Tourists’ Treatment of Kyoto’s Apprentice Geisha Is Only Getting Worse

Tourists’ Treatment of Kyoto’s Apprentice Geisha Is Only Getting Worse

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

The huge influx of tourists to Kyoto has brought with it a string of nasty behavior towards the city's most famous residents.

As we discussed previously, Japan’s tourism boom – stoked by a government hellbent on increasing tourism revenue – hasn’t exactly been a win-win for local residents. As the number of tourists visiting Japan continues to increase to record numbers, the influx has brought not only congestion but waves of people who think tourism is a license for bad behavior.

Perhaps no city in Japan has been hit harder than Kyoto. Between the bamboo forest, the red pillars of Fushimi Inari, the dazzling views of Kiyomizudera temple, the historic geisha district of Gion, and even a famous animation studio (Kyoto Animation), Kyoto sports a number of iconic sites that cater to a wide variety of tourists. But that also means Kyoto takes the brunt of “tourist fatigue.” And now, treatment of some local residents has gotten so bad that even Chinese media is giving its citizens a tongue-lashing over it.

The issue surrounds the treatment of Kyoto’s maiko (舞妓). In Kyoto, a young woman who wishes to apprentice as a geisha starts at age 15. If she successfully completes a year of training, she becomes a maiko, and is formally recognized as an apprentice geisha. Her training in arts such as shamisen, dancing, and singing continues for another four years, resulting in her officially becoming a geiko (芸姑), or geisha, at age 20. While the terms “maiko” and “geiko” are specific to Kyoto’s traditions, a similar system exists in other cities where the geisha tradition is preserved.

Geisha are, of course, an instantly recognizable part of Japan’s traditional culture, and are used – for better and worse (usually worse) – as a symbol of the “mystery” and “exoticness” of Japan. So it’s no wonder tourists visiting places like Kyoto’s Gion would want to catch sight of them.

Unfortunately, tourist behavior has gone well beyond “catching sight,” and has spilled over into outright abuse.

According to reports, tourists seem to feel no qualms about taking out cameras and snapping pictures of maiko and geiko going about their daily business in the streets of Kyoto, without ever bothering to ask permission. Even worse, some maiko have told Japanese media of times when tourists have grabbed them by their clothes and forced them to pose for pictures.
(JP) Link: Chinese Tourists Surround Maiko, Force Them to Take Pictures…Seen as Problem in Japan – Chinese Media

As the BBC reported in June, the city of Kyoto has tried to deal with this via billboards and even fliers written in multiple languages instructing tourists on the correct way to interact with maiko. However, according to the Nifty News write-up above, these adverts have had little to no effect.


Many of the complaints revolve around the behavior of Chinese tourists. This has prompted coverage of the issue in publications such as China’s Eastday Net (東方網), with the paper exalting its readers to “follow the established customs in the area (you’re visiting), and show respect for that area’s culture.”

Unfortunately, despite all of the exhortations from various quarters, the impending 2020 Tokyo Olympics means the problem is only likely to get worse. Recognizing the outcry, the government of Japan has announced it’ll put out a new video in September to “train” tourists on the proper way to act while in Japan. However, one has to wonder what good yet another promotional video will do.
(JP) Link: “Overtourism” Strategy Ahead of Olympics; Gov’t to Release Manners Training Video in September

While the tourist problem in Japan is often chalked up to people not being aware of “local customs and manners,” I think it’s more of a sense of entitlement among tourists. It’s never okay, anywhere in the world, to grab young women and force them to pose with you. Years of promoting geisha and maiko as “exotic elements” of the “mysterious Japan” has led tourists to view them as props and dolls, and not as real people with careers who are just going about their daily business.

Tourist privilege isn’t the province of a single nationality, and everyone who visits the country can do their part to make things better. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, consider steering clear of over-touristed areas like Kyoto, and make your way to cities like Nagoya or Iga, or to a smaller oceanside town that could really use your tourist dollars. (If you need ideas on where to go, Donny Kimball’s site dedicated to travel across Japan is chock full of recommendations.)

Wherever you go in Japan, don’t be shy to call out the bad behavior of fellow tourists when you see it. And please heed Krys Suzuki’s advice in our previous article, and remember that local residents are human beings – not animals in a zoo.

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy