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Japanese beauty doesn’t come easily

by Donald Richie

BEAUTY UP: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics, by Laura Miller. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006, 256 pp., $21.95 (paper).

Beauty is big business. In Japan there are more people working in the beauty business than there are in wedding and funeral services, auto repair and software combined. Those beauty factories, the “aesthetic salons,” are so many and are growing so large that the governmental ministry involved is at present creating a separate industrial classification for them.

There is an obvious demand for such services. The tides of fashion depend upon them, as do the occasional tsunami of cosmetic enthusiasm. They float upon central contemporary concerns such as gendered identity and its relationship to new forms of consumer capitalism.

Japanese body aesthetics are thus a reflection of the relationship between appearance and self-esteem. As such it is a subject fit for anthropological investigation, and it just this that anthropologist Laura Miller brings.

Is the pursuit of beauty “a form of empowerment or [of] enslavement to media-delivered normalization”? Should it be “viewed as native, foreign-inspired, syncretic, or part of a shared transnational beauty system?” These are the questions asked in this scholarly, stimulating and entertaining study.

Zoning the body, Miller draws attention to how “a few focus on the breast as an aspect of female beauty as reflected in a lucrative industry for bust products and services.” This has now reached the point where nipple bleach is a highly salable product.

Its popularity seems based upon a native folk belief that the more sexually active a woman is, the darker her nipples become. Bleach eradicates this evidence. At the same time larger breasts, like those of foreigners, are marketed as sexually attractive.

This mixture of Japan-inspired and foreign-inspired reasoning is found so commonly that Miller several times warns the reader against assuming that any Western ideology is behind the whole thing. Very often the ideal is nativist.

One example is a dedicated preference since the Heian Period, among the upper classes, for whiter skin. Despite occasional tanning fads, this has maintained for a millennium. The continued need for the bihaku pale-skin look is attested by the enormous amount of whitening lotion up for sale.

Another example of native preference is the universal aversion to body hair. Women “who exhibit underarm hair are seriously resisting social norms,” and polls on female prime dislikes find that most offensive are men with hairy bodies. This aversion ranks well above other disadvantages such as “no muscles” and “small penises.”

This aversion is nothing new, having found a home in Japan centuries ago, particularly in relation to the “hairy barbarians.” Depilatories have long been a major sales item in Japan.

More room for foreign influence is seen in later products. As Miller says, conformity to current beauty ideals requires more extensive body modifications, and the areas of the body targeted for beauty work have expanded dramatically.

Now the demands of fashion and commerce have spread to cover everything from the decorated fingernail to the towering sandal. And not just outside of the body — the inside as well. The Takano Yuri Beauty Clinic sells something called “Etiquette Up,” which proposes to make your insides beautiful. This is accomplished by taking their medicine, which promises to eliminate feces odor. One Tokyo body-aesthetic salon named Grace reportedly “made more than $840,000 over a three-year period by giving unauthorized ‘hydro colon cleansing.’ “

Whether native Japanese or imported from abroad, these ideologies and techniques for achieving a socially sanctioned beauty are now, in this age of brand hegemony, potent money-makers. Explicating what they are and how they work is the aim of Miller’s study — one that leaves us wiser (if not more beautiful) than we were.