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Ideals of beauty in Japan

By Claire PosnerOne of the most amusing things about Japan is observing all the various fashion and beauty trends among young men and women.  However, one of the most confusing things is attempting to wade through the sea of beauty products in a typical drug store to find a simple moisturizer. Of all the things I thought I might learn in Japan, a whole new knowledge of skin care products was not one of them. 

Of course, ideas of beauty differ slightly in Japan, so you find some products you might not find in America — such as products to give you snowy white skin and strips to produce the coveted double eye-lid.

I have always known that what is considered beautiful differs from culture to culture, but in Japan I have learned the concept of what it takes to maintain beauty also differs.

The preference for pale white skin is long-standing and wide-spread in Japan.  There are endless creams, supplements and powders that claim to whiten one’s skin to the point where sometimes I have trouble finding a moisturizer that is not going to affect my skin color.  During a recent trip to the beach, I do not think I saw a single women tanning; instead they were all lounging in the safety of beach umbrellas.

Some youth style trends rebel against the traditional beauty ideal by darkening their skin to a rather alarming brown or orange.  However, from my observation, striving for that snow white skin tone is still the norm.

Skin whitening creams are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Japanese beauty products.  I have to say, the prevalence and variety of products aimed at improving or maintaining one’s appearance in Japan is truly astonishing.

I was once asked what the English word was for the product applied after toner, but before lotion.  I had no idea and had to admit that perhaps such a product does not really exist in America (to the astonishment of the women who asked me).

At any standard drug store or make-up store in Japan, you will find a plethora of toners, creams, lotions, masks, emulsions, serums and scrubs all with different purposes and to be applied in a specific order.  You can also find special face massagers to promote firmness and supplemental drinks and jellies to enhance one’s skin tone.

Of course, I am sure you could find many similar products in America, but what I think is different about Japan is that these products are not in specialty cosmetic shops frequented only by those particularly interested in beauty.  Instead, the whole range of products is the norm for even the most basic of drug stores and almost everyone uses, or at least has knowledge of, the vast array of products available.

The fascination with beauty also extends to hair styles.  Naturally, most Japanese have very similar hair: straight and black.  However, you might not see this on an average Japanese street because many people get elaborate perms and dye their hair a variety of colors ranging from reddish brown to bleach blond.

Dying your hair “blond” is especially popular among young people. However, I should mention that what is called blond in Japan would probably be considered a light brown in America.  I suppose from their reference point, light brown would be closer to blond that to the natural Japanese hair color.

Regardless of the terminology, there is no denying the prevalence of altered hair in Japan; sometimes it seems like there are more people with perms or dyed hair than with natural hair.  A Japanese friend once explained to me that because so many Japanese have such similar hair naturally, they change their hair to differentiate themselves.

Surprisingly, elaborate hair styles are seen as equally in men as in women.  Many young men maintain a delicate spikey, swoopy hair style that I can only describe as Manga Hair, because it resembles the hair styles in the popular manga comic books.  If you have ever watched Japanese anime or read manga, then you will have noticed that many of the male characters have a particular sort of dramatic hair style.

In fact, “Manga Hair” was actually inspired by comics and cartoons as opposed to the other way around.  It can be quite intriguing to watch a Japanese guy painstakingly arrange each strand of hair to achieve their perfect look.  Some of my non-Japanese male friends say they actually have a difficult time not getting “Manga Hair” when they go to the hair salon as many hairdressers assume that is what any young guy would want.

I think ideals of beauty are a part of culture that is often ignored in preference for seemingly more sophisticated aspects such as literature or art.  However, in some ways wandering down beauty aisles has shown me more about what the average Japanese man or women thinks about themselves and also what they would like to change about themselves.

If nothing else, it has changed some aspects of how I view my own appearance. I have always wished my pale white skin could tan to the desired golden brown instead of burning to a painful red, but after living in Japan I think I have finally come to accept that, hey, maybe it’s not so bad.

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