Global Capital in the Skin-Whitening Trade

by Hironari Shibata

In Japan, skin lightening and skin-whitening products are all over the place when we go to drugstores. It is so widely spread out that even people like me, who have never used skin-whitening products know what they are and how popular it is in the Japanese society. The skin-whitening products are not only sold in Japan, and they are sold in many parts of the world. Why do people use these products to whiten their skin? Is it because of fashion? self-hate? or is it some sort of influence by media? In our class we discussed this question and we said that it was the combination of all of these factors, and that the ratio of each can be different among each individuals, and different among countries.

Even though skin-whitening products are sold in many parts of the world, are the reasons for people to whitening their skins the same between the people in Japanese and the people with dark skin (ex. African-Americans)? The answer is more likely to be no. As for the Japanese people I talked to, they said that they use skin-whitening products in order to make their skin look prettier. In the Japanese society, ‘white’ has represented wealth from the past, and now, ‘white’ is viewed as a part of the Japanese fashion.

On the other hand, people like the African-Americans, who are born with a darker skin color whiten their skin for a slightly different reason. According to Evelyn Nakano Glenn, blackness of African people was seen as dirt in the 1930s, and there were already skin-whitening products from that point (Glenn, 2009, p. 169). This may be related to the reason why people in Africa or the African-American people whiten their skin. In the past, white skin represented higher status and dark skin meant having a low status in the society. Therefore, people with dark skin color whiten their skin because whitening their skin will improve their social status.

However, this won’t be the case for Japanese people. It is because in Japan, skin tone does not matter much on their social status. Comparing the use of skin-whitening products between Japanese and people in African or the African-American people, there is a difference in the purpose of why people use these products.


Glenn, N. E. (2009). Consuming lightness: Segmented markets and the global capital in the skin-whitening trade. In E. N. Glenn (Ed.), Shades of difference: Why skin color matters (pp. 166-187). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.


One thought on “Global Capital in the Skin-Whitening Trade

  1. People use whitening creams because they are not content with the complexion they are born with, from the fairest to the deepest of skin complexions. People who have hyper-pigmentation may claim to use “bleaching products” to “even out” the skin, but most of the products on the market have long term adverse effects on the skin. Time, not picking the skin, drinking plenty of water, eating healthy, and having a routine cleaning regimen will help heal the skin. To say there is difference in the use of a “whitening” agent of any kind is different for Japanese, even suggesting its use is more positive compared to darker skinned peoples is faulty. The many reasons one uses a toxin to lighten the skin is psychological, emotional, and mental insecurity. People are always striving to be what they think is the best in the eyes of the “beholders”, which is society’s standards of beauty at that time. Japan is not exempt from this. I have seen white/fair skinned Japanese and darker/tanned skinned Japanese. Every skin is beautiful…healthy skin is beautiful. But having a healthy mind and a compassionate, honest, and empathic spirit is by far the best beauty one can possess.

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