When we see a Japanese artwork or literature classic, even manga or anime that is set in ancient Japan, it will be hard not to notice the ladies which give a very strong presence due to their hairstyle, makeup and clothing. In this article, we take a look at some interesting beauty ideals in premodern Japan you probably didn’t know, they are very different from what we perceive as “beautiful” today!
1. White Powdered Face
Fair skin has long been associated with beauty in Japan, in accordance with an old saying which goes “a fair complexion hides seven flaws”. While a light skin tone is still considered a beauty ideal by many Japanese today, in ancient times, white painted face was all the rage.
In Nara period (710-794), women would apply a type of white powder called “oshiroi” 白粉 on their face. This trend continued into the Heian period (794-1185) when cosmetics were available only to the nobility. A white complexion was a symbol of beauty so much so that aristocrats with darker skin would apply makeup to look paler.
Image: Nullumayulife on Flickr.
Come Edo period (1603-1868), the white makeup culture eventually gained popularity among commoners. Women of this era paid more attention to the application of oshiroi so to create a more natural, flawless complexion. They would apply white powder to their ears and neck as well, intentionally leaving some parts untouched so to create a contrast with the natural colour of the surrounding skin.
As Japan entered modern times in the Meiji period (1868-1912), heavy powdered white face also fell out of favour due to western cultural influences and the availability of cosmetics in a range of shades. Nevertheless, you can still see traditional white makeup onstage, mainly in kabuki performances and the world of geishas.
2. Pitch Black Teeth
Before its ban in the Meiji era, ohaguro is a traditional custom of blackening one’s teeth. Its history in Japan can be dated as far back as the Kofun period (300-538) but was more widespread since the Heian period where it was practised among the aristocrats, and as a coming of age ritual among girls and boys. Ohaguro became a common practice during the Edo period, done not only by married women but also unmarried women over 18, geishas and prostitutes.
To blacken the teeth, users had to apply a dye made out of iron filings, vinegar and plant tannins such as Chinese gall or tea powder to their teeth every day or once every few days.
Image: mitsu_harrison on Instagram.
But why dye the teeth black? It was thought to compliment women’s white makeup (mentioned above) well. Ohaguro also acted to conceal yellow and bad teeth, since a white face inevitably made the teeth appear yellower than they really were.
Ohaguro was good for the teeth too, as the mixture helped protect against cavities, tooth decay, and other dental conditions! Today, there are still geishas in Kyoto who practice ohaguro, if you are lucky, you might come across one when visiting the geisha district in Kyoto!
3. Floor Length Hair
A classic beauty standard of the Heian period is long, black flowing hair – the longer the hair, the more beautiful the woman, reaching the ground would have been ideal. It is believed that the trend was a form of rebellion against the shorter hairstyles such as ponytails and buns which were all the rage in China at the time.
Image: yukaricacid on Instagram.
The court ladies would let their hair fell straight down their back, while some would tie their locks into a low ponytail. There was barely any styling technique used: centre-parted, with only the side locks cut in a layered fashion. It wasn’t enough to just keep the hair very long, good care must be taken to ensure the tresses were black, straight and glossy. Rice water, camelia oil and sanekazura extract were said to be among their secrets.
Needless to say, washing and combing the hair was an all-day affair requiring the service of many attendants. We are talking about hair that is longer than one’s own body, the longest ever recorded was around 7 metres!
4. Repainted Eyebrows
Did you notice the eyebrows of women in ancient Japan sometimes appear like two black dots on the forehead? It is the result of hikimayu, a makeup procedure which involved removing one’s natural brows by shaving or plucking and then painting them back. It was practised between the Nara and Edo periods.
Hikimayu is closely associated with the use of oshiroi white powder, as removing natural eyebrows made it easier to apply the powder. In Nara period, women would repaint the brows in arc shapes. But in Heian period, brows were painted as ovals or smudges on the forehead, about an inch or so higher than the original location.
This has to do with the hairstyle at the time. As sleek and straight long hair made the forehead looked too prominent, they repainted the brows halfway up the forehead supposedly to redress the balance of the face.
In the Edo period, hikimayu was done only by married women upon the birth of the first child. They would repaint the brows at the original location or just leave them bare. The practice slowly died out in the Meiji era. Today, hikimayu can be seen occasionally at some local festivals, though the best example will be the masks used in Noh theatre!
5. 12 Layer Robe
The high ranking women in the Heian court would wear a very elaborate, colourful costume called junihitoe. Created around the 10th century, it consists of many layers of unlined silk garments, each in a different colour, worn on top of each other. It was a ceremonial dress for formal occasions.
Despite its name (means “12 layers of robes”), there is no set rule on the number of layers worn. It is also heavy and can weigh as much as 20 kg! The dress came with different patterns for different functions. As for the colour combinations and arrangements, they were generally inspired by seasons and latest trends and served to indicate the taste and rank of the lady wearing it.
Image: Gonzalo Malpartida on Flickr.
Today, junihitoe is still worn by the female members of the Japanese Imperial Family for important ceremonies such as royal weddings and enthronement ceremony. It is also featured in traditional festivals such as Kyoto’s Aoi Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri, and Saio Matsuri in Meiwa, Mie. You can experience donning a junihitoe too! It is one of the things to try in Kyoto. Not only it is rarer compared to kimono, but you can also get a taste of being a noblewoman of the Heian period!
6. Red Rosebud Lips
Last but not least, women loved to paint their lips red and small, inside their lip line because small lips were traditionally considered a feature of beauty. They would apply beni, a red colour pigment made from safflower to their lips and make their mouth looked like a bright red flower bud. It remained a trend until the Meiji era when Japan modernised. Nowadays, the geishas are probably the best models for the small red lips favoured by Japanese women in the past.
There you have it, interesting beauty ideals from ancient Japan. In the past, beauty was often defined by those with wealth and power, and being able to appear “beautiful” was pretty much a symbol of status. Isn’t it interesting to see how much our standards of beauty have changed nowadays? I’m glad we are living in times where we can all pursue beauty and celebrate our individuality!