“Mirror, mirror on the wall who is the fairest of them all.” That’s the famous line in Disney’s animated series called Snow White. Indeed, the desire for beauty is reflected not only in high art but in popular culture as well. In Japan, beauty has been linked to a light skin tone. Hence, there is saying that “a fair complexion hides seven flaws.”
During the Nara period (710-794), women applied a white powder called oshiroi in their face. This white facial color continued to be the standard of beauty in Japan until the Heiain Period (794-1185). The obsession with having a light skin tone as the symbol of beauty has been documented in the Diary of Lady Murasaki and the Tale of Genji. Cosmetics for whitening the skin also became a symbol of nobility.
However, during the Edo Period (1603-1868), the culture of fair skin reached commoners as well. But, the look being sought after at that time was a natural one. Born was the term ukkiri (i.e. moist, naturally colored skin). A beauty manual entitled Miyako Fuzoku Kewaiden (A Handbook of Cosmetics in the Capital) was published in 1813 which became the beauty bible of the Japanese. This manual includes techniques for making the skin beautifully white such as facial cleansing, mud packs, herbal treatments for acne and so on.
Since the Edo period, Japanese women sought to have a translucent, polished stone tone as the standard for the natural-colored white. The pain to achieve such beauty standards has been documented with records showing how women spent a great amount of time putting on makeup and other cosmetics just to have what looked like natural-colored white skin.
In Japan, wearing makeup in the old days and up through today was and is still considered as good etiquette. Women were expected to wear their makeup from the early morning until late at night and even when they were in the bath. In the past, putting on makeup was an act that should not be seen by others, which is probably one of the reasons why many women are not seen putting on their makeup in public.