by Rena Shoji
Bihaku (skin-whitening) products are “must-haves” in Japan. I think using those products is almost considered as etiquette to avoid getting sun tanned to keep your skin tone “appropriate”. The market size is huge in Japan. In 2012, study shows that bihaku products consist of over 210 billion yen in the domestic market (TPC Bibliotech 2014). However, it is not that Japanese women have color complexes or feel inferior to the skin tone of Caucasians. They seek “Japanese whiteness”, which they claim a “traditional” aesthetic value in Japan. In “Cultivating Japanese Whiteness” (2005), Mikiko Ashikari argues that Japan has its own skin identity and aesthetic values, in which whiter skin is preferred.
First, Japanese people tend to think that they have a distinct skin tone (Ashikari 2005). Despite individual differences, people with darker skin by nature (jiguro), are seen as different or unusual. For example, people from Okinawa are likely to be considered as different from “usual (futsu–no)” Japanese because they share different historical backgrounds. Their darker skin is distinguished from ordinary Japanese. As a result, darker skin generates “otherness”. It reminds me of a friend of mine, who has relatively darker skin. She is often teased about her skin tone. “You don’t look like Japanese.” Her darker complexion makes her look like non-Japanese in the Japanese society. Therefore, Japanese people tend to think that they have “unique” and “traditional” skin identity and aesthetic values.
Second, with regard to Japanese skin identity, the author’s survey illustrates that Japanese women claim that they have “traditional” aesthetic values in terms of whiteness. Their Japanese whiteness, they think, is even superior to the skin of White people. Thus, skin-whitening in Japan is not mimicry of Caucasians. In addition, skin-whitening products are widely spread and its market scale is huge. However, the purpose of using those bihaku products is not to make their skin tone lighter than their “innate” complexion. Rather, skin-whitening in Japan are used to regain youth on their skin. It implies that the consumers think that they naturally have lighter skin and can regain youth and whiteness with those products. Many Japanese women try to avoid sun tanning in order to “protect their whiteness”.
However, I argue that the skin identity and aesthetic values, which Japanese think they traditionally have, can be questioned. Also, I would say that these ideas are strongly influenced by beauty companies in Japan because of its market size and the regulations on the advertisements. As mentioned above, bihaku products are very popular, or sometimes considered as “necessary”, and used by the majority of Japanese women. It can be said that those products, in part, influence the beauty standard of Japanese women. What are the media messages of the products through selling them? In fact, Japan Cosmetic Industry Association (JCIA) prohibits advertisements of cosmetic products from claiming skin-whitening effects (JCIA 2012). The recovery and prevention from san tanning are the only things that are permitted in cosmetic advertisements. The regulations would certainly affect the content of the advertisements. It also should be noted that even under the regulations, the models for the skin-whitening products actually show whiter skin than they really have.
Given both of Ashikari’s arguments and these two factors above, it can be said that the Japanese “traditional” aesthetic values are, in actuality, constructed by media messages. That is, in order to pass through the regulations and still create a demand for skin-whitening products, cosmetic companies claim Japanese women’s “innate” whiteness on their skin. Reciprocally, the media message from those prevalent market products influence on the aesthetic values of Japanese women. Furthermore, its influence is so huge that the consumers strongly believe in their “natural” light skin tone. Therefore, I argue that Ashikari’s arguments about Japanese skin identity and female aesthetic values are strongly influenced by bihaku products in Japan.
Many women enjoy using cosmetic and skincare products, but applying and consuming products can be an obsession if the society creates the specific beauty standard. In the case of Japanese skin-whitening, the products themselves and the media message create the social norm and aesthetic standard. We, consumers of these products, have to be aware of the impacts of media influence from cosmetic advertisements.
Ashikari, Mikiko. 2005. “Cultivating Japanese Whiteness: The ‘Whitening’ Cosmetics Boom and the Japanese Identity”. Journal of Material Culture 10:73-91.
Japan Cosmetic Industry Association. (2012). Guidelines for fair advertising practices of Cosmetics, 2012 Edition. Retrieved from http://www.jcia.org/n/all_pdf/gul/JCIA2012_ADguide.pdf
TPC Bibliotech. (2014). The market analysis and research of skin-whitening products. Osaka: Total Planning Center Osaka Corp.