I first came to Japan in 1991, when I spent two years working at a small, private language school. I spent two of my five days of work a week at the two branches in Machida and Hashimoto; the other three days I taught kindergarteners and primary school-age children at kindergartens in the area. Going to and from the kindergartens, I spent time with my Japanese partner teacher. Being new to Japan it was a great opportunity to ask questions about language and how to get things done. One evening, on our way home, I noticed my partner teacher inspecting her hands, and particularly the tiny hairs on the back of her fingers. As a joke I said, ‘You’ll have to do something about those hairs,’ and to my amazement she took my comment seriously, saying that she would shave them that evening.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Japanese beauty rituals.
It seems that in different parts of the world women have different concerns. In Europe, botox and fillers have been popular (and expensive) for years, and skincare products focus often on wrinkles, lines and the prevention of such horrors. I have read alarming stories about the lengths women in Africa will sometimes go to and what they are prepared to put on their skin to lighten their complexion, and even saw a report about it on BBC World this week (though remembering what I have made of their coverage of all matters Japanese I am not sure how much I should accept it as a generalised statement). For women in Japan, the issues are apparently; body and facial hair (removal and management of), keeping skin as pale as possible, and among younger Japanese women, eye shape.
In the twenty years or so since then I have learnt so much more, but I have to say I haven’t tried much. The various options fall into three basic categories; procedures, treatments and supplements.
So, procedures. Not the most satisfactory word but the best I can come up with. On the train several weeks ago, I was reading the adverts above the seats and noticed one aimed at high school seniors about to graduate high school (the school year finishes in March in Japan, and starts again in April). According to this advert, one of the most pressing concerns women university students have, one of the things that occupies their time and their money, is the removal of body hair. At the time, this seemed an amazing answer. When I think back to my years as a university student, I had a skincare routine, but my major concerns were keeping up with my studies (about fifty new Chinese characters every day, tests once a fortnight) and managing my limited money. Of course, the company which placed the advert had commissioned market research, asked questions in a particular way and packaged the results to appeal to a certain demographic. The focus of the advert was a special offer for new university students, a package to remove that annoying hair and therefore liberate them for a hair-free university life.
It’s not only the legs and underarms that need attention. My local barber’s shop has had a poster in the window for a long time now. The poster features the face of an elegant Japanese woman, probably in her twenties, and the words ‘ladies’ shaving’. I asked a colleague about this, and found that this is to remove the downy hair on the face and ears (ears!). In any supermarket or drugstore, you can find razors for shaving the fine hairs on the forearms. One of the popular treatments Japanese women have on their short getaways to South Korea is the removal of this fine facial hair using what sounds like dental floss rolled over the face. It sounds like threading, the traditional technique used in India to pluck eyebrows.
Treatments. By this I mean largely the creams and lotions women buy and use themselves, although there are plenty of places offering facials. A large part of the skincare market includes whitening products not usually available in Europe or North America. Away on a school trip accompanied by graduates, I have seen them (yes, in public) going through elaborate skincare routines requiring many different products and taking many careful minutes of application. Any shop whose clientele includes young women will probably have a vast array of one-off treatments, often face masks. A while ago, a friend at school mentioned that she had tried such a mask, and gave one to me. She had tried it, I believe, through curiosity, and offered it to me in the same spirit. I’m afraid I forgot about it but found it the other day and so, dear reader, I have tried it so I could report. This is the mask I tried:
If you can read Japanese you already know what this is, but if you can’t the photo alone may be alarming you while you think, no, surely not. But yes, it is indeed a ‘healing snail sheet mask’. It was made in South Korea, as a lot of these treatment masks are. The directions are to cleanse your face, apply the mask, wait fifteen to twenty minutes and then peel it off. My friend had told me that the mask feels fine as long as you don’t think SNAIL! Putting the mask on my face I found it cold and slightly slimy, but once it was on I felt a little claustrophobic and looked alarmingly Hannibal Lecter-like. Since I couldn’t put my glasses on I busied myself doing some laundry and other chores until the twenty minutes were up. It helped me to not think SNAIL! Once I had peeled it off I must say my skin felt soft and a little plumped up, but I have other skincare products that have the same effect, don’t make me look like a madwoman and don’t contain mashed up gastropod molluscs (or maybe they do . . .).
And so I come to supplements. On satellite TV (and maybe terrestrial TV, I don’t know, I don’t watch it) there are frequent extended adverts for different supplements, many aimed at women. The one that boggles my mind every time I see it (and there are plenty of different brands) is the one marketed as placenta. Yes, placenta. A Japanese friend pointed out ages ago that there is a Japanese work for placenta, but it isn’t used in this case, the word is always written in katakana, the alphabet used for words imported into Japanese from other languages. The main ingredient is usually explained as pig placenta. I saw this advert on TV a couple of days ago:
The information on the screen is detailing the benefits of taking the placenta supplement; collagen, amino acids, vitamins, minerals etc. What I found surprising about this particular advert, and something I had never seen before, was that earlier in the broadcast there had been a picture of a mother with a newborn, and the voiceover had explained clearly what ‘placenta’ was (though obviously the supplement uses animal rather than human placenta). There are many other supplements, of course; ones including black vinegar are touted as diet aids, there are special teas with the same effect, and others which, according to the graphics, appear to be glorified laxatives.
A word about the public behaviour of women, particularly in their late teens and twenties. As I mentioned earlier, I have seen extensive skincare rituals carried out in public places. I once watched a woman applying and re-applying coat upon coat of mascara on the train. Between each coat she took out a pair of eyelash curlers and gave her eyelashes a vicious curl. It was quite gruesome to see. There has been a poster on the subways, one of a series to encourage good etiquette and consideration for fellow passengers, making the point that these behaviours are better done in the privacy of your own home.
Finally, I can’t end without mentioning the fascination with eyelids and eye shape. There are words in Japanese for different kinds of eyelids; hitoe mabuta (一重まぶた) or single-edged eyelid and futae mabuta (二重まぶた) or double-edged eyelid. The former is an eyelid without a crease, and there is a cosmetic surgical procedure called Asian blepharoplasty which will transform such an eyelid into one with a visible crease. Should you be too young or feel disinclined to take such a drastic step, it is possible to buy special glue or tape to create a do-it-yourself version, though done with a heavy hand it can be obvious and a little disturbing.
I have lived in Japan for twenty years, but have very little first-hand experience of any of what I have written about. I had my hair straightened a few years ago and haven’t looked back. For that Japanese innovation, I am hugely grateful. For the rest, a lot of it is marketed to address Asian women’s concerns, and I am not Asian. However, I must say, I have an appointment on Monday for a manicure, pedicure and (I hope snail-free) facial and I can’t wait.