by Nana Tsujimoto
The old Japanese proverb “white skin covers the seven flaws [iro no shiroi wa shichinan kakusu]” means that a fair-skinned women looks beautiful even if her features are not good enough. As this proverb describes, Japanese women have been passionate about getting fair skin throughout the centuries. In addition, in contemporary Japan bihaku [beautiful and white] skin should be moist, elastic, smooth, free of blemishes and wrinkles. In the article “Cultivating Japanese Whiteness”, Mikiko Ashikari (2005) argues that the white skin is represented as a symbol of beauty and that of Japaneseness; moreover, this is authorized in public in contemporary Japan.
The custom of face-whitening in Japan goes back to Nara period (710–794). At that time, women belonging to the upper class started to put white powder called oshiroi on their faces due to be more beautiful. According to research conducted by Miho Sato (2002), a professor of the Human Science department of Waseda University, compared to people in other countries, Japanese prefer whiter colors. Sato pointed out that Japanese people have seen the color white as holy [shinseina] and mysterious [shinpiteki] for a long time. Therefore, Japanese women’s preference for a white face was not constructed by westernization but it was emerged from inside of Japanese culture. Experiencing globalization, a white face became not only a Japanese standard of beauty but also an international standard. White skin has been a symbol of beauty for Japanese women. Actually, that is why many Japanese women avoid getting tanned.
Ashikari (2005) says that the dichotomy of white and black leads to division of people: “us” and “others”. She also mentions that Most Japanese unconsciously believe that they are members of Japanese group (racial group) and they share the same skin that is white skin (this differs from the white skin that white people describes). This leads people to have a membership of “us” and also this is linked to the exclusion of people with different skin color as “others”. However, in my opinion, skin color does not help distinguish Japanese people from other people; for example, I cannot say whether my skin looks like Japanese skin or Chinese one. The reason why Japanese think that they have the same skin and other racial groups do not is that Japanese have not enough opportunities to meet someone from other countries or they merely go abroad not just for trip. I think white skin is not so important to examine people’s Japaneseness.
It is common for women in other Asian countries such as the Philippines to bleach their skin due to get more whiter skin. However, in Japan, Japanese women do not try to do that but they use various skin-whitening stuffs including bihaku cream. Do you think agree that Japanese women practice skin-whitening to keep their white face that is a symbol of beauty and Japaneseness? Japanese whiteness is quite complex, but it is really interesting to think about this topic.
Ashikari, Mikiko. 2005. “Cultivating Japanese Whiteness: The ‘Whitening’ Cosmetics Boom and the Japanese Identity.” Journal of Material Culture 10(1):73-91.
Shikisaishikou to kokorono kankeiwo gakusaitekina shitende tuikyu [Pursuing the link between color preferences and heart from interdisciplinary perspective](April18, 2002). Kenkyusaizensen [the forefront studies]. Retrieved on Oct 30, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.waseda.jp/student/weekly/contents/2002a/960o.html
The Fair Face of Japanese Beauty (Oct 31, 2013). Nippon.com. Retrieved on Oct 30,2014. Retrieved from http://www.nippon.com/en/views/b02602/