The unique practice of ohaguro is a very traditional dyeing process in Japan whereby teeth are dyed black. Of course, this practice has all but died out now, and nowadays people both in Japan and around the world wish for the whitest teeth they can get. Teeth whitening is a normal process and an increasingly popular one.
But in history, black dyed teeth have been something of a status symbol in Japan. Along with Japan, it was also a common practice in some other countries including the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, India, and China.
The process of dyeing is made possible with a mixture known in Japan as kanemizu. Kanemizu consists of iron filings, vinegar, tea, and rice wine. This potent mix created a blackening effect on the teeth.
However, although it was very effective as a dye, historical reports suggest that it smelled awful. What’s more, it only lasted a few days and did not stain teeth permanently, so people had to devote much time to the process!
— ポーラ文化研究所 (@POLA_bunken) October 4, 2017
Ohaguro has a long history which dates back to before the Heian Period (794-1185). Indeed, traces of dye on recovered bones and teeth have been discovered from the Kofun period (250-538). However, the widespread popularity of ohaguro can be seen towards the end of the Heian Period.
It was a particularly widespread practice among aristocrats during this era, especially young women who were ready to marry. The fashion at the time was for women to have white painted faces, and blackened teeth were thought to compliment this look well.
Another reason it became a new fashion is that teeth in those days were often very yellow. They also became more yellow due to a large amount of whitening of the face which took place at this time, and the process of ohaguro hid this. It was thought that by dyeing teeth black, someone could appear to have a big smile without needing to show their often crooked or yellowed teeth!
Of course, this illusion is more effective when viewed from afar. Besides covering up decaying and aging yellow teeth, ohaguro also made the teeth stronger and helped to prevent cavities and other nasty tooth and gum conditions. Other than the aristocrats, samurai also dyed their teeth black as proof of loyalty to their masters.
— 綾村 (@onitowani) September 4, 2017
After the Heian period, there were other times in Japanese history in which ohaguro was popular and widely practiced.
During the Muromachi period, ohaguro was popular among the adult population, and usually among people with money or some status. However, it was also common among daughters of military commanders. This was usually among girls of 8-10 years old to symbolize their coming of age, which was regarded as much younger than it would be today!
Another interesting use of ohaguro by some military commanders themselves, particularly if they had sustained injuries and facial deformities from battle. They would often wear women’s makeup and also dye their teeth black to cover up scars.
During the Edo period, which spanned the years from 1603-1868, ohaguro was also practiced but perhaps not quite as widely as before. In this time, women often dyed their teeth black when they were at the age of looking for a husband and marrying. It was also consistently popular among geisha, prostitutes, and married women.
It was also practiced by the top men in the aristocracy and men who had imperial links. However, during this time a general idea developed that the whole process was tiring, cumbersome, and rather old-fashioned now.
Particularly in rural Japan where villagers had busy lives and more pressing things to attend to, teeth blackening was only done on special festivals and occasions such as funerals and weddings. Ohaguro was also depicted in some of the stories and fairy tales of the time.
In 1870, and with the onset of the Meiji period and the time of modernization in Japan, the practice of ohaguro was actually banned by the government of the time. After the Meiji Restoration, it was again permitted, but it slowly died out as a normal practice.
Would you prefer to have yellow teeth or healthier black teeth? Thankfully, modern dentistry procedures mean that we do not have to resort to either one.
Today, ohaguro can only be seen in movies, plays, and some matsuri (traditional festivals). Some geisha will still dye their teeth for special events or occasions, so you could spot it if you head to a geisha district in Japan (but don’t count on it, though).
However, dyeing one’s teeth black can also be seen more widely in other parts of the world, such as certain tribes in India and Madagascar, where the practice still exists.
Realistically speaking, though, you are not likely to encounter anyone sporting a set of dyed teeth. In modern-day Japan, the closest thing to ohaguro is when people eat spaghetti with squid ink, and then laugh about the way their teeth look afterwards, stating that the look is like ohaguro:
Nevertheless, if you would like to see how actual ohaguro would look like in the 21st century, this woman will happily take you on a journey to different shops and restaurants while showcasing her beautifully dyed teeth.