Colourism, plastic surgery, and trying to look Caucasian

by Tommy Pass

In class we talked about the ongoing trend of lightening ones skin to appear more attractive as well as where this trend in doing so may have come from. Evelyn Nakano Glenn discusses the origins of what seems to be global obsession with having whiter skin. Glenn argues that the obsession, especially from women’s point of view, stems from the fact that women are judged very strongly based upon their appearance while men are judged on other capital, such as education, income, etc.

Let’s just say hypothetically that these cultures are right and that whiteness equals beauty and that we accept this as fact, when can we see a limit to this obsession where it is taken to the extreme and skin whitening products are not the only thing women are after to look more beautiful. What about the plastic surgery trend going on in countries such as South Korea, should there be a limit to the extent that this beauty trend is taken?

A libertarian may argue that people should do as they want. Let’s assume this is correct, when does this also go too far? What about when this is forced onto children who don’t have a say in the matter at all, and who are just being told by their parents what to do. Should this be allowed? The argument to this being that this will benefit them for the future in terms of job opportunities, etc. Does this not take the obsession with looking more beautiful to the extreme when children are forced against their will by their parents to have their face permanently altered to look more “beautiful”?

To me personally it seems very much as if people are not trying to just make their skin whiter, but trying to become more Caucasian looking. I believe that historically, people saw it as a more attractive feature to be pale as this meant that you were wealthy enough to stay inside and now work in the fields, though in more recent years I believe that wanting to look Caucasian is very much a goal which women are trying to achieve.

Glenn gives the example of how the African American community had the paper bag test in social events to see who was acceptable or not, the reason for this being that those slaves who were mixed race were given the higher status jobs amongst the slaves, such as staying indoors as opposed to picking cotton and other field work. This created the illusion of prestige to those who had Caucasian ancestry and hence the mentality stayed within the community long after slavery was abolished.

African Americans getting their hair straightened, skin bleached and other alterations are in a sense aiming towards Caucasian features. This same phenomenon can be seen in East Asia. People of mixed Caucasian ancestry, in other words those with one Asian parent and one white parent, have a much easier time becoming models and are often made into TV personalities solely due to their looks. One could ask the question, why does the media use mixed-race people and not people who are 100% Caucasian if that’s what they consider beautiful? The answer could be that having a white person modelling can feel too farfetched for an Asian audience and potential customers.

Someone of pure Asian origin knows that they cannot look exactly like a white person, and will thus not put much effort into trying. Not trying means that they do not buy skin whitening creams and other cosmetics, thus cosmetic companies are unable to make a profit.  If people of mixed race who possess both Asian and Caucasian features are used within the modelling industry, then this creates something potential customers can relate to and will thus make them try—trying meaning spending money.

Hence it is obvious that the cosmetics industry wants this kind of obsessive mentality to circulate within society, doing so keeps this issue in continuation and thus giving their business profit, even while the result of all this leads to some parents wanting plastic surgery for their children. Without this kind of pressure from cosmetic companies and the media, I doubt that plastic surgery and skin whitening would be as prevalent as it is today.

Reforming surgery and the self: Plastic surgery, historical traumas, and beauty in Korea

Girl’s Generation, a very popular K-pop group consisting of nine women who are considered ideal in South Korea

by Lisbeth Lyngs

Plastic surgery and skin whitening have in recent years become a hot and very normalized topic in Asia. Especially in South Korea, where one in five women has undergone some sort of cosmetic surgery, compared to around one in 20 in the U.S., according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons. Their desired look is the same: Big eyes with double eyelids, white skin, a nose that sticks out and a slimmer jawline. A high Korean consumer culture has made women equate this beauty standard with a higher life quality, better jobs and more luck in marriage. Feminist cries of objectification are overheard, and as I see it, the racial argument that it is “to look white” has faded – as Asia’s own mainstream culture, especially K-pop culture, has grown.

K-pop is pop music from South Korea, and it has spread rapidly through East Asia in the last couple of decades (to some extent it has also hit the Western world with “Gangnam Style”). The industry’s popularity, and the value placed on the plastic surgeries behind the stars, has meant that many Asian women flock to Seoul, the now self-established epicenter of plastic surgery. Not to fix a crooked nose or uneven eyes, but to change their faces to look like the same ideal, the same type.

What I find interesting about plastic surgery in Korea is that it is called ‘reforming surgery’ (성형수술), not translating to ‘plastic’, which in English carries negative connotations of ‘fake’ or ‘cheap’. The Korean phrase carries more positive connotations, like the patient is just waiting to be ‘reformed’ and reveal their ‘true beauty’ from within. Interestingly from language alone, cosmetic surgery in Korea does not have the same stigma to it, that it has in English speaking countries and a majority of the western world.

In fact it is so normalized that Korean women will ask each other “where did you get your eyes and nose done?”, instead of “where did you get your handbag?”, and girls will get plastic surgery as a graduation ‘present’ from their parents. Many Korean kids, especially the girls, thus grow up with the understanding that they are going to have plastic surgery one day.

In the short documentary Korean High School, we get a glimpse of this mentality among high school students.

“[after graduation] I’ll have plastic surgery.”

“But you don’t need plastic surgery.”

“.. I have to do it. Beauty is important in Korea.”

But then what is this beauty, and where does it come from? To say it is because of a Korean beauty standard, or that they “want to look white” is too easy. In this article on The Grand Narrative, a reader suggests to look deeper into Korean history for answers. In this interesting read, she argues that the shift in Korean beauty standards is a response to the country’s historical trauma. She admits it might be a long stretch, but oppression during the Japanese colonization taught the Korean people to think lowly of themselves, before the American occupation pushed the envelope and taught them that there was something wrong with their psychical features.

The first double-eyelid surgery on an Asian face was performed by American plastic surgeon Dr. Ralph Millard. His reasoning was that creating a more Western look would help Asians assimilate better into an emerging international world. The Asian eyelid simply made their expression look passive an unemotional, as opposed to a double eyelid which would produce a more open and approachable face. The surgery quickly caught on, and this procedure of beautification worked its way into mainstream culture which today, I would argue, has been modified into a more “beautiful Asian look” than a “beautiful because it looks Caucasian look”.

To return to the notion of K-pop and the plastic surgeries performed to achieve their looks, I would like point out their ideal small and V-shaped faces. This jaw surgery cuts off a piece of the patients jawbone to make the face slimmer. And even though many Caucasians have small and slim faces, I do not believe this is a response to wanting to look Caucasian – If you inspect some Caucasian celebrities, you find many examples of prominent jaws and high cheekbones. But if you inspect Asian celebrities, they all have small jaws and cheekbones.

What I am getting at is that the reason why skin whitening and plastic surgery have become such common means to obtain this non-traditional Asian beauty-look is not as easy answered as “because the Caucasian look is ideal”.

In a highly globalized world like ours today, where I can eat McDonalds and watch The Hobbit no matter the city, it is easy to assume the Western influence is the sole reason for Asia’s desire to look “not Asian”. What might have started like that, has today evolved into some unique beauty standard required in a lot of Asian cultures to get a better social position.

While part of the answer as to why another girl in the short documentary answers “big eyes with a double eyelid, a white body, a nose that sticks out and a small face.” When asked about beauty, the Western world’s influence on Asia is not the entire story.


The Grand Narrative

White Normality and the Mass Media

by Marcel Koníček

Before I took my international sociology class, I had never heard about skin lightening and the issues connected to it. I did not even imagine that something like that could even exist. Well, my ignorance is not as surprising considering I am a man coming from ethnically uniform Central European country not really interested in recent trends in cosmetics in other parts of the world. However, after reading about the issue I have quickly realized how widely spread and dangerous this trend is.

For those of you who have not heard about skin lightening, it is a practice done in many parts of the world, where people (mostly women) use cosmetics, containing usually either heavy metals or hormones, that change the skin tone towards the fair end of the skin tone spectrum. Prolonged use can lead to many illnesses and can permanently damage the skin. However, many are willing to pay the price.

Of course, people all over the world are doing many different beauty practices that are not good for their health, so this might be somewhat unsurprising. What is so interesting about it is that it is a phenomenon that connects many dissimilar cultures such as Philippines, African countries, African Americans, and even Japan and Korea. Why would people in all these places want to appear whiter, even though import of the whitening substances is banned in their countries?

Evelyn Nakano Glenn is saying that this is comes from mixing of preexisting preferences for fair skin, relicts of colonial supremacy and modern consumer capitalism. Being whiter gives them better chances at getting a job or being a better match for marriage. I agree with this statement and it is quite eminent, that we actually live in an age of “white normality” where any other skin colour than Caucasian white is considered something undesirable, something that you should and can change about yourself. It is true that for example Europe is full of tanning beds but tanning does not influence your racial identity, which does not have to be true for somebody like African Americans.

The huge rise in the industry of skin whitening and the idea of white normality in the current world is in my opinion tightly connected to two things: globalization of pop culture and rising buying power of the middle class in third world countries. The rise of relatively affluent middle class in countries such as India has created hundreds of millions of consumers of skin lightening products, who previously did not have enough disposable income to buy them. The globalized pop culture is what keeps the trend accelerating. All summer blockbusters that Hollywood sells to us are full of unrealistically attractive white women and the smaller entertainment industries all over the world have already adopted the American ideals of beauty – this is clearly visible in the Korean pop scene, where all the young idols have the same surgically altered face – face that is maybe less Asian and more Caucasian.

English: Nicki Minaj live on Femme Fatale Tour...

English: Nicki Minaj live on Femme Fatale Tour in 2011.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We do not have to go as far for a good example – let’s have look at an African American pop star, Nicki Minaj, and the cover of her new single. Her hair looks very Caucasian and her skin tone actually looks almost whiter than my own skin. I am sure that this is not an accident but a careful choice of background, lighting, cosmetics and photo editing. Everything with the goal to make her look as white as she can without losing too much of her racial background. If even the artist of what some people call “black music” has to look white on the cover of her single to give the right impression, how white must be an Indian woman to be considered a good match for a preferably wealthy husband?

This question is very worrisome and I do not know how to solve this problem or even if it can or should be solved in some reasonable way. However, it shows the ways how media, economic development of third world countries and perception of beauty can influence the behavior of people worldwide.

Official Nationalism and the Japanese Annexation of Korea

鮮, referring to Korea, and 内, literally meaning inside, representing Japan

Student post

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that the emergence of “official nationalism” was, to a large degree, incited by the national movement in the American nations. Old dynastic groups felt the need to merge nation and empire in order to retain power that is competitive to that of establishing imagined communities. Among such empires, Anderson uses Japan as one example.

Japan officially annexed Korea in the year 1910, and the following 9 years were called the Military Police Reign Era. This era was characterized by massive violence, frequently involving deaths of civilians. The Military Police Reign Era was abruptly ended in March 1st of 1919 when, for the first time, the Korean public across the peninsula joined the demonstration to resist against repressive Japanese colonial rule. Realizing the limitation to rule by force, the government-general switched its policy to “cultural policy”, which was an attempt to break down Korean identity and culture (partly) through forbidding usage of Korean language. In schools, students were severely punished if they spoke in their language, and such punishment methods included forcing children to beat each other if one of them talked to the other in Korean. Through education and forced visit to shines (and many other ways), the government-general laid the foundation for full mobilization as the tide of war was gradually turning against Japan.

Kuniaki Koiso, Japanese Governor-General of Ko...

Kuniaki Koiso, Japanese Governor-General of Korea, implemented a draft of Koreans for wartime labor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Japanese imperialism continued even after the end of WWII. The period between 1945 and 1948 marked the most intensive education movement by the Koreans in Japan of all time. When the liberation was finally achieved in 1945, the Koreans in Japan immediately set up language schools to prepare for repatriation. However, the GHQ, along with the Japanese government, took oppressive measure to interrupt the Korean identity education enforced by the League of Koreans, a group that undertook the management of schools. In 1947, the occupation force issued the sentence commanding Korean schools to follow the direction of the Japanese administration, which basically denied the education right of Korean children. The second directive was issued in March 1948, which stated that the government will shut down the schools by force if the league does not accept the first order. Receiving the directive, enraged Koreans immediately gathered to organize demonstrations. In April 7th, around 10,000 participants in Kobe gathered in front of the school gate to block the police from entering the school. Police resorted to brutality against parents and teachers who strongly resisted. Following such a large scale demonstration, on April 24th, the government took down the order and the GHQ, for the first time, declared the state of emergency in Kobe, which virtually marked the victory for Koreans. Although there are some other political reasons behind the oppressive measure taken by the oppressors, from the fact that the GHQ and Japanese government tried to exterminate Korean educational institutions, it is possible to make an observation that they were aware of the power of language and its potential to be their threat.

Color? Look for beauty in its own

by Kanae Mukaihara


When a person sees another person and exchanges a word, they likely have already distinguished the other person’s race according to their appearance. This is the reality. In current time periods, there still is obvious discrimination in the society. For example, in Japan, many foreigners are not able to get a part time job or even rent an apartment. In addition, sometimes, still a sign “Japanese Only” may be seen in shop entrances. This may not be regarded with their skin color, yet people still judge others by skin color. If one is non-white, others would regard one is inferior to those who are white.

“People do not want to be distinguished by their skin color and at the same time people do not want to distinguish others with their skin color.” I wish every single person in the world would think in this way. It sounds simple, yet wheels within wheels, it is more complicated than it first seems to be. Those who have white skin color tend to have better employment, better income, better treatment and even better life (Nakano, 2009). Society is constructed with bunch of people in which discrimination are occurring from color differences. Thus it should have been actively argued for everyone to have equal eyes more than equal society. However, in a sense of beauty, it could be different.

The standard of beauty differs among countries. However, world widely, having lighter skin color, taller nose, bigger eyes, blond hair is considered as beauty in most of the countries, including countries in Asia (Chung, 2011). In Asia, Westerners have been the role model of beauty.  For example in Japan, people would buy cosmetics which is lighter color than their real skin color since they have the idea of white or lighter skin is more beautiful. Korea as another example, it is more severe. In Korea, beautiful women are more likely to be employed and to have better life (Stewart, 2013). Thus, people get plastic surgeries and try to become beautiful to compromise to the society. Regarding white as beauty in the world is more common while has becoming a standard. Yet, in Brazil, they discover beauty in darker skin.

In Brazil, race is classified by skin color, which mainly has category of white, brown and black. In the society of Brazil, as same as other countries, the lighter skin one has, the better employment and income they could get (Nakano, 2009). In Brazil, there is discrimination in society. However in Brazil, not like Japan or Korea, women want to have golden and tanned skin. Thus women with lighter skin color use darker cosmetics to make their skin color darker than they have now (Stylist, 2014). In addition, in comparison with Korean more focuses plastic surgery in face, yet Brazilians more focuses on shape of their body. There are not many countries which find beauty in darker skin.

From these findings, I consider that one should not be treated based on the skin color they have or their looks. In a sense of beauty, the standard of beauty should be created by countries and create the standard of beauty from cultural aspect and also careful consideration in the society. Every race has its own charming point in every single part of their body and personality. From doing this, I believe more women in the world would be able to find much more confidence as who they are. Respecting others, respecting cultures, respecting one’s looks will lead to brighter future I believe.


Chung, C. (2011). ‘Westernizing’ surgery on the wise. Retrieved from

Stylist. (2014). Made in Brazil: Why Brazil leads the way with beauty trends. Retrieved from

Stewart, D. (2013). I can’t stop Looking at these South Korean Women who’ve had plastic surgery. Retrieved from

Telles, E. (2009). “The Social Consequences of Skin Color in Brazil.” In Shades of Difference: Why skin color matters, edited by E. N. Glenn. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Echoes of female transnational migration: Care-giving jobs in Korea

by Yoon Jee Hyun (JeeJee)

According to United Nations (2013), female migrants represent about half of all transnational migration. Among women migrants, there has been an increase of number of women migrants working in care-giving jobs and health-care workers (Pyle, 2006).

Pyle’s article reminded me of Korea’s current popular phenomena of having care-givers who are transnational migrants. Since domestic workers do not wish to work as care-givers (due to the low wage compared to working times and the low social standing), a great portion of care-givers are transnational migrants. Also, with the increasing number of double-income families, wealthy Korean families have started to hire migrants from developing countries to take care of household chores at a cheap price.

In Korea, the role of care-giver is not only for household affairs but also for educating children of Korean family. At first, female migrants were wanted as they already have skills to take care of basic household chores learned from their own country. Yet, recently, as language ability has been highly encouraged, wealthy Korean families have started to look for hiring female migrants who are capable of speaking foreign languages such as English and Chinese. Many female Filipinos and Chinese are working in the care-giving industry in Korea, as they can take charge of both housework and language education.

This care-giving job system using female transnational migrants can benefit both sides; Korean families can get cheaper labor, and migrants can get a job which pays higher salary compared to the situation in their nation, and earn foreign currency, which they can bring back to their own country. Despite these merits, this phenomena echoes throughout the world, creating an endless circle of female migrants engaging in care-giving jobs.

Care-givers who are working in a foreign country can send money to their own country and family. However, as the ‘mother’ does not exist in migrants own family, the family needs to hire another cheap labored migrants as care-givers. Thus, this female transnational migration in care-giving labors echoes the phenomena of hiring care-giver migrants from a poorer country, a poorer country, and a more and more poorer country, and so on. The endless circle of becoming and hiring care-givers is created and the continuous circle traps female transnational migrants under its re-echoing system.


Pyle, J. L. Globalization, transnational migration, and gendered care work: Introduction. Globalizations 3:283-295.

From Ebony to Ivory: Colorism in the Philippines

by Jiyang Shin

The ever-expanding skin whitening market in the Philippines seems to have distinctive characteristics compared to the markets of other countries that also value lighter skin tones. In the discourse of colorism, many tend to conclude that the phenomenon of skin whitening obsession is largely due colonization by European conquistadors; however, that is not always the case in the Philippines.

I would like to raise an example of skin whitening advertisement, featuring Jinky Oda, an African American comedian in the Philippines. The advertisement is composed of before-and-after pictures of Oda. On the left hand side is Oda’s torso before she went on the skin whitening pill. She is in a white tank top, wears gold hoop earings, and has her natural curly hair all swept back with bandana like hair band; a casual style of a typical African American woman that we can easily relate to.

On the right hand side is Oda after finishing the pill, in her brand new bleached-up skin. However, that is not the only significant difference that one can tell from the picture. Other noticeable features are that her attire is considerably more dressy than the left side (you can notice it although the ad only shows down to her chest), but even more importantly, the texture of her hair has turned silky and straightened like the East Asian look that a vast number of Filipino women crave.

One can observe sinister motives behind this marketing. In the book Shades of Difference, Joanne L. Rondilla argues that there are generally three major messages that are conveyed in skin whitening advertisement in the Philippines:

1. Darkening can and must be stopped.

Why? Because having dark skin does not make you good enough.

2. Lightness comes from “within”.

This message misleads people into thinking that their natural color is lighter than they expected, thus their desire to turn white is achievable.

3. Lightening can happen instantly.

The advertisement that featured Oda is unethical because it links having darker skin with wrongness by dressing up her in casual attire. In addition, she seems to have more weight in her before picture, implying she was sloppier when she had a darker skin tone (fatness is often linked to laziness). Such indirect messages have the great potential of stirring up or further encourage racism and discriminations against certain groups of people.

As for why many women in the Philippines opt for a Chinese or Korean look, I argue that it is due to racial hierarchy that exists among Asian countries. For example, in South Korea, people of Southeast Asia origin encounter difficulties renting rooms and searching for jobs. Moreover, in Japan, Filipino people are often referred to as “Pina”, which is a derogatory term used against women who perform in sex-related work. Such unequal treatment might have gradually developed a sense of inferiority towards people of lighter skin color in East Asian countries. I argue that people attempt to escape from such discriminations by assimilating into those who discriminate against them.

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Symbiosis in the World of Beauty: The Cosmetics Industry and the Western Beauty Ideal

English: Super Skin Lightener skin lightening ...

English: Super Skin Lightener skin lightening cream (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Kyungyeon Chung

Upon walking into a drug store in Japan, one will find an array of cosmetic products that promises hopeful transformation into what today’s Japanese society perceives as beauty. These end results the products promise – fairer, whiter skin, brighter teeth, bigger eyes, and longer eye lashes – all embodying the ideal that originated from the Western, Caucasian-centric beauty standards.

The cosmetics industry, even on a global scale, operates on the platform provided by Western standards of beauty, and especially by the colorism ideology that has penetrated into deep corners of modern society. At the same time, the beauty ideal and colorism are not self-sustaining. Their presence and growing prevalence are made possible by numerous industries that profit from the growth, with the cosmetic industry being a major stakeholder in play. By constantly being made to consume products designed with a limited set of objectives and outcome, the consumers are constantly reminded of the beauty ideals behind the products. The global cosmetics industry and the Western beauty standards based on colorism, mutually reinforce each other’s existence and influence.

In order to fully understand the core of modern society’s beauty standards, it is imperative to know the colorism ideology that frames the entire discourse. Colorism refers to “the preference for lighter skin and social hierarchy based on skin tone”, and has been widely expanding throughout the globe (Glenn, 2009, p.166). Being one of the main axes behind inequality today, it occurs at societal, systemic level through social structure that permits systematic discrimination towards darker skinned people. In many different regions and nations around the world, light skin tone has historically been preferred to dark skin tone, and given higher social status and easier access to social and economic resources (Keith, 2009, p.25). Although the beauty ideal does include other phenotypic aspects than skin complexion such as desirable weight, body shape, and facial structures, skin tone does hold significant importance, if not the most.

This ideology of colorism has been directly translated into the Western beauty ideals. Up high on the list of what composes the ideals is ‘fair’ skin. Having lighter, fairer, and whiter skin gives a great advantage in one’s life, and is central to the very definition of beauty. Having been spread as part of the ideological rationale for slavery and colonial imperialism of the European powers (Keith, 2009, p.27), the “white is better” or “white is right” idea still pervades modern societies thanks to mass media. Today, these ideologies are strongly embedded in ways we admire, desire, and look upon fair skin. Its importance can be easily understood and highlighted by the popular practice of skin whitening, which will be elaborated further later. It is also important to note here that females are subjected to these standards much more frequently and strictly than males (Keith, 2009).

In modern societies with capitalist economic system, the beauty standards manifest themselves as profitable industries whose products promise the achievement of ideal beauty via consumption. As societies are deeply instilled with consumerism, selling and buying beauty have been a huge, popularly sought-after business than ever. Plastic surgery is one of the most common and provocative examples. Cosmetic surgeries have spiked up in number and scale around the world: 14 million surgery procedures were performed in the US in 2011 (American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2012); close to 7% of the population has undergone knife in South Korea in 2010 (Bates, 2013). A wide range diet-support programs, machines, and food products are readily available to help people lose weight.

Among many industries that thrive on our search for beauty, the cosmetics industry deserves particular attention. For instance, unlike plastic surgery, which may seem invasive, dangerous and rather extreme, putting on makeup is seldom-questioned practice for women. While showing up at school after a holiday with larger breasts may cause a stir, putting on mascara would hardly be an issue. For many, it is a daily routine, an ordinary and even expected behavior. It is also continuous – women who use skin care products will probably continue to do so for years to come. While it may seem trivial at first, considering the commonality and regularity of skin care and makeup, the cosmetics industry is massive, universally pervasive, and commercially successful.

The cosmetics industry owes much of its existence and enduring popularity to the beauty standards. An impressive array of products is available to help people achieve beauty as prescribed by the Western ideal. Eye makeup products are a great example. A dozen different types of products are readily available to make one’s eyes look bigger and more defined: mascara, eyeliner, eye shadow, eyelash curler, eyebrow shaper, highlighter, etc. In East Asia in particular, the desire to have the Western look has also led to the popularity of double eyelid (Bates, 2013). In Korean and Japanese cosmetics shops, one can easily find glue or sticker-like products that hold the skin of upper eyelid together, creating an illusive double-lid. For those unwilling to undergo surgical procedures to create double eyelids, those products are a way to go.

Yet, the segment within the cosmetics industry that is perhaps the most influenced by, shaped by, and reflective of the Western ideals, is skin whitening products. Colorism has effectively produced a social view that associates whiteness with superiority and darkness with primitiveness, something to be avoided and fixed. In her book Shades of Differences, Evelyn Nakano Glenn argues that light skin has come to hold symbolic capital that furthers one’s life chances (2009, p. 166). This relates to the concept of beauty queue in society, whereby the level of beauty and social status are judged by the shades of complexion, the lightest at the top and the darkest at the bottom. For such reason, men and women from all parts of the world have strived for lighter complexion by consuming copious amounts of skin whitening products, supporting a multibillion-dollar global industry.

In the Asia Pacific region, the skin lightening market was valued at over US$13 billion in 2012 (Tan, 2012). In African continent, studies have found that up to 50% of population use skin lightening products in Dakar, Senegal; and even up to 77% in Lagos, Nigeria (Ntambwe, 2004). Almost all major cosmetic brands have a product line specifically dedicated to brightening care: Estée Lauder’s ‘CyberWhite’, Shiseido’s ‘White Lucent’, Clarins’s ‘Bright Plus’, Vichy’s ‘BiWhite’, Chanel’s ‘Le Blanc’. The list is endless. The prevalence and magnitude of the industry indicate how the widespread Western ideal of beauty and reverence for lighter skin tone has led to increasing demand for skin whitening products. The unabated expansion of the skin whitening products is a clear manifestation of colorism in action.

The highly interrelated relationship between the cosmetics industry and the Western beauty ideal can also be traced back from the other way around. The cosmetics industry work to constantly and persistently reinforce the ideal into the mindset of people, making it into an accepted social norm. Commercials by cosmetic firms continuously remind the consumers of what they should look like, and thus eventually what they should consume in order to achieve the said goals. These commercials tactically employ models that will spark the feeling of desire, which make the viewers think the goal – of looking like the model – is attainable. In essence, the models will look Caucasian enough to fit the White beauty standard, yet still possess enough ‘local’ features not to alienate the viewers too much. For instance, in Japan, half-Japanese and half-Caucasian models have rose to prominence for such reasons, brining the ‘ha-fu boom’ in entertainment and media (Krieger, 2010). In such manner, the constant bombardment of strategically produced advertisements on TV, magazines, and in shops, works to ensure the beauty ideal is here to stay.

As seen in the case of skin whitening products, the industry ushers consumers to fix their blemishes and dark spots, to get rid of undesirable features, and to become closer to the ideal beauty. Prominent cosmetic manufactures reveal supposedly bettered, new products every season. The products are ‘upgraded’ in a sense that they claim to produce better results, such as longer eyelashes, darker eye lines, more durability, brighter effects, to name a few. Consumers absorb such ideas: those results are good; those results are better; those results are what they should seek after. Through this process, the beauty standard gets repeatedly ingrained in the subconscious of society as a whole.

There is a wide range of factors at play that help maintain the global obsession with the White ideal of beauty, and especially that of light skin tone. One of the perpetuators is the cosmetics industry. In modern capitalist economy in which consumerism has become the social norm, the cosmetics industry prospers, thanks to the consumers’ ceaseless quest for beauty as dictated by the Western ideal. The quest for fairer skin, in particular, embodies the reality of colorstruck world – to borrow Verna Keith’s words – where colorism is firmly established as part of social structure.

The cosmetics industry and the White beauty ideals function as lifeline to each other. The ideals condition society for the industry to profit from, while the industry works to reinforce the ideals. It is a mutually interdependent, symbiotic relationship. If we want to start tackling the racially charged foundation behind the White ideal of beauty, we must first understand how it is perpetuated and internalized by consumption of products that cement the said ideal. Only when both ends are understood and questioned, can the process of deconstructing the colorstruck world begin.


  1. American Society of Plastic Surgeons (2012, September 2). 13.8 million cosmetic plastic surgery procedures performed in 2011. Retrieved from:
  2. Bates, C. (2013, January 31). 15 million people worldwide had plastic surgery in 2011. Daily Mail Online. Retrieved from:–SOUTH-KOREA-leading-way.html
  3. Glenn, E. N. (2009). Consuming lightness. In Glenn, E. N. (Ed.), Shades of difference: Why skin color matters. (pp. 166-187). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  4. Keith, V. (2009). A colorstruck world. In Glenn, E. N. (Ed.), Shades of difference: Why skin color matters. (pp. 25-39). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  5. Krieger, D. (2010, November 29). The whole story on being ‘hafu’. CNN. Retrieved from:
  6. Ntambwe, M. (2004, March). Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all? Science in Africa. Retrieved from:
  7. Tan, D. (2012, September 18). Who’s the fairest of them all? Asian Scientist. Retrieved from: 
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Yasukuni and Nationalist Identities, Japanese and Korean

English: Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Lilia Yamakawa

In 1985, US President Ronald Reagan agreed to visit a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany to lay a wreath in honor of Germany’s war casualties. Reagan’s team of advisors did not do their homework, and it was later discovered that the cemetery contained graves of some of Hitler’s elite officers who had taken part in the massacre of Jews. Here was a president who always talked about “American values”, and he was going to pray for soldiers who had caused the Holocaust. There were strong protests by Jewish groups, US congressmen, US military officials, and regular citizens who all urged Reagan not to make the visit. He felt he could not cancel, however, and instead, a trip to a nearby concentration camp was also scheduled for the day of the cemetery visit. Reagan was not anti-Jewish, nor was he a Nazi sympathizer, and he himself had even served on the “right side” of the war. Although he had simply bumbled into the visit, the “Bitburg Fiasco” turned into one of the lowest points of Reagan’s presidency. He and his handlers had failed to see the powerful symbolism of the visit.

One German political editor noted the day after the visit was announced that Germany “had been able to become a member of the community of civilized nations after the war not by denying but by accepting its Nazi past.”

The Reagan-Kohl idea of a historic harmony is, therefore, an insult not only to those who suffered and died in the camps. World War II was not just another European war. It was the darkest hour of European civilization. Its end brought to an end the world’s most atrocious regime and the world’s hitherto most dangerous conflict. It also laid the basis for a democratic West Germany and a united West (Lou, 1991).

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on 26 January 2013, made his second visit to Yasukuni Shrine, a powerful symbol of Japan’s wartime militarism. Unlike Reagan who had bumbled into his visit, Abe went on purpose. Unlike the Americans, who had fought against the German aggressors, Japan was the aggressor. Unlike many Japanese leaders who deny many wartime actions, the Germans have accepted their Nazi past. Thus, it is understandable that the Koreans and Chinese would be upset by visits to Yasukuni by Abe and other officials.

This post explores national identity and visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese government officials. I examine how the visits help to form and strengthen a sense of nationalistic, racist self-identity among some Japanese. I will also show how the visits help to form a particular identity of Koreans today. This paper is based on Benedict Anderson’s (2006) Imagined Communities.

First, with regard to Japanese identity, Yasukuni Shrine shows us a negative side of Japanese nationalism and patriotism. Twelve class-C war criminals are enshrined at Yasukuni. In fact, the government pressured the shrine to include the war criminals in 1978. The museum at the shrine, the Yushukan, does not show the atrocities that the Japanese army brought on its neighbors in Asia, controlling the way history is remembered. The shrine symbolizes the beliefs of ultra-nationalist right-wing groups today. Japanese officials not only insult Asian neighbors when they visit the shrine, but they also make the Japanese identity look bad to the world. Finally, while there is supposed to be a separation of religion and state, Yasukuni Shrine seems like a very political place that portrays nationalism based on “us vs. them.”

Love and self-sacrifice are important parts of a nation’s identity, and Yasukuni is a symbol of that positive side of nationalism and patriotism. Anderson points out that a love of nation is often expressed in its literature. Emperor Hirohito paid a visit to the shrine and wrote a poem that said: “I assure those of you who fought and died for your country that your names will live forever at this shrine in Musashino.” Because of this, soldiers who went to war would say “Let’s meet at Yasukuni.” These words signify loyalty to the emperor, to the nation, and to the Shinto religion. In this way, it was and remains a symbol of love and self-sacrifice.

People who believe it is the right or duty of Japanese, even government officials, to pray at Yasukuni argue that it is a spiritual place. To worship at Yasukuni is an act of love and gratitude to those who fought and died for Japan (John, 1991). Many Japanese also believe it is the right of the people of a nation to worship whoever and however they choose to worship.

Anderson discusses the roots of racism and says that in some cases it came from social class differences rather than nationalism. But in the case of the Japanese, is it possible that nationalism and racism were pretty much the same thing?

Koshino Kosaku is a sociologist who studies Japanese identity. He argues that “racialism” includes racism but is broader in meaning. He describes race as a socially constructed and imagined community because it does not have a real biological foundation, and because most members of the group don’t actually know each other. Although the Japanese are mixed, many of them imagine that they are a racially distinct and homogeneous group. These people believe that being Japanese is an unchosen result of nature. The Meiji leaders invented the idea of Japan as a “family-nation of divine origin.” All Japanese were supposedly related to each other and to the emperor. “Kinship, religion, and race were fused to produce a strong collective sense of oneness” (Koshino, 1998).

Koshino says that the notion of blood ties is still a part of the Japanese subconscious. The idea of Japanese blood makes the idea of “us v. them” stronger. Japanese culture is associated with a “Japanese race,” and Japanese tend to be possessive of their culture. Many people believe that no matter how long Chinese or Koreans live in Japan, they will always remain Chinese and Korean because they are different “minzoku”. He says the concept of “minzoku” can mean race, ethnic community, and nation. Anderson says that a nation is closed because it is something you don’t choose. It is, however, also open because through language and naturalization you can enter a nation. It seems that as long as the Japanese tend to think of themselves as a separate race and continue to feel racist toward others, Japanese nationalism is much more closed than open. Abe’s visits to Yasukuni only make this racist identity stronger. (Koshino, 1998)

Next, we will discuss Yasukuni and Korean identity. Whenever a Japanese official visits Yasukuni, the Koreans protest. It seems as Korean nationalism has been strengthened through protest against Japanese policy. Recently, the Korean president refused to negotiate with the Japanese because Japan refuses to apologize for its wartime actions. One Korean said that he can not talk about the history of his country without talking about what Japan did when it controlled Korea from 1910 to 1945.

Jukka Jouhki discusses the Japanese politicians’ visits to Yasukuni and the impact of those visits on Koreans. In the following passage he describes Yasukuni as a “wormhole”:

Symbolically, Yasukuni can be thought of as a wormhole that goes through time and space. When this wormhole crops up, the entire Korean nation seems capable of being transported backward into the era of Japanese colonial rule. (Jouhki, 2009)

Jouhki says that the Korean image of Japan is as it was in the colonial period, and Yasukuni represents imperial Japan just as if it were now. The image exaggerates the difference between us and them, Korea and Japan. He says that when the Koreans were colonized, it made the Koreans see themselves as “Other”, just as they saw the Japanese as “Other”, and Yasukuni represents an identity that they are still trying to work through. Therefore, Japanese leaders’ nationalism, expressed through visits to Yasukuni Shrine and the museum and textbooks that fail to show wartime atrocities, is not only a means to form a certain Japanese identity. It seems that Japanese nationalism strengthens a certain Korean identity as well.

Amartya Sen writes that a sense of identity can be positive because it makes us closer to others in our group, but it can also be negative because it can cause a deep feeling of division with those who are outside your group. He talks about how Al Qaeda tries to create a militant Islamic identity so that the people will feel the West is separate and bad. In the same way, Abe’s visit to Yasukuni creates sense of division from both the side of Japanese and Koreans.

The illusion of unique identity is much more divisive than the universe of plural and diverse classifications that characterize the world in which we actually live. The descriptive weakness of choiceless singularity and … the illusion of destiny exacts a remarkably heavy price” (Amartya, 2006).

Visits to Yasukuni can cause certain groups, both Japanese and Korean, to get caught up in one identity, forgetting they have diverse identities, and this can lead to conflict. These visits cause some Japanese to identify themselves as Japanese in a nationalist, racist way. They can cause some Koreans to identify themselves as Korean and the former victims of Japanese imperialism in an overly nationalistic way.

Clearly, Yasukuni Shrine is a symbol of patriotic love and self-sacrifice. It depends on your political beliefs as to whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing. I believe the people were used and sent to war by the Meiji oligarchs in their official nationalism, and they need to be prayed for. However, I believe, that we should pray for them in a place that is not so political and insensitive to the Koreans and others. It leads to a nationalist identity, on both sides, that is divisive and may lead to conflict and violence.


  1. Benedict, A. (2006). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism.
  2. Calhoun, C. (1993). Nationalism and ethnicity. Annual Review of Sociology19, 211. 239.
  3. Lou , C. (1991). President reagan: “the role of a lifetime. (p. 520). Touchstone Simon and Schuster
  4. John, B. (1991). Yasukuni: the war dead and the struggle for japan’s past. (2007 ed., p. 56). C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd.
  5. Jouhki, J. (2009, May 8). The second invasion: Notes on korean reactions to the yasukuni shrine issue. Retrieved from
  6. Koshino, K. (1998). Making majorities. (2007 ed., p. 19). C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd.
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Flower Men of Korea

by Lilia Yamakawa

“Beauty” and what one considers beautiful depend a lot on a person’s own culture and ethnicity. On the streets of Korea, it is not unusual to find Flower Men (FMs), called “kkotminam” (“flower handsome men”). You will know them by their pretty and “soft masculinity” and by their attention to the way they look. They are willing to spend a lot of time and money on their appearance and lifestyle. They may use make-up and other beauty products, pluck their eyebrows, manicure their nails, gel and style their hair, get facials, get massages, and even have cosmetic surgery. They are also associated with soft speech and traits such as gently caring for their families. They are seen as being pure and innocent, and they are very polite. In this report, I will examine some of the reasons to explain the Flower Man boom.

First, the boom is part of the larger global phenomenon of the “metrosexual” male, which has spread throughout both the East and the West. The metrosexual man is one who takes care of his physical appearance through means that were once considered feminine. The FM is just one example of this wide global trend. The East Asian metrosexual trend is so prominent that Time magazine did a cover story on it in 2005. Ling Liu wrote in this article:

A few years ago it may have been considered sissy for a guy to be fussy about his clothing and appearance. Real men demanded the world accept them on their own uncouth, unkempt terms. But in Asia nowadays, the definition of masculinity is undergoing a makeover – and narcissism is in, thanks to economic growth, higher disposable incomes, shifting gender roles, and fashion and cosmetics industries eager to expand their customer bases. No longer content to be the drabber sex, Asian males are preening like peacocks, perming, plucking and powering themselves to perfection in an effort to make themselves more attractive to their bosses, their peers and, of course, to women.

Although the boom is worldwide, it seems that Korean Flower Men have taken it to a further extreme than men of any other ethnic group and nationality. In 2013, South Korean men spent roughly $900 million on skincare. This was almost one-fourth of sales worldwide for men’s skin care. There are many salons and spas just for men that offer hair, facials, massages, and other procedures. Plastic surgery is also common, and there are also a number of clinics that cater solely to men. In 2013, Korean Air began training male staff to use beauty products (Fujita 2005).

The FM phenomenon itself began in the 1990s, around the time the Korean government began to allow more pop culture from Japan to come into the country (in 1998). Many manga and anime, which were previously hard to find, could now be bought and read in public. Young male actors and singers, especially in the boy bands, began to look like Japanese and Korean manga and anime characters, especially those in “girls’ comics” or “shojo manga” where the ideal image of a male is “bishonen” or “beautiful boy.” The flow of media between Korea and Japan also included tv dramas, cinema, and advertising (Sun 2010). The “yaoi” type of manga, which became very popular in Korea, is also said to be a big influence on the FM trend. The men in these manga often look like elves or fairies, and they are soft, sweet, and sensitive.

Up to the 1990’s the popular image of male beauty in Korea was a rather macho-type man. Since then, the soft male type has become much more popular. Two groups of FBs best exemplify the phenomenon today. One is the Korean boy band DBSK of idols. The other is the Korean tv drama called “Boys Over Flowers.” It was based on the Japanese manga and anime called “Hana yori dango” and was broadcast in Korea in 2009. It is a typical shojo Cinderella story of a poor high school girl who is befriended by the four richest, most handsome boys in the school, the F4. It became super popular in Korea, and later, in many other Asian countries including Japan. With “Boys Over Flowers”, the male image of the “kkotminam” became even more popular in Korea. More and more males aspired to look soft and gentle and pretty. Men’s fashion came to include pinks and floral prints, and cute “boyish” hairstyles with long bangs became the rage (Lee 2010).

Advertising has played an important role in spreading the FM image. Cosmetics companies have been very eager to sell cosmetics to this whole new group of buyers. Large areas of department stores are now devoted to men’s beauty care. Famous idols and actors, including members of both the DBSK and the F4, are used to advertise men’s beauty products. More and more men in Korea aspire to look like these idols.

The Korean economy is very strong now. This makes it possible for many Korean men to spend their money on personal beauty. With the economic power they become more confident, and more men want to look good even if it costs them.

A major reason for the “kkonminam” craze is that men want to look good to be competitive in the job market. They want to have “the right face”, which looks youthful, lively, friendly, and upper-class. Job applicants must send in photographs with their applications. Many Koreans believe that a person’s character can be read in the face, and even that their looks are more important than their skills (Jeffreys 2007).

Historically, Korean is a country ruled by strong Confucian ideals, which emphasize taking care of and making both the mind and the body strong. It is said that one reason for the “hallyu” (“hanryu” or “Korean Wave”) throughout East Asia is that the men are good-looking but show “a lack of profanity and sex, as befitting Confucian morals” (Maliangkay 2010).

David Coad believes that sports figures, such as David Beckham have been important in popularizing the metrosexual and the FB trend. They stand for traditional masculinity in their sports skills, but they also take care of their personal appearance in ways that were once thought feminine. The long-haired Korean soccer player, Ahn Jung-Hwan became very popular at the 2002 World Cup. He is known not only for his soccer skills, but also for his looks and his actions that show a softer side of men. He kissed his wedding ring after winning a major game. Then, he went on to advertise men’s liquid foundation. Coad writes:

The immediately obvious hyper-masculine and generally assumed heterosexual status of most sportsmen has been vital in changing attitudes about exposing, eroticizing, and taking care of the male body. Without some of the most celebrated heterosexual athletes in the world endorsing and embodying different facets of metrosexuality it is uncertain if masculinity norms would have changed so rapidly in so many different cultures. Metrosexuality, in a way, is indebted to sportsmen for its very existence. (Coad 2008)

Some people believe the most important reason the FM phenomenon is spreading throughout Korea, but especially in urban areas, is that women like it.  Bae Yong-joon, who was so popular in the tv drama “Autumn Sonata”, is also well liked among somewhat older Korean women. His popularity is based on his character in the drama which was soft looking, passionate, sincere, and polite. James Turnbull, who writes for The Korea Times, has an interesting theory about the origins of the FM.

When focusing on men, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that it is actually women’s changing tastes in them that drive changes in their fashions and grooming jabits, and accordingly it ultimately proves to be married Korean women in the late-1990s that are responsible for flower men’s origins. (Turnbull 2009)

Turnbull goes on to explain that during the “IMF Crisis” of 1997, many more women were laid off from their companies than men were because it was assumed that their husbands could support them. They had only recently gotten the legal right to not be fired upon marriage. Then they were encouraged by society to support “Korean’s hardworking men” to help get through the crisis. He says that many women, at this time, started to reject “the ideals of men as strong, provider types, and it is no coincidence that a sudden glut of movies appeared featuring romances between older women and younger men, and that this was when the first, identifiable, flower men began appearing in advertising too.” Korean women wanted men who were more interested in satisfying them than their companies (Turnbull 2009).

It is obvious that many females from mid-teens to their 30s also like the FM. They fill social media sites with comments about popular singers and actors. They use various interesting words to describe the men: pretty, sweet looking, a hootie, cute, looks like a pretty girl, etc. One blogger on Korean pop culture expresses what seem to be the views of many young women:

So why do flower boys act like women? There is only one answer to this. Because their fans love it. I guess there is something about a handsome man trying to act like a woman which makes them even more endearing. Somehow, there is an inexplicable and irresistible urge that makes women want to pinch flower boys’ cheeks every time they do their “cute acts”…flower boys are pretty to look at and they are cute and entertaining. But, why are they so popular? The ultimate reason, I believe, is that flower boys represent certain qualities of a man women look for – a man unafraid to explore his soft side…his emotional side and admit that he is vain after all. (Deen 2011)

About those pretty cheeks the women want to pinch, many times they might be pretty as a result of plastic surgery. The Korean Association for Plastic Surgeons estimated that in 2010 approximately 15% of Korean men had plastic surgery. The Korean Herald reported that 44% of male college students were considering plastic surgery (“Think plastic surgery” 2013).

In an excellent article on cosmetic surgery in Korea, Ruth Holliday and Jo Hwang point out that plastic surgery is popular and accepted in Korean society. The former president of Korea, among many other famous people have had work done on their faces. They write that “the body emerges as a site for negotiating and reinforcing national identity.” After1945, Koreans wanted to look more western in order to look very different from the Japanese colonizers. Later, they wanted to embrace their Koreanness by consulting with fortune tellers of physiognomy to find out what is their particular auspicious face. Surgeons and physiognomists often work together in the clinics. A survey found that 7 of 10 Koreans approve of plastic surgery, and even more say they would do it if they had the money. The government supports plastic surgery tourism, does not control the industry strictly, and even approves of it through the insurance program in many cases. With plastic surgery accepted so widely in Korea, it is not surprising that men are commonly having surgery on their eyelids to make them look bigger, on their noses to make them more pointed, and on their jaws to make them look less angular. Liposuction to suck out fat is also popular among men. (Holliday & Hwang n.d.)

The Flower Man as a positive male image partly has its origins in the worldwide metrosexual trend and in Japanese manga and anime. It is, however, uniquely Korean. It was made popular by the “soft masculinity” of pop idols and actors in dramas. It has been promoted by advertising of cosmetic firms who want to open up and make money in the new market of male beauty aids. This happened just at a time when the Korean economy was relatively strong. The Korean job market is very competitive, and appearance is important. Nonsexual boys fit in with traditional Confucian ideals. Sportsmen have shown that a man can be traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine at the same time. Some women want men to be a mixture of male and female, more androgynous, and not masculine Rambo types. Finally, striving for ideal beauty (and the range of what is considered “beauty” seems to be quite narrow in Korea) and using means such as plastic surgery to get it has been a part of the Korean culture for a long time. Procedures such as cosmetic surgery are readily accepted by the general public.

South Korea is a country with a military draft. All men must serve in the military for at least one year. Some men said they started using face creams as soldiers because they wanted protection in the sunshine. It is even possible to buy a set of camouflage face paint, healthier for the skin than the usual, to wear during military service. (Ling 2012) This shows that the traditionally male identity and the newer Flower Man identity are blending well in Korean society.


  1. Coad, David. (2008). The metrosexual: Gender, sexuality and sport . (p. 196). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
  2. Deen, Catherine. (2011, November 30). Understanding the lure of ‘flower boys’. Retrieved from
  3. Fujita, Akiko. (2005, October 28). South Korean men cosmetics-crazed. Retrieved from
  4. Holiday, Ruth, & Jo Hwang. (n.d.). Gender, globalization and aesthetic surgery in south korea. Retrieved from 
  5. Jeffreys, Daniel. (2007, April 28). Koreans go under the knife in a cut-throat race for jobs. Retrieved from ww&gws_rd=cr&ei
  6. Lee, H. (2010). Men, be beautiful for spring, summer. Retrieved from…/199_39427.html
  7. Liu, Ling. (2005, October 28). Asia’s metrosexuals: Mirror, mirror…. Retrieved from
  8. Maliangkay, Roald. (2010). The effeminacy of male beauty in korea. Retrieved from
  9. Sun, J. (2010). Pan-east asian soft masculinitity: Reading boys over flowers, coffee prince and shinhwa fan fiction. Retrieved from Currents/122/xhtml/frontmatter1.html
  10. Think plastic surgery is only popular with girls in Korea? Take a look at the guys – See more at:
  11. Turnbull, James. (2009). Flower men: the hot topic of 2009. Retrieved from
  12. Williamson, Lucy. (2012, December 3). South korean men get the make-up habit. Retrieved from