Is the real goal of Japanese whitening cosmetics to be white-skinned?

by Umene Shikata

When you walk around Japan in the summer time, no matter whether it is in the city or rural areas, you will see women wearing long sleeves, hat, sunglasses, or long gloves that reach their elbows. You may also see those ladies (most of the time above their 20s) using a parasol also on a sunny day. These behaviors of Japanese women are understood as an indication of their preferences for white skin.

Ashikari Mikiko, a social anthropologist who studied at Kenbridge University, argues that the Japanese white-skin preference does not have anything to do with being like westerners, but rather cultivate “a Japanese form of whiteness which is based on the Japanese identity as a race” (2005:73). This means that she does not think Japanese people have this tendency for white skin because they have a complex towards their ‘yellow’ skin (since Japanese are often seen as a yellow-skinned race), neither do they have a desire to get westerners’ white skin. They want to be white because being white is a demonstration of belonging to ‘us’, which in this case means ‘being Japanese’.

I agree that Japanese people do not try to be western through whitening their own skin. However, the relation between white skin preference and sense of belonging to the ‘us/Japanese’ remains unclear to me. I asked my Japanese friends (a total of 15 people, both men and women, 20 to 22 years old) what they thought about Ashikari’s connection of being white and belonging to ‘us’, and all of them thought it was not fully explaining their feeling towards whitening their skin.

Then, to understand better what they are actually thinking and feeling, I made further question whether they prefer white skin or black skin, the reason of feeling in such way, whether white skin preference was based on admiration for westerners and, in the end, what is a ‘beautiful skin’ for them. All of them answered me that, as Ashikari mentioned in her article, their, or Japanese people’s white skin preference has nothing to do with westerners’ skin color, neither with a race issue. Rather, all of them answered that people doing whitening care are doing so for their own preference and happiness, in the other words, to be “cute” (kawaii) or “beautiful” (kirei). What should be underlined, however, is the fact none of them brought up ‘white color’ or ‘white skin’ to their idea of ‘beautiful skin’ image.

Their concept of beautiful skin, including boys’ opinions as well, could be divided in three categories; smooth (nameraka na hada, sube sube shita hada), no skin trouble (hada are no nai hada) such as acne, dry skin, and blotches, and finally transparency (toumeikan no aru hada). If you research ‘essences for beautiful skin’ (bihada no joken) on the internet, the results are the same.

It seems that Japanese people, both women and men, put skin condition above actual skin color. Some of my friends who answered me mentioned that they do not really care whether the skin is rather white, yellow, or well-tanned as long as it is healthy looking with no skin troubles. For instance, if you read Shiseido’s whitening product haku’s promotion page you may realize they are talking more about how to avoid blotches, or to make smoother skin condition rather than to actually having white-colored skin.

Moreover, Shiseido’s answer to the question “what is the containment of skin whitening products” is “active ingredient which suppresses the generation of melanin and prevent a blotches or freckles”. This means that when Japanese says white skin, they are not talking about actual skin color. However, they are talking about skin without any blotches, clean and beautiful skin condition.

If you take this assumption as the real fact, then it might be easier to understand Japanese women’s preferences, opinion and behavior. They prefer “white” skin, because it is clean, literally beautiful in the way there is no skin problem, and also shows they care about their own selves which in Japan is considered as a “high womenness” (joshi ryoku ga takai). They try to avoid being tanned because with the sun, tan skin tend to have more blotches and is drier (kasa kasa). It also may cause skin problems. This is why many people, including my own self, felt the reason of whitening as demonstration of belonging not appropriate to explain their tendencies and feelings.

Indeed, there may be some culture which considers blotches as a good thing, or something that has no importance. However, in this case we are talking more about cultural differences to see the world. However, it can be said that, at least Japanese whitening tendencies are not related to racial issues or belonging to us/Japanese, but rather to a pure cultural beauty concepts.

References

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

Watashi by Shiseido, Questions and answers: https://www.shiseido.co.jp/faq/qa.asp?faq_id=1000000335

Watashi by Shiseido, Shiseido no bihaku tokusyuu: https://www.shiseido.co.jp/beauty/bihaku/

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The fallacy of Japaneseness identity through the ideal of “white” Japanese skin 

by Agathe Schwaar

For the four years I have been living in Japan, I have never felt attracted to Japanese cosmetic products, and for many different reasons. First of all, the TV commercials. They always show beautiful Japanese ladies with perfect skin, they would compliment the effect of their “whitening lotion”. They also would have this strange way to play with their skin as it was some British jelly and cry out how their skin is soft after applying the product. Second, I had never been able to find my skin tone among all the Japanese makeup available in the drug store. The foundation creams in Japanese are so pale that I would have looked sick if I had tried to wear some.

To remedy this situation, every time I go back to France I buy all the products that I need from face cleansing to shampoo and conditioner (for thin hair, which is not like Japanese hair). By being a western women in Japan, I clearly felt the assumption that Japanese people consider their skin tone as unique and specific to their “people”.

clipimage_21In her research on Japanese whiteness, Mikiko Ashikari (2005) tries to explain where the idea of a specific white skin among the “Japanese race” comes from. According to Ashikari, it seems less likely to be from Caucasians’ influence, since Japanese women considered Caucasian skin as “rough, aged quickly and had too many spots” (Ashikari 2005:82). The idea of white skin in the Japanese society is even more specific than any other features that could define the idea of being “Japanese”. Although Japanese change their hair color with dying products, their eye color with contact lenses, and their physical features with plastic surgery, they would never change their skin color because “the notion of Japanese skin works as one medium to express and represent Japaneseness” (Ashikari 2005:76). As Ashikari notes, by defining a specific skin color to their race, Japanese people are even able to reject the Okinawan people as a “second-class citizens” (Gibney quoted by Ashikari, 2005, p. 80).

b02602_ph02Actually, Japanese whiteness has its roots even before the Black Ships arriving in Japan during the 16th century. It is said that during Nara Period (710–94) and Heian Period (794–1185), Japanese women were already using diverse products to light their skin tone (Kyo 2012). The ideal of white skin is also found in a lot of literature of this period such as the Diary of Lady Murasaki and Tale of Genji (Kyo 2012). Back in the Heian Period, women would blacken their teeth and shave their eyebrows. Nowadays nobody would shave their eyebrows as a sign of beauty but the idea of white skin as the ideal of beauty among Japanese women is still a recurrent topic in Japanese society.

In the case of Japan, we are actually not facing an issue of white supremacy on a “secondary” race, but the emergence of the uniqueness of a specific and idealised race through notions of a Japanese race. The idea of a race is still a controversial subject in scientific research, and I think that the Japanese people’s attitude toward their own skin as a part of their own race should be also considered as controversial. If we follow the idea that whitening one’s skin in order to follow an old tradition that dates back to the 10th century, then the “French race” also should wear white makeup in order to respect the traditions from the 15th century.

The commerce of whitening products in Japan is not an issue of how much Japanese people spend on those products, it is an issue of how it feeds the Japanese mentality on their own uniqueness. As Ashikari (2005) explains, white skin in Japan is not only a beauty feature among Japanese women, it idealises the white face as a symbol of the “Japanese identity as a race and therefore very different from — and even “superior” — to western whiteness” (p.89). The marketing is using a single element to increase the belief of a unique race in order to make more profits. With these actions, they instill in Japanese people a fallacy of their identity and create an idea of a skin superior to any other white skin and so superior to any other kind of “white race”.

Reference

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

Kyo, C. (2012). Search for the Beautiful Woman: A Culture History of Japanese and Chinese Beauty (Asia/Pacific/Perspectives). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Skin Whitening as Social Uplifting and Achieving the Ideal “beauty”

by Moe Miura

There are many skin-whitening products in global markets today. One can easily purchase skin-whitening products even without knowing it, because whitening one’s skin tone is already a big phenomenon in the 21st century all over the world. However, South Africa has significant story about its history of the phenomenon of skin whitening.

In Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters (2009), author Lynn M. Thomas focuses on the history and the use of skin lighteners in South Africa. Today, 35% of the South African women are said to be using the skin-whitening products. Then these questions pop up: why do South African women try to whiten their skin tone? Is there a history behind it?

South Africa is widely known for its history of apartheid, where black and colored people did not have the same political or economic rights as white people, and also were forced to live separately from white people. This policy led to the further discrimination of black and colored people, segregation, and the skin color preferences influenced by the European colonialism (Thomas, 2009). Thus it created the idea of lighter skin equals more liberty and less/no discrimination. Historically, the use of skin whitening products had a lot to do with the fact that there was a significant racial discrimination against black and colored people.

pictureAnother reason of using the skin lighteners was “technology of the self”, meaning people decorate themselves to transform themselves, so that they can achieve happiness or perfection. This can range from concealing blemishes to bleaching their faces. Advertisements have played a big role in informing people about this idea that whiter is more beautiful, using musical stars and beauty contest winners. Capitalism also pushed this idea because the more difficult the thing to achieve, the harder people try; concealing flaws and having lighter skin was difficult thus people would purchase more stuff to achieve this “ideal beauty”. The market of skin lighteners had become multimillion-dollar-per-year endeavor.

As it can be seen, reasons of South African women purchasing skin whiteners ranged from racial uplifting, capitalist commerce, to making themselves look better as a “technology of the self”.

Reference

Thomas, L. M. (2009). Skin Lighteners in South Africa. In Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters, edited by E.N. Glenn. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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Race and Visual Appearance

by Kohsei Ishimoto

The idea of how one thinks of another (first impression) can mainly come from how one looks. We all have our own beliefs of various cultures, which can also alter who we choose to be with. In “Seeing Faces, Making Races: Challenging Visual Tropes of Racial Difference,” Terry Kawashima (2002) explains the relationship between ‘beauty’ and ‘race’, focusing on “light skin”.

Many cosmetics companies are now promoting “whiteness”, selling products that can lighten one’s skin. Many people in Asian countries now focus on these products, possibly feeling that beauty is to “look white”. When looking at make-up as well, fashion magazines (mainly in Japan) promote the image of looking “white”, or “ha-fu”, by showing how to do make-up in a certain way.

Hair dye can also be put into this idea. When walking the streets of Japan, there are many Japanese people that have dyed hair, usually brown or blond. Although having “too light hair” does not have a positive image, the number of people with dyed hair has obviously increased greatly.

But does having light skin, doing make-up in a certain way, and having colored hair mean that one is “white”? Personally, I would say no to this. It cannot be said that being “white” is being beautiful; there are many different races in the world, and everyone should be considered beautiful.

I also dyed my hair in high school, starting with a dark brown color, but later on to a bright close-to-white color. In Japan, this can be considered ‘unusual’, leading to situations in which people would avoid you. It is also close to impossible to get a part-time job with a light hair color. It is usually prohibited to dye hair in Japanese public schools, but since I had attended a private school, the society I had been in allowed me to dye my hair. However, I did not dye my hair because I wanted to look “white”; I dyed my hair because I wanted to look like an individual.

When looking at western countries, it can be said that not all people try to stay light skinned. Having “too light” skin can be a sign of sickness, and most people must have the desire to get a tan during the summer. When considering hair color, my Non-Asian friends dye their hair to exotic colors, such as red or blue. This can be because they already have a natural tone of color, compared to the “dull” color of black in Asians.

In conclusion, I believe that the act of doing make-up a certain way or dyeing hair is done through the individual’s decision; our personal experiences in society can alter our own belief’s of “beauty”.