What most people think of when they picture kimono is really furisode. These are the long-sleeved, elegantly-decorated kimono, and they are reserved for young women up to about the mid-20s--generally unmarried. Geisha may wear them indefinitely. There are three kinds:

- O-furisode, the "classical" furisode. The sleeve corners around rounded; the sleeves are about 115 cm long. These are typically worn by young unmarried women.

- Chu-furisode, the girls' kimono, worn from ages 10 to 18, approximately. Sleeve corners are rounded, length about 95 cm.

- Ko-furisode, for older young women and young married women. Sleeve corners may be squared, length about 75 cm--not that much longer than ordinary kimono.

Outer furisode are painted or embroidered with designs appropriate to the current season, current fashion, and age of the wearer. A mistake in any of these is a serious error. The furisode must be worn just-so, with the proper obi, etc. Most Japanese young women do not know how to do this anymore and must get an older woman or go to a kimono school in order to do it. Furisode are generally worn only on special occasions such as New Year's and the coming-of-age ceremony. They are extremely expensive, but they are truly works of art. A real furisode never has a machine- printed pattern (like the ones sold in the Narita airport).

The current shape of furisode is a sort of cylinder, de-emphasizing any breasts or hips, and dates from the Meiji period. Wedding furisode are a little more flowing, but still restrictive. The mincing walk of geisha comes from the hobble skirt-nature of modern furisode.

There are several excellent books on kimono in English, and they are pretty much exclusively about furisode.


Furisode-san is a nick-name for a new breed of geisha. Geisha and maiko numbers in Japan have been falling for many years, especially after the economic depression hit. However a group of shopkeeper's wives in Tokyo's Asakusa district have formed an organisation - Furisode Gakuin - to create a type of geisha for the 21st century.

The nick-name refers to the fact that they wear furisode kimono, in contrast to the short-sleeved kimono geisha wear. They are also much more brightly coloured and decorative. Girls between the ages of 18 and 25 can apply to be educated in the arts of traditional dance and the tea ceremony, though their training last months, rather than years.

Rather than have to find a wealthy patron like geisha, furisode-san's costs are paid for by Furisode Gakuin. As the training is shorter than in say Kyoto, costs are lower for the company and therefore customers. They receive a fixed salary, rather than commissions. They can also be hired by almost anyone, at cheaper rates than their more exclusive counterparts.

Furisode Gakuin has received a vast number of applications since it was set up, with young women from all over Japan showing their interest. The good salary is an attractive way of making money. They are also attracting many customers, and although some older men complain that they are not as refined as the Kyoto geisha and maiko, their accessibility wins almost everyone over. Parents are also reassured by the corporate structure of Furisode Gakuin.

"My parents were surprised at first, but now when they know that I'll be performing somewhere they bring a camera and take lots of pictures," said Urara, 22, a furisode-san of two years.

The "geisha-lite" will undoubtably save the profession from extinction. Just as Japan has survived in the past by adapting to new situations, reforming geisha practices and training will help this traditional entertainment continue.


The Times, 2001 Reuters News Agency, 2000

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