Jan Bardsley’s new book Maiko Masquerade: Crafting Geisha Girlhood in Japan debuts this month from University of California Press.
What’s Maiko Masquerade about?
Maiko Masquerade explores Japanese representations of the maiko, or apprentice geisha, in films, manga, and other popular media as an icon of exemplary girlhood. Jan Bardsley traces how the maiko, long stigmatized as a victim of sexual exploitation, emerges in the 2000s as the chaste keeper of Kyoto’s classical artistic traditions. Insider accounts by maiko and geisha, their leaders and fans, show pride in the training, challenges, and rewards maiko face. No longer viewed as a toy for men’s amusement, she serves as catalyst for women’s consumer fun. This change inspires stories of ordinary girls—and even one boy—striving to embody the maiko ideal, engaging in masquerades that highlight questions of personal choice, gender performance, and national identity.
What inspired the book?
Maiko Masquerade draws on Jan Bardsley’s many years of teaching “Geisha in History, Fiction, and Fantasy,” which focused on the dynamics of cultural representation in Japan and abroad. She dedicates the book to her Carolina students.
Jan remembers students asking at the end of the course, “What kinds of geisha stories exist these days in Japan?” This question inspired Jan to take up research in Kyoto. “Research quickly made me realize that maiko (apprentice geisha) were the focus of popular attention, not geisha.”
In Kyoto, even Pikachu enjoys maiko cosplay. Photo by Jennifer Prough, 2019.
As Kyoto’s mascot and character brand, maiko morph into kawaii objects of all kinds–candy, street signs, post-it notes. Japanese and international tourists cosplay as maiko. Actual maiko perform in Kyoto events and public dances.
Leading a UNC study abroad program in Osaka in 2011, Jan taught “Japanese Theater” and joined students on field trips to nearby Kyoto. “That semester gave me the chance to learn about contemporary geisha culture. I talked with artists, authors, and shop owners in the neighborhoods (hanamachi) where geisha live and work. I attended public dances and met geisha, maiko, and their supporters.”
Why study maiko?
Photographed in Kyoto, 2009, by Claudia Bignion. Wikimedia Commons.
“Maiko Masquerade is not an ethnography of actual young women working as maiko. Rather I analyze the messages about girlhood in Japan evident in popular media.” This is the first academic work on maiko and makes Japanese representations available to an English-speaking audience.
“I hope my students enjoy getting the answer to their questions about geisha and maiko stories in contemporary Japan, even though it took me almost fifteen years to get back to them,” says Jan.
Blogging about maiko and geisha culture
Retired after 25 years at UNC, Jan is trying her hand at writing a blog to tell the many stories that she could not fit into the book. “I take up maiko costuming, food culture, books and movies on the hanamachi—further analyzing the dynamics of representation and enjoying the diverse stories.” Jan welcomes visitors to her new blog!