Black, White and Red: The 3 Colors of Beauty in Japan

  • Today, makeup is considered as a vital component in the aspect of grooming. Many women and some men painstakingly take the time and effort to apply makeup daily, in the name of beauty. In Japan, the beauty of the country’s prominent classic entertainers such as the maikos (geisha in training), geishas, and kabuki actors is expressed in three basic palettes: black, white and red. Before the Meiji era (1868-1912), these three colors were the only colors used in makeup and are also associated with a particular function in society.

    Black: Coming of Age

    Perhaps one of the most eye-catching in the history of makeup, and definitely one of the most important colors in the expression of aesthetics and majesty, is the color black. This palette is associated with the coming of age, and the practice of ‘ohaguro’ and ‘hikimayu’ before the Meiji Era. Ohaguro is the custom of dying teeth black by blending fushiko powder and acetic acid with iron and applying it to the teeth. It is also said to protect teeth from cavities and periodontitis.

    Hikimayu, on the other hand, is the plucking of eyebrows and shaping it into a crescent using black ink. Middle-class women practiced both ohaguro and hikimayu after marriage during the Nara and Heian periods, until the Edo Period. This custom is a reflection of the belief that using makeup is a virtue of modesty, and a woman observing proper decorum. While the practice of ohaguro has been banned among the nobility since 1870, many Japanese people in other classes continued the practice until the Showa era (1926-1989).

    Red: The Color of Nobility

    According to the book “Edo 300-nen no josei-bi” (300 years of Edo period female beauty), the color red is associated with nobility and aristocracy. Because only very little amounts of rouge color could be extracted from red flowers, only women of high stature could afford to use this shade. The rank of a geisha can also be identified just by looking at the color of her lips. Compared to a maiko, who can only have her lower lip filled with color, a full-fledged geisha can have her lips fully colored in red, with the intention to create the illusion of a flower bud.

    Maikos, on the other hand, add red color around their eyes to show their youthful status. As time goes by, there seems to be a growing trend that copies the eye-catching styles of kabuki actors and courtesans. Recently, some women have started using rouge and lipstick to accentuate their ears and the outer corners of their eyes.

    White: Hiding Your Flaws

    “A fair skin hides seven flaws.” That is according to an old saying in Japan, which is also believed to be the flagship of beauty. During the Edo period, face powder was one of the essential cosmetics in Japan because it whitens the skin. The white foundation has a masking effect and it completely covered the face, except for the hair and the nape of the neck.

    The unmasked part of the nape of the neck which forms a traditional W shape is considered as alluring. It was not until it was discovered that the powder used contains toxic substances, that the main ingredient of the white foundation was replaced with rice powder. While some young Japanese are drawn to other trends, such ‘ganguro’ (meaning ‘black face’), many still want to have a porcelain-like skin. In fact, it has always been considered desirable to have beautifully white skin in Japan.

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