Exploring Japanese Whiteness

Photo by Robert Moorehead

by Wang Xinyi

美白 (bihaku) is a Japanese commercial term that refers to beauty products with functions of skin whitening or brightening. Aiming at prevent or reverse skin imperfection and provide a clean and fair complexion, bihaku has becoming very desirable among Japanese women since the late 1980s. I’m very surprised to find out that the skin-whitening market in Japan essentially is way more massive than I had thought. Products are comprehensive from head to toes. Regardless of using cosmetic products such as BB cream to create a lighter skin, Japanese women have been also purchasing whitening skin-care products like whitening toner and cream that not constrained to target on face but also other parts of body. Despite of that, quasi-drugs that contain vitamins and other ingredients to promote skin regeneration are also very popular. Japanese women will also go to clinic for whitening their skin. What’s more, with newly developed technologies, nowadays people can also do whitening injections either in a clinic or by themselves.

Just by walking into any drug stores in Japan, it won’t be hard for you to find skin-whitening products. Therefore people start to question why Japanese women have been so obsessed with a lighter complexion? Some people claimed admiration for Caucasians should be the vital factor, whereas objection voices argued ‘white’ has been a significant standard of beauty historically.

Ashikari (2005) pointed out, such a Japanese whiteness idea which based on Japanese identity as a race should not be devalued simply as a beauty issue nor as western mimicry. First and foremost, throughout the whole representation by mass media including tv programs, idol image-building, magazines, etc., light skin tone has become an important feature for defining beauty.

Secondly, Japanese people turn out to believe that they originally share a special Japanese skin that is soft, resilient and slightly moist, which is highly related to racial factors. Therefore, they consider people without that kind of skin are either of other races or are Japanese who have been tanned by sunshine. In this sense, white skin tone then works as one medium to express and represent Japaneseness. By being a “proper” Japanese, you need to have a light skin tone, and the same goes for being beautiful in Japan. Hence, to be a pretty and proper Japanese woman, light complexion turns out to be crucial.

Nevertheless, why is that the consumption of whitening cosmetics boomed around the late 1980s? From my perspective, it could be linked with Japanese political as well as economical conditions at the time. After the economic bubble burst, the Japanese government decided to be more liberal and international, both politically and economically. This means that cross-cultural communication had been also stimulated. Is it possible to say that, by sensing so numerous foreigners Japanese people then gained a crisis awareness of their own culture so that began to cultivate tons of “Japanese uniqueness” to separate themselves with others? If that could be taken into account, in such a globalized world how long can Japan maintain such a unique Japanese whiteness concept without being influenced by global trends?

Another question is that, why there is only a “Japanese whiteness” which is marked as unique from all other types of whiteness? As a Chinese, I don’t think there is anything specifically defined as “Chinese whiteness”. Or I’ve also never heard people talk about “special Korean whiteness”. Why do we only see this in Japan?

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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