by Mitsumi Yamamoto
Every year a number of Japanese students in my university decide to participate in a study abroad program (mainly to the US, Canada, and Australia). They usually start to prepare for the coming life in foreign countries by packing stuff or setting up their goals during spring semester in Japan. It was such a time when I often saw the female students dying their hair black again, although they used to have their hair dyed bright colors such as blonde and brown. I asked some of my friends how come they would do so and they answered, “Obviously that is because black hair represents Asian beauty.” Meanwhile within Japan, there is a huge boom about biracial people referred to as “hafu”, especially referring to people of half-Caucasian and half-Japanese (one parent being Japanese and one parent being of Caucasian heritage) (Okamura, 2009). Recently you can see hafu models and celebrities a lot on TV and in magazines, and many Japanese women try to achieve a western-looking face due to their adoration for hafu’s appearance.
Those two standards of beauty that Japanese women have, “Asian beauty” and “Western beauty,” seem to be the opposites of each other. However both standards exist simultaneously as the dominant viewpoints when thinking about what is beauty for Japanese women. Why?
This phenomenon can be explained with a case of African American women competing in the Miss Bronze or black beauty contests during the 1960s and 1970s, when the Civil Rights Movement flourished against discrimination towards black people. Maxine Leeds Craig, a professor of Women’s Studies at the University of California-Davis, pointed out that at that time black women in the Miss Bronze pageant would realize views of themselves depending on how whites saw blacks, but at the same time this helped them to see the structure of racism (Glenn, 2009). Therefore in order to accept and reject this hierarchy, contestants who had dark skin tone were crowned as winners of Miss Bronze since the 1960s, rather than those with light skin tone, who were considered as the closest color to whiteness. The black beauty came to be used as a demonstration of the value of black people.
Related to this case, what about the pageant of Miss Universe Japan? In spite of the domestic hafu boom, almost all participants of this contest attempt to show their beauty as Asian with typical images of Asian women (e.g., long black hair, slit eyes) (Miss Universe Japan). The same thing can be said of women who stay in foreign countries outside of Japan. Even if the women used to prefer western-looking (e.g., bright colored hair and round eyes) inside of Japan, they somehow start to focus on “Asian beauty,” showing their Asian features to foreigners.
Hence this coexistence of the seemingly opposite standards of beauty and switch between them depending on the situation look similar to the case of African American women. It seems that Japanese women, as representatives of Asian women, would think of themselves as inferior to whites in racial hierarchy and this consciousness would help accepting and rejecting this hierarchy. Therefore Japanese women who have chances to live in an environment filled with Westerners try to behave as one a representative of Asian beauty, although once they are in Japan, they still tend to have the feeling of inferiority toward white people with an ideal to Western-beauty.
Okamura, H. (2009). ハーフブームと『ハーフ顔』? [hafu boom and hafu face?]. Retrieved from http://www.kreuzungsstelle.com/column5_10.html
Miss Universe Japan. Miss Universe Japan Official site. Retrieved from http://www.missuniversejapan.com/
Glenn, E. N. (Ed.). (2009). Shades of Difference: why skin color matters. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Hafu: Telling the story of Japan’s mixed-race minority and changing attitudes in society【Q&A】 (en.rocketnews24.com)
- Skin Color and Self-Esteem (japansociology.com)
- ‘MAID CAFE NY’ brings Japanese cosplay culture (and stereotypes) to U.S. (team-yellow.com)
- What We Do for “Beauty.” (elephantjournal.com)
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