Without a doubt, the word “geisha” is one that even those who know little to nothing about Japanese culture are familiar with. Written with the kanji characters 芸 meaning “art” and 者 which represents “person”, geisha are masters of traditional dance, music, song, and even parlour games, making them quite the superstars of their day.

Join us after the jump for a look at a selection of picture cards of both famous and anonymous geisha, at the height of their fame and while still in training.

The following collection of photographs dates from the Meiji (September 1868-July 1912), Taisho (July 1912-December 1926), and Showa (December 1926-January 1989) eras of Japanese history. In those days, people collected photographic portraits, known as bromides, of their favorite celebrities, not unlike how people collect baseball or idol cards today. This compilation mainly showcases geisha (aka geigi) and apprentice geisha (hangyoku) from the Shinbashi, Akasaka, and Yanagibashi districts of Tokyo. If these women dressed up in modern day fashion, do you think they would be just as popular nowadays?

  • Yoha (照葉) [Real name: Chiso Takaoka]; 1896-1995

First up is Yoha, whose geisha name means “beautiful, shining autumn leaves.” She was one of the most well-known and admired geisha in the Shinbashi district of Tokyo from the late Meiji era through the early Taisho era. She originally debuted in Osaka after being sold into slavery at the age of 12 by own father. As a 15-year-old, she fell in love with an infamous playboy character of the time. When he decided to break up with her for a petty reason, she chopped off her pinky finger with a razor to prove her loyalty to him (how this demonstrates fidelity is beyond me…). This scandal forced her to change her name, move to Tokyo, and debut again. She became a Buddhist nun later in life.


Image: Yahoo! Japan blogs


Image: flickr


Image: tumblr

  • Manryu (萬龍) [Real name: Shizu Tamukai]; 1894-1973

Along with her contemporary Yoha, Manryu’s popularity soared towards the end of the Meiji era. She was even elected “Japan’s Number One Beauty.” She married a Doctor of Judicial Science after he saved her from drowning during a flood. Tragically, he died a few years later from illness. She eventually remarried and taught the art of the tea ceremony.


Image: Wikipedia


Image: flickr


Image: flickr

  • Sadayakko Kawakami (川上 貞奴); 1871-1946

Sadayakko was literate–a rarity for women of her time. She also took (secret) lessons in judo and horse racing. Sadayakko is often labeled as Japan’s first true actress. She toured famous theaters in the United States with her husband, Otojiro Kawakami. Before she was married, she was the mistress of then-Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito.


Image: Wikipedia

▼With her husband, a fellow performer


Image: Wikipedia

▼Photographed in 1901 in Berlin


Image: UCI

  • Teruko Ando (安藤照子) [Nickname: “Carp” (お鯉)]; 1880-1948

Another famous geisha from Shinbashi and mistress of former Prime Minister Taro Katsura.


Image: dion

  • Sakae (さかえ)

A popular geisha during the Taisho era in the Shitaya district of Tokyo.


Image: so-net

  • Osome (おそめ) [Real name: Hide Ueba]; 1923-2012

She was born in Kyoto, trained in Tokyo, and became a geisha in the Gion district of Kyoto. Her work took her back and forth between Kyoto and Tokyo. She also served as the inspiration for many novels and movies.


Image: isis

Shinbashi geisha after washing her hair


Image: pockry

  • Eiryu (栄龍)  

A Shinbashi geisha during the Meiji era.


Image: signal

  • Tamagiku of the Tamagawa geisha house (玉川屋玉菊) 

A Shinbashi geisha. In 1891 at the age of 17, her portrait won first place (!) in a “100 Beauties” contest held in the famous 12-story building Ryounkaku in Asakusa.


Image: showcase

  • Momotaro of the Sagamiya geisha house (相模屋桃太郎)

Momtaro took took second place in the above-mentioned beauty pageant.


Image: showcase

  • Kotoyo of the Nakamura geisha house (中村屋小豊 [小と代]) 

The third place winner of the same contest.


Image: showcase

  • Emiko Yagumo (八雲恵美子); 1903-1979

Emiko was a geisha in Osaka who later became an extremely popular actress on the silver screen.


Image: Tok2

  • Ichimaru Edokouta (江戸小歌市丸) [Real name: Matsue Goto]; 1906-1997

Born in Nagano Prefecture, Ichimaru became a popular geisha and singer in Asakusa.


Image: Wikipedia

  • Geisha in Kyoto

A 1922 picture postcard photographed near the Kirin Building.


Image: Kinouya

  • Shinbashi geisha


Image: luliha

  • Sayoko (茶良子) 

An apprentice geisha in Yunokawa, Hokkaido (near Hakodate) practicing the hand drum. This photo was taken in 1955.


Image: Hakodate

  • Yanagibashi geisha 


Image: tomha

  • Yanagibashi geisha 


         Image: tomha

  • Anonymous


Image: zige

  • Geisha entertaining during the Taisho era


Image: Wikipedia

  • Anonymous


Image: tobunken

  • Anonymous


Image: cherryhabibi

  • Anonymous


Image: vintageephemera

  • Anonymous

This photo was taken sometime during the 1920s.


Image: teatime

  • Anonymous


Image: flickr

  • Girl beating a hand drum


Image: ranks

  • In the Yoshiwara district of Tokyo


Image: geocities

  • Bathing suit from 100 years ago looks unflattering, even on a geisha


Image: mabe

  • A Yoshiwara courtesan


Image: rakuten

  • Anonymous


Image: kininaru

Isn’t it fascinating how styles, and perceptions of beauty, have changed over the years!?

Source: Naver Matome 1, 2