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Beauty’s more than skin deep

Chizu Saeki, Japan's foremost skincare guru, talks about her life and her passion for beauty

by Tomoko Otake

S kincare guru Chizu Saeki’s expertise is such that her abilities have been compared to those of a fortuneteller. She can, for example, determine people’s physical and mental health condition, the key experiences that have influenced them, and even their outlook on life, merely by running her fingers over their faces. Also, she has often surprised people by being able to tell them the types of skincare products they use — sometimes down to the brand.

Now just 65 years young, Saeki attributes her deep understanding of skincare to a 30-year career in the beauty industry — including stints as a beauty consultant at French cosmetics-maker Guerlain and as an international training manager at Parfums Christian Dior. But she says that what has really shaped her fundamental values on beauty and skincare has been her eventful, turbulent life.

Growing up in a dysfunctional, fatherless family in a farming village in Koga, Shiga Prefecture, she spent most of her childhood in the care of her grandparents, who raised her with affection and taught her the importance of valuing nature. Then, while living with an aunt who ran a small restaurant in Osaka, she realized that women working in such a world could barely make a living. Instead, she found they often relied on male customers, married or not, for money — as she candidly recounts in detail in her 2007 memoir, “Hitori Namida no Hosoku Yume Oi no Hosoku (The Law of Crying Alone; The Law of Pursuing Dreams).”

To avoid falling into the same traps as her aunt, Saeki — who had already marveled at the beauty and poise of film star Audrey Hepburn — decided to acquire practical skills through which she could live independently well clear of that world inhabited by her aunt. To that end, she earned a beautician’s license and began working at a top Tokyo beauty salon.

However, after she met Arinori, a planetarium-equipment engineer, Saeki retired temporarily to be with the man of her dreams, who was so unlike her dad or any of the gambling, boozing and whoring men she had grown sick of seeing at her aunt’s place.

But then in 1984, 15 years after they married, the couple’s happy life was shattered when Arinori was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Despite Saeki’s devoted care, Arinori died and her life fell apart. Saeki says she spent the next year just bawling, refusing to eat and locking herself up in the couple’s home in Osaka.

What shook her out of her slump, she says, was a friend who visited her and offered more than kind words — telling her how awful she looked and how that wouldn’t save her husband’s soul.

Shaken by this blunt dose of reality, Saeki says she determined there and then to get back on her feet. The first thing she did was try to restore her face. By this time, her skin had sagged and become wrinkled, and black bags had formed under her eyes. To address this, she used the skincare routines she’d taught others for years, and tried to keep her head full of beautiful feelings as well. Consequently, that became a turning point in her life, she says, noting that, along the way, she became convinced that skincare begins and ends with willpower.

Today, Japan’s most renowned beauty adviser lives a busy and highly energetic life, lecturing around the country and appearing on television to give advice not only on skincare, but also on how to stay positive in times of adversity.

In addition, since her first book was published five years ago, Saeki has written more than 30 others covering skincare and self-help — and also her memoirs. All of them have been best-sellers. Most recently, in November, she published her first book in English, titled, “The Japanese Skincare Revolution,” which is full of easy-to-do, hands-on advice about the techniques now dubbed “Saeki-style” routines.

Saeki — with her spotless, porcelain skin radiating beauty and health — recently sat down to share with JT readers her skincare passion, her views on Japanese women and much more. The interview took place at her aesthetic salon in Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza district, where she also teaches Japan’s future skincare leaders how to make women more beautiful — outside and in.

I understand that you first became interested in beauty because of Audrey Hepburn.

Yes. I decided to pursue kirei (beauty) when I was a first-year student at my junior high school and I saw a still photo of Audrey Hepburn playing Princess Ann (in the 1953 film “Roman Holiday,” which was a huge hit in Japan). Up until then I was like a boy, running around and playing dodge-ball and softball under the scorching sun. When I saw that photo of her, I was shocked to realize that such an elegant and beautiful woman existed in the world. My mother had worked in the rice paddies, so she was tanned and had lots of blemishes and freckles on her face. I hated that about my mother. And also, I was pretty much raised by my grandparents, so I longed to be around ideal mothers. For instance, my first-grade teacher was such an attractive woman — her voice was so gentle, her demeanor so elegant, and she dressed smartly in suits.

Was that when you were living in Koga with your grandparents?

Yes. I wished she had been my mother. And when I saw the picture of Audrey Hepburn, I stopped playing outdoors and switched to a table-tennis club. And I started watching movies. Back then only samurai movies came to my area, but I was very attracted to the ones featuring princesses. That’s how I got interested in beautiful things. I was also influenced by my grandparents, who taught me how to respect others. They urged me to see, eat and listen to things that are good. My grandmother also taught me how to find beauty in things that are not new. If your clothes are old and have holes, they can still look neat if the holes are patched up. So she taught me how to be thankful for what I have and not to waste things.

So is it true to say that all that helped to shape who you are today?

Exactly. Plus, my grandfather was full of appreciation for nature. At the end of each day, he would thank his own hands for enabling him to do so much work, saying, “Thanks to you hands, we can eat well today.” Then he would raise his feet and pray to them, saying, “Thank you for letting me travel on you so far today.” He also dried wisteria branches and bamboo he’d gathered in the mountains and made baskets from them at night. He told me that we owe nature for our lives, that we get things from nature to live, and so we shouldn’t waste them. He taught me to say itadakimasu (a phrase used to express gratitude before a meal, which literally means “I’m going to eat”) with a true sense of understanding that you are indeed taking the lives of plants and animals for your own.

I didn’t receive the love of my parents, but all that my grandparents taught me is such an important asset for me. My grandmother was also attentive about her appearance. While she did not wear makeup, she took care of her hair with tsubaki (camellia) oil extract and applied rice bran on her face every morning.

I understand that you were also influenced by the way the waitresses at your aunt’s restaurant transformed themselves before starting work.

Yes. My aunt ran a Japanese restaurant in Sonezaki, Osaka, and I used to see those regular obasan (middle-aged women) washing in a public bathhouse, then wearing makeup and kimono and — surprise! — they transformed into different women! I marveled at them, thinking, “This is how you turn into a woman.” Women can change so much through their hair and makeup, and with what they wear. That’s how I became interested in the art of making people beautiful, and I decided to go to a beauty school.

I believe that when you were in high school you were interested in becoming a

maiko (apprentice geisha). Why was that?

I just found them so pretty, with their white skin and lovely clothes. Maiko represent a woman’s beauty at its peak, don’t they? They are finished when they turn 18, but I thought they represented beauty and that’s why I wanted to become one of them. It wasn’t the job that attracted me. Another time, I found my physical education teacher so attractive that I wanted to become a PE teacher myself, too. (giggles)

So you were constantly attracted by the concept of beauty.

Yes, and I didn’t have the slightest interest in love in real life.

Really?

Yes. Other girls my age fancied male teachers in school or were going out with so-and-so, but because I was a movie fanatic, I fell in love with men in the movies. I also loved the male roles (played by women) in the Takarazuka musical revue. It’s all because of all the bad men I had seen at my aunt’s bar-restaurant. I saw how men got drunk, smoked and behaved badly at these establishments. Plus, my father was one of those types who did all that nomu (drinking), utsu (gambling) and kau (buying women) stuff. So I thought all men were the same.

Despite your difficult upbringing, you never became a delinquent. Why do you think that was?

I was too busy watching movies! I didn’t like the science-fiction stuff, though, which is unromantic. I liked the type of natural, refreshing love portrayed by Hepburn. I also had a strong desire to get married. I had dreamed of having a perfect family life, with a man who didn’t drink, gamble or buy women. Preferably older and gentle. I wasn’t interested in men with “three highs,” who are sought by today’s young women (meaning that the ideal man to marry is tall, highly educated and a high-earner). I just wanted to marry a man I could have a good family life with and could do things for.

Were you happy in your life with your husband, Arinori?

Yes. My husband also lost his father while he was in high school, so he had yearnings for a warm family as well. We had a great time together.

People nowadays are like, “Please do this and do that for me.” I was the exact opposite. I wanted to give, to do things for him. People who grow up in a happy family wouldn’t feel that way. But I was made to feel small in my mother’s hometown (with my mother having had a marriage breakdown), and I grew up never knowing what it was like to have an apron-clad mother cooking meals for the family or waving to your father saying, “Have a nice day.” So I wanted to do everything for my husband.

But then you lost your husband to cancer, didn’t you?

That’s right. It was so sudden. He showed no signs (of cancer before his diagnosis). I thought, “Why my husband?”

What shocked me about that time was, as you described in a memoir, that you were so grief-stricken that you ate his ashes.

That was because I wanted to put him in my body. Then my mother told me, “You silly thing. The ashes you eat go down and out of your body after all, as poop. Do you want to lose them all?” That’s when I stopped doing that.

This might sound elementary, but why is it so important to have a beautiful skin?

The art of beauty is all about strength of mind. When people realize how beautiful their skin is, their minds change completely. They have different smiles. In fact, your attitude completely changes when you realize how beautiful you are. Your choice of clothes changes, and you feel confident and energized about your abilities to do different things. It gives you a chance to take a second look at yourself.

When I give counseling to people, I don’t ask about their skin; I ask about their life. Everything going on inside you comes out on your skin. If you don’t eat properly, there is no way you will have beautiful skin.

The reason my skin was so damaged back then (after my husband’s death) was because I didn’t eat or drink water or sleep. I improved the condition of my skin gradually by eating little by little and using a “lotion pack” [see photos].

When I was depressed, a friend of mine told me, “Your husband understood your desire to make people beautiful, and that’s why he allowed you to work, right? If he saw your skin now, he wouldn’t be able to rest in peace.” That’s when I realized that, for my husband to enter heaven, I must make myself beautiful again.

That’s why I believe that the art of beauty is the art of having a strong mind. That’s why I say, it’s not which cosmetics you use that matters, it’s how you use them.

For your skin to change, you have to feel the changes in your skin condition yourself, like: “Oh, it’s getting better”; “It’s becoming lifted”; “It’s getting brighter”; or “It’s softer.” I practiced that, and after I felt confident about my skin condition, I got back to work at age 45.

How long did it take for you to feel the changes?

I saw some results in a week. Human skin is renewed every 28 to 30 days, and your blood gets replaced in three months. So I realized stronger results in three months, and felt motivated to continue for another three months — then another three months.

I can give advice now with confidence because it’s based on what I myself have experienced.

Looking at your face now, it’s unbelievable that you used to have horrible skin.

Everyone has the seeds of beauty, even though you can’t change your features. Everyone can have great, smooth skin. It all depends on how you take care of it. So I just wonder why so many people neglect their ability to make themselves beautiful, instead relying on cosmetics to work wonders for them — and when that’s not enough, they might go under the knife (of a cosmetic surgeon).

So you are against the antiaging movement?

Exactly. Antiaging sounds negative. I advocate “beauty aging.” What’s the point of denying the life you have lived? The desire to become beautiful does not just apply to your face. It’s about your hair and your thoughts. For me, “beauty aging” is about feeling positive about your life.

But you know, I’m not anticosmetics, either. After all, cosmetics are about selling dreams. Whether something is priced at ¥100, ¥1,000 or ¥10,000, as long you apply it with the hope of becoming more beautiful, it’s a cosmetic. The price doesn’t matter. To someone who complains that their cosmetics don’t work, I say, “It’s because you are not putting your mind to it.” I also don’t produce my own line of cosmetics, because I want to be free to tell people that how you use cosmetics makes such a big difference (and it’s not just the cosmetics themselves that will do the trick).

It is a unique selling point of yours, I think, that you don’t sell cosmetics.

I’ve never been really interested in whether I succeeded or not. I just wanted to help make ordinary people beautiful. Of course, I have absolute confidence in being able to sell cosmetics well, as I have spent years training people to do that. And certainly, creating a cosmetics line would be more profitable, but what I wanted to do was not business. And what I’m doing now here (in Ginza) is not profitable at all.

Is that really true?

I’m barely breaking even here at my Dore jMa Beaute salon (www.chizu-corporation. com/salon/index.shtml). There is no other aesthetic salon that doesn’t sell stuff! Most of them sell expensive books of tickets (for a series of sessions), use machines and cram more rooms into their space — not like here. We only have five rooms, and no machines. But I created this salon to realize the dreams of women to enhance their beauty. I have huge debts. I’m doing this only to make this (idea about beauty) understood.

Yesterday, I saw a newspaper article that said many career women these days use a cosmetic product that costs ¥100,000, and that the price makes them proud of their social status — and that makes them happy and beautiful. That makes me realize how my message is not being heard enough.

Young people don’t need expensive cosmetics. When I was working at cosmetics companies, I told people who didn’t need such products the truth. I told them, “Since you are young, you should let your body make you beautiful from within.”

Many people ask me why I make my techniques public in such detail. . . . But techniques change with time. There is no point in keeping old knowhow a secret. More and more products that have adjusted to modern lifestyles are becoming available, so the job of beauty advisers is let people know how to incorporate these new types of products into their daily skincare routines.

The environment is changing rapidly, with the ozone layer being destroyed, and some people are deliberately tanning their skins. Many other people have very high-calorie diets. So we must offer advice that takes such changes into account.

What is your opinion of Japanese women in general?

Young people are dependent on others. They rely on what others say and what TV commercials promote when deciding what cosmetics to use. And it’s true, Japanese women are now more beautiful, because their makeup techniques have improved. Look at all those makeup products out there! But if you ask me, I think their skin is getting worse. Foreigners used to admire Japanese women’s porcelain skin. But now, so many women here drink alcohol and smoke . . . then turn to high-end skincare products.

So do you think Japanese women used to have better skin in the past?

Absolutely. They didn’t go out of control like women today do. Today’s women start wearing makeup, plucking their eyebrows and dying their hair while they are still in their teens! Where did their youth go?

What about their attitude to life? You are on record as saying that today’s women are not independent enough.

Yeah. They have no idea what they want to become. I tell them, “If you don’t know what to do with your life, how can anyone give you advice? Would you become an athletic swimmer if I told you to do so, then?” I don’t like halfhearted approaches to marriages, either. They should have a clear vision of what kind of person they want to marry, and what kind of family life they want to have with a man. That’s why I’m opposed to dekichatta kekkon (shotgun weddings). That’s why they end up saying, “My life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.”

The same goes for women’s attitudes to work. If they have a clear vision of what kind of work they want to do, they can be more creative. But if you are just idly working, you end up feeling, “Why am I stuck with menial jobs such as making photocopies of documents and serving tea?” But they are being paid for that! If your job is to serve tea, why don’t you do your best at that? Try to adjust your tea to the taste of each person you’re serving — like this person prefers it really hot, or that person likes it not too strong, with the cup full or not so full. If you start serving excellent tea, people in the office might start asking you to do other kinds of work.

So my advice is, why don’t you try to be creative about whatever job you have now, instead of just complaining? Even with the work of making copies, you can be creative, by attaching clips in different colors to make documents easier to sort out, or you can attach memos to them. Then your managers would notice how attentive you are and start giving you other work. I say, “What you are doing is labor, not work.” Women tend to complain a lot, instead of making suggestions.

Do men need skin care, too?

They certainly do. Beauty for men is different from what many men, including professional baseball players, are doing now, like dying their hair or plucking their eyebrows. It’s about looking clean, neat and manly. Men with kareishu (body odor that is said to become stronger with age) are not beautiful. There are so many things you can do to deal with kareishu.

But do they really need to work toward having beautiful skin?

Of course! Many men have a beard, and that’s fine, but instead of just letting it grow, they should take care of it so they can make themselves look neat. Naturally, men with a clean look will be given important work. I don’t think anybody would feel like giving work to anyone who looks like a bum. I think looking clean is part of the job for men — and it shows in the manner they eat and drink, too.

Is there anyone you admire among beauty experts overseas?

Well, I’ve worked quite a lot with beauty experts in France, and they share the same fundamental mission as me — to make people more beautiful. They take great pride in their work, and instead of making customers blindly buy products, they try to give counseling first. Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and Madame Estee Lauder are people in the United States who created cosmetic products because they strongly wanted women to become more beautiful. And then French haute couture started making cosmetics, with an emphasis on fragrance. So there are two currents of cosmetics products: The American makers developed themselves through marketing, selling dreams that women can be beautiful; the European approach is based more on the study of physiology. Such philosophies show in their product lineups and in their intended ways of use.

What message do you want to give to English speakers now that you have published a book in English? Do you think the Saeki method will appeal to foreigners?

Up until now, in the United States, for example, people have relied on others to condition their skin. But I hope people there will understand the power of the lotion pack, even though the size of cotton-wool sheets available overseas might be limited. (Saeki’s lotion pack works better with larger-size sheets). I think foreigners understand and appreciate whatever makes sense.

The other day, you were on TV fielding inquiries from a mother agonizing over her son, who had become hikikomori

(withdrawn from society). Your advice was: “You must change yourself before changing your son.” Are you often asked for advice about people’s lives?

Yes. Almost all of the inquiries I get from customers on beauty are in fact related to the kind of lives they have led. When I listen to a woman with menopausal difficulties, I can tell what kind of worries she has in her life.

So I felt strongly (during my TV appearance) that it was the mother who had been causing the son’s condition. You can’t change people, but you can change yourself. That’s the easiest thing to do, because you really can’t change others.

If you could pick anyone to give a beauty treatment to, who would it be?

I became a freelance beauty adviser because I’d rather make ordinary women beautiful, not actresses or TV celebrities. At my salon here, I don’t treat those high-profile people any differently from other customers.

So my answer is: “Anyone who has a wish to become beautiful.” And I have the confidence to do that. My dream is to make ordinary women throughout Japan beautiful.