The Japanese woman’s obsession for the white complexion: The ‘Whitening’ Cosmetics Boom and the Japanese identity

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Mikiko Ashikari,

Discussion Paper for Social Anthropology Research Associates Seminar

The Japanese woman’s obsession for the white complexion:

The ‘Whitening’ Cosmetics Boom and the Japanese identity

One day in May, which is the month when most Japanese women start to worry about getting a tan as the sunlight becomes stronger by the day, I found a short article in one of the most influential Japanese newspapers concerning a change in Japanese women’s facial skin colour. The article reports that the average tone of Japanese women’s facial skin colour has become 10% whiter over the last decade, according to research conducted by Shiseido. This may puzzle most non-Japanese people: How could the facial skin coulour become whiter? Why and how is women’s facial coulour measured? Why is women’s facial skin colour a big deal in Japan?

The below is an excerpt from my paper published in Journal of Material Culture (2005): its abstract, introduction and conclusion. I would be happy to circulate the full paper to those interested. I intend to develop this topic and put together a book. Your questions and comments will be highly appreciated



This paper examines the strong preference for light complexions observed among Japanese women. Since the late 1980s, consumption of ‘whitening’ cosmetics has remained at consistently high levels, and a ‘white' complexion has been considered trendy and desirable in contemporary Japan. This social phenomenon should not be understood simply either as a reflection of admiration for the West, or as an expression of traditional values of female beauty in Japan. Rather, the skin tones of Japanese people are recognized and expressed as a dichotomy of ‘white’ and ‘black’, which is linked to a further dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Through this link, the white skin becomes a symbolic physical characteristic for identifying the Japanese people. Although the white skin can be interpreted in many different ways, both good and bad, in everyday life, other meanings are often subjugated to the white skin as a symbol of Japaneseness. This paper argues that the meaning of a symbol is not simply produced or reproduced but represented and authorized through the body decoration in public.


The sensation of whiteness (shiro) on your skin (Helena Rubinstein)

The best shortcut to whiteness (Givenchy)

Let’s cultivate whiteness, every day (Clinique)

What I have touched is a drop of white science (Yves Saint-Laurent)

Double action, for the skin of the future which goes beyond whiteness (Dior)

Clarins has discovered the white skin (Clarins)

A new experience of whiteness (Carita)

(Advertisements for whitening cosmetics: translation and emphasis by the author)
Advertisements for various cosmetics for face-whitening appear everywhere in Japan, not only in women’s magazines, but also in TV commercials or on posters in the train or in the street, and even in the national daily papers. The value of the face-whitening market for 1997 was estimated at one hundred and sixty billion yen (about 800 million pounds when 1 pound is worth 200 yen) (Nihonkeizai-shinbun 1998). Japanese women make enormous efforts to make their skin look lighter, staying in the shade when outside to avoid tanning, and using expensive face-whitening cosmetics. Furthermore, the majority of Japanese women wear foundation which makes their faces look whiter than they really are, whenever they go to public places, both in the daytime and in the evening. The face-whitening practice of Japanese women is a widely observed social phenomenon in present-day Japan.

There are many studies which focus on the decoration of the face and the body; they show that human beings, both men and women, have decorated their faces and bodies for various reasons: social, aesthetic, and symbolic (e.g. Blacking 1977; Brain 1979; Cordwell & Schwarz 1979). However, many of them see body decoration merely as a symbol or form of art to be read or interpreted. Alfred Gell points out that many anthropologists have been trapped by the “Western idea” that the skin is not important: “the skin is on the outside of the body  what is outside is always less important/ true/ real than what is inside  hence the skin cannot tell us about the real person” (Gell 1993: 24). Marilyn Strathern’s “The Self in Self-Decoration” (1979) and Terence S. Turner’s essay “The Social Skin” (1980) were among the first studies to focus on body decoration as a symbolic medium which constructs the individual as social actor or cultural subject in a community. Turner, who examines body decoration among the Amazonian Kayapo, argues that the skin as locus of body decoration separates the domains lying on either side of it. He concludes: “The skin (and hair) are the concrete boundary between the self and the other, the individual and society (1980: 139).” Strathern (1979) shows that the decorated bodies of New Guinea Highlanders are a medium that allows them to express their ‘true’ selves. Strathern sees the skin with its decoration as a boundary onto which to project the ‘inner’ self. What both Turner and Strathern make clear, through the idea of body decoration as a boundary of the ‘inner’ self, is that individuals can communicate with other members of the community by using body decoration. Through the representation of the ‘inner’ self through body decoration, the individuals try to situate themselves in their proper positions in their community or in their world.

Body decoration as a means of communication has been the focus of several recent anthropological studies of clothing in various societies (e.g. Abu-Lughod 1986: 159-167; Barnes and Eicher 1992; Eicher 1995; Hendry 1993b: 70-97; Macleod 1991). Barnes and Eicher point out that through body decoration, people communicate about their gender and ethnicity (1992; 1995). Barnes and Eicher, in their introduction to the selection of studies in Dress and Gender (1992), argue that clothing, in which they include the “direct modification of the body” (ibid.: 13), is a sensory system of non-verbal communication which includes and excludes (see also Eicher 1995). The studies that emphasize the function of body decoration as a means of communication reveal the ironical position of the symbol in the study of body decoration. These studies suggest that body decoration should not be understood simply as a static symbol to be read. They claim that body decoration serves at the same time as “a sign that the individual belongs to a certain group” (Barnes and Eicher 1992: 1), and that it is only through this symbolic representation of meaning that body decoration can work as a vocabulary for communication. It is here that body decoration as a symbol reappears as central, but in a different context, because the theoretical issues which frame the ways in which we can ‘decode’ the symbol have shifted. My study of women’s white faces shows that what body decoration symbolizes in a community, and how and in what context it is used as a means of communication in everyday life, are not independent issues; on the contrary, they heavily depend on and interact with each other (see Ashikari 2003a). The power of a symbol cannot be attributed simply to its origin, but relies largely on how the symbol is remembered by the people in a particular society.

Hiroshi Wagatsuma, a Japanese anthropologist who studied in the US, was probably the first to conduct anthropological research on skin colour in Japan. In his English article of 1967, he argued that a dichotomy observed in 1960s Japan, “white/beautiful versus black/ugly”, should be attributed to Japanese aesthetic values. And the preference for whiteness should be rooted in the Japanese people’s own history, rather than their Westernised ideas about race (Wagatsuma 1967: 407). Indeed many of my own informants also insisted that their preference for white skin had nothing to do with any notion of “race (jinshu)”, but was simply a matter of beauty. Nevertheless, as my fieldwork research progressed, it emerged that a notion of the “Japanese skin (nihonjin no hada)” existed among middle-class people. That is, my informants believed that the Japanese as a race share the same skin tone, and the notion of Japanese skin works as one medium to express and represent Japaneseness. A lot of recent studies suggest that Japanese identity is largely based on a sense of racial identity (see Weiner 1997; Siddle 1997; Kondo 1997; Yoshino 1992: 1997; Oguma 1995). Most studies conclude thus, by examining either historical documents or racial images distributed by the mass media in contemporary Japan. One essential problem here is that the idea of human agency is missing from their accounts. By contrast, a main focus of this paper is to clarify how Japaneseness and racial identity are linked in the everyday life of the individual.

This article is based on fieldwork which was undertaken in Osaka and Kobe between September 1996 and July 1997. The fieldwork research consisted of participant observation in several settings, life histories of women, unstructured interviews with women and men and structured interviews with representatives of cosmetic companies. I also conducted two kinds of quantitative research. One was the street observation of women. I stood for a half-hour at several places in the cities and counted the number of women who wore white make up. The other was a questionnaire survey. The survey was carried out among 134 women from both the Kansai (Osaka, Kobe) area and the Tokyo area. The subjects of my fieldwork consisted of so-called urban middle-class men and women. In Japan, as elsewhere, it is very difficult to describe exactly who constitutes the middle-class. The character and viability of the ‘middle class’ have been discussed in many social theories of modern societies, but the limits of this class or its size always remain ambiguous. Furthermore, since Bourdieu (1984) showed that class can be determined by taste, the definition has become vaguer than ever. I limited my male informants to sararman (salary man; a male white-collar worker) with a university degree and female informants to women who were married to – or expecting to marry - such sararman. The age of informants ranged from 21 to 47. The topic of my research was quite sensitive, and therefore I did not ask my informants any direct questions about skin colour. Instead I became involved in several groups, and then simply waited until topics relating to skin-tone, make-up styles or appearance in general came up. The ways in which these middle-class people talked about the skin colour of the Japanese reveal that there is a racial element in their notion of the Japanese; middle-class Japanese people, who usually insist they do not have any racist problems within Japan, actually construct their identities as Japanese in relation to their racial identity as pure Japanese. In this article, I will show that the preference for white skin, which is linked to a massive consumer culture, appears to be a matter of both beauty and race. And I argue that although the white skin can be interpreted in many different ways in contemporary Japan, a particular meaning of white skin becomes formal and dominant when it is represented in relation with Japaneseness.


Japanese whitening cosmetics do not include bleach, unlike whitening products sold in south Asian countries and elsewhere (International Herald Tribune 1998). None of my informants believed that whitening cosmetics could have a dramatic effect on the ‘whitening’ their skin. As far as their motivation for using whitening cosmetics was concerned, women explained that they wanted to “protect” their white skin or that they wanted to recover their “innate” white skin tone. What is crucial is that my informants did not see the practice of face-whitening as an attempt to change their skin tone, from dark or yellow to white. Through presenting the white faces which all Japanese imagine that they originally have, the women want to present the ideal Japanese beauty.

When the white face is presented in relation to Japaneseness, tradition and the ideal image of Japanese women, the meaning of women’s white faces as a symbol of us/Japanese is represented and authorised in public. The gendered phenomenon of preference for the white complexion among women cannot be devalued as just a beauty issue. Through the use of super high-tech whitening cosmetics, Japanese women are cultivating a Japanese form of whiteness which is based on the Japanese identity as a race, and, therefore, very different from - and even “superior” to - Western whiteness.

The history of the sales of whitening cosmetics can be traced back to the Edo period (1600-1868). Some sorts of whitening cosmetics, both handmade organic products and commercial products, were continuously produced and sold in Japan even before the whitening cosmetics boom started in the late 1980s. But the market used to be rather small; dark-skinned Japanese women used them in the hope of whitening and beautifying their faces. More recently there has been an enormous increase in the use of whitening cosmetics nationwide. Now both fair- and dark-skinned women use whitening cosmetics in order to display the Japanese white face. The massive consumer activity with an annual turnover of some 800 million pounds have transformed practice of face-whitening from a trivial, woman’s matter to a public concern, celebrating the white face as a symbol of beauty, especially of Japanese beauty. Throughout the boom, the meaning of the white face as a symbol of Japaneseness and of beauty has become a public and dominant one among the multiple meanings and the various interpretations of the white face. The meaning of white skin is not simply produced or reproduced through the practice of face-whitening but is represented and authorised in public.

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