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A painting by Katsushika Hokusai of the most famous shirabyōshi, Shizuka Gozen (Lady Shizuka), who was the lover of Minamoto no Yoshitsune.[1]

Shirabyōshi (白拍子) were Japanese female entertainers in the Heian and Kamakura period who sang songs and performed dances. They danced dressed as men.[2] The word shirabyōshi can also refer to the songs they sang and the dances they performed.[2] The profession of shirabyōshi became popular in the 12th century. They would perform for the nobility, and at celebrations.

They are sometimes referred to as courtesans in the English language, but by nature they were performers. Some shirabyōshi did sometimes sleep with their patrons and give birth to nobles' children, but this was not their intended purpose as entertainers. The best known shirabyōshi were Shizuka Gozen, Giō and Hotoke featured in The Tale of the Heike.


The name shirabyōshi may be interpreted as "white beat" or "simple rhythm"; it may refer to the white suikan robe they wore, or alternatively the hyōshi (拍子) rhythm of the imayō (今様, trendy) songs that they sang and danced to.[3][4] Shira () means "white", although scholars believe that it should be interpreted as "plain" (素, also pronounced shira); in this interpretation shirabyōshi therefore refers to the lack of musical accompaniment apart from the rhythmic hyōshi percussion.[5]

Shirabyōshi appeared during the mid-Heian period. During a time of transition of power and societal change, a change in fortune for some aristocratic families resulted in the daughters of these families needing to perform as shirabyōshi in order to survive. As educated and cultured ladies, they become a superior group of courtesans noted for their singing, dancing and poetry as well as beauty.[6] Shirabyōshi became popular as entertainers in the 12th century, and many women then chose to be shirabyōshi because of their popularity. A shirabyōshi was always a woman who dressed in men's attire.[7] They were popular in the late Heian and early Kamakura period in the 12th century, but during the 13th century, their status declined.[8] They disappeared around the end of the Kamakura or the beginning of the Muromachi period in the 14th century.[2]

It has been said that the shirabyōshi culture greatly influenced Noh drama by bringing forth kusemai, an unorthodox form of dancing, and introducing it to Noh.

Attire and appearance[edit]

Shirabyōshi were recognizable for the outfit they would wear, which was Shinto-inspired. It was a man's outfit and featured the following:[9]

  • A tate-eboshi hat, tall black hat worn at court
  • A tachi, a samurai's sword
  • Red hakama, worn primarily by men
  • White suikan and red suikan, a male Shinto outfit
  • A kawahori hand fan, which men carried

Shirabyōshi wore the trademark white facial make-up that would centuries later come to be associated with geisha, completely covering their face and neck and painting new eyebrows higher on the forehead. Their hair was rather simple: it was long (sometimes nearly to the floor) and pulled back into a loose ponytail secured with a ribbon called a takenaga.

The tate-eboshi hat and the sword were only worn by shirabyōshi in the early period, and in later eras, they danced only in white suikan, which gave rise to the belief that shirabyōshi were named after the robe they wore.[10]


Shirabyōshi songs were mostly based on Buddhist prayers. The songs were usually slow and rhythmic, with great meaning in the words. They also would sing imayo songs, which were poems using images of nature to convey meanings of circumstances in their lives. These songs typically had lines of seven and five syllables.[4] Trademarks of their music included their voices, the drum and the flute.

Famous shirabyōshi[edit]


Shizuka, commonly referred to as Shizuka Gozen, was the concubine and lover of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the tragic hero of many folk legends. She was possibly born in 1168, and is popular in folk legends herself. She and Yoshitsune met and fell in love, but by the time she had become pregnant, Yoshitsune was on the run for his life. She was captured and taken to the shōgun, Minamoto no Yoritomo in Kamakura, Yoshitsune's older brother. There she gave birth to a son, who was, according to some versions of the tales, promptly killed by his uncle Yoritomo,[11] but survived in others.

In some tales Shizuka was then forced to perform a dance for Yoritomo and his wife Hōjō Masako at a temple celebration, where she sang a song of praise for her love Yoshitsune. This greatly angered Yoritomo, and he intended on having her put to death but Masako begged for her life. Shizuka was freed and sought to follow Yoshitsune, but she learned of his death. She became a nun and died in 1189.[11] Her song is famous and is still sung today by geisha.

Giō and Hotoke[edit]

The story of Giō and Hotoke, featured in the Heike Monogatari, is long and involved, but basically tells of the most famous shirabyōshi Giō, who had won the heart of Taira no Kiyomori, being ousted by a younger and more talented shirabyōshi named Hotoke. Kiyomori cruelly sent Giō away, which grieved her greatly, and Hotoke was constantly ridden with guilt. A year later, Giō was asked to perform a dance for Hotoke at Kiyomori's command, who actually intended on humiliating her. In her grief and humiliation, Giō, her sister and their mother became nuns seeking for a happier life. A few years later, the guilt was too great for Hotoke and she too became a nun. She asked for forgiveness from Giō, who willingly forgave her and the four women lived out the rest of their days in prayer.[12]


  1. ^ "Shirabyoshi: Heian Court Performer".
  2. ^ a b c Strippoli, Roberta. Dancer, Nun, Ghost, Goddess: The Legend of Giō and Hotoke in Japanese Literature, Theater, Visual Arts, and Cultural Heritage. Brill. pp. 26–30. ISBN 9789004356320.
  3. ^ Foreman, Kelly M. (2008). The Gei of Geisha: Music, Identity and Meaning. Ashgate Publishing. p. 42. ISBN 9781351544092.
  4. ^ a b Jonah Salz, ed. (2016). A History of Japanese Theatre. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781316395325.
  5. ^ Strippoli, Roberta. Dancer, Nun, Ghost, Goddess: The Legend of Giō and Hotoke in Japanese Literature, Theater, Visual Arts, and Cultural Heritage. Brill. p. 29. ISBN 9789004356320.
  6. ^ Segawa Seigle, Cecilia (1993). Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. University of Hawaii Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-0824814885.
  7. ^ "Shirabyoshi: Heian dancers". Archived from the original on 30 December 2008.
  8. ^ Karl F. Friday (ed.). Routledge Handbook of Premodern Japanese History. Routledge. p. 305. ISBN 9781315170473.
  9. ^ "Examining a shirabyoshi outfit".
  10. ^ Singer, Kurt (2002). The Life of Ancient Japan: Selected Contemporary Texts Illustrating Social Life and Ideals before the Era of Seclusion. Routledge. p. 147. ISBN 978-1903350010.
  11. ^ a b "Shizuka Gozen".
  12. ^ "The Story of Gio". Internet Sacred Text Archive.

External links[edit]