White is right: Body decoration, skin color, and beauty in Japan

Nivea Skin Whitening

Nivea Skin Whitening (Photo credit: kalleboo)

by Saki Miyata

Body decoration is a term that describes how people change how they look from how they looked originally. This decoration of the body seems to be conducted by people in order for them to symbolize or fit into a certain group. Skin lightening is also one kind of body decoration which can be practiced worldwide. In Japan, it is not difficult to find women who use skin whitening products. The practice of skin whitening has become a very “natural” thing for women in Japan.

It has become “natural” for woman to seek whiteness since the ideal beauty of Japanese is to have a white skin. The unconscious notion of “Japanese people are originally white” creates an image of white skin as pure, young, and healthy. Which drives women to practice skin lightening as an anti-aging process.

As Mikiko Ashikari (2005) notes, in Japan, “white skin” is also seen as dominant, since having tanned skin is something to be ashamed of, unless the tanned skin is a result of some leisure activities. This could be the result of thinking “Japanese skin is originally white and expected to be white”. An example of white being dominant is when talking about skin in Japan. Saying “Your skin is white (light)” is taken as a compliment. However, saying “your skin is black” is never connected with a positive image. It is also a taboo to point out to someone that they have black skin.

Japanese usually separate their whiteness from Caucasians’, and find uniqueness in Japanese whiteness. It is true that Japan has a tradition of seeing white as a symbol of purity and beauty. However this is not the only reason for this massive boom of skin whitening in Japan. By globalizing, Japan interacted with societies that were white dominant and white superior. This dominance of Caucasians has also affected the notion of universal beauty, which sees white as beautiful. However, even though this idea was imported to Japan, it is not recognized by people that they are trying to look white, since the idea of white=beautiful was already there. The globalization of cosmetic markets has also encouraged more women to practice skin lightening.

Personally I found it interesting to find out that Japanese unconsciously think we have white skin. However when I think about it, the “fresh colour” pencil crayon is light beige, which is lighter than the average Japanese skin. Although the pencil crayon does not represent Japanese skin tone, children colour their skin with this colour. When I was in Canada, I was drawing each other’s face with my Caucasian friend. I remember feeling really offended when she used light beige colour for her and dark yellowish brown colour on mine. Although I was only 8 years old when this happened, this shows how the sence of “Japanese skin” is deeply rooted in our minds.

Reference

Ashikari, Mikiko. 2005. “Cultivating Japanese Whiteness: The ‘Whitening’ Cosmetics Boom and the Japanese Identity.” Journal of Material Culture 10(1):73-91.

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