance became so intense that maiko had to take taxis to go even a short distance.

How should a maiko respond to tourist paparazzi?

Manga by Koyama Aiko.
Maiko-san-chi no Makanai-san, vol. 6 (2018)

Artist Koyama Aiko takes up the problem in her popular manga, now an NHK-World Japan anime. This manga frame shows the shikomi (trainee) Riko accompanying maiko Momohana to an evening assignment. Riko scowls at the rude tourists. But Momohana, celebrated as a perfect maiko, never loses her poise.  Although Riko gets scolded by an elder for her “bad attitude,” I think Koyama depicts her anger sympathetically in this episode. (See Maiko Masquerade, 137; Koyama, Maiko-san-chi, Vol. 6, 65-74).

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

As a maiko in the late 1960s, Iwasaki Mineko experienced her share of harassment on the street, too. In those days before Gion became a tourist site, Iwasaki had to fight off unruly, drunk men.  She had to run away from men trying to grab her. One even “dropped a live cigarette butt down the nape of my kimono (190).” Iwasaki fought back–yelling and even biting one harasser’s hand until it bled.  She, too,  finally had to “travel everywhere by taxi, even if my engagements were only a few hundred feet apart (191).

How has Kyoto tried to help the maiko?

In 2020, of course, the pandemic caused a sharp decline in tourism. Will the “tourist paparazzi” problem resume in the post-pandemic? What measures were taken to curb the problem?

Gion Hanamikoji Street, Kyoto, Japan Maiko Mameroku-san.   Unsplash uploaded by Jie@imjma

Gion deluged by tourists

In 2019, TBS News carried a report (in Japanese) on maiko harassment by tourist paparazzi:  Tourists from abroad flooding into Gion are disturbing the quiet charm of the neighborhood.   One café owner complains that tourists stand outside his shop trying to take photos of maiko through the windows. Some even open the door and go inside to get the picture.  The report is careful not to single out any particular nationality of tourists.  Some scenes show respectful tourists quietly listening to their guide, but this is still viewed as a nuisance.

Signs of the Times

Kyoto tried posting manners signs. Signs sprung up around Kyoto tourist areas warning tourists “not to touch the maiko.”  The Kyoto City Official Travel Guide, among its five tips for enjoying Gion, cautions tourists about taking photos of maiko and geiko. (Note that in English, this warns against objectionable behavior to “geisha” but in Chinese, uses “maiko” (舞妓).

“Maiko, who can be said to be a symbol of Gion, is a practice in the daytime and a repetition of work at night. It’s a busy day, and it ’s not uncommon to have many requests, especially at night. When they see Maiko in Gion, they are on their way to work. Let’s not disturb them.” PHOTO:

Kyoto also initiated a smartphone app in 2019 that cautioned tourists, once they stepped foot in Gion, to mind their manners:  “Show good manners in Gion. Gion is a residential area. Please behave with courtesy.”

They also hired individuals (the tape shows these are older men) who can speak English or Chinese to patrol the area, asking tourists to move on, stop taking photos, and generally trying to keep order.

In 2019, taking photos in small residential alleys in Gion was banned.

In 2021, Gion and other hanamachi are likely more concerned about bringing  tourists back to the districts and their shops and cafes. Let’s hope when tourists come back, everyone respects the maiko.

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