It’s a traditional lip paint made from 1 percent beauty painstakingly polished to an iridescent shine.
“Beni,” as lipstick is known in Japan, is also the name of a luxurious shade of red derived from the “benibana” (safflower) pigment that has been favored by Japanese women for centuries. Although the art of producing the alluring lip paint has nearly died out, a handful of people are now making efforts to revive it.
References to beni, which is purchased in small decorative bowls and applied to the lips with a brush, date back to before the Heian Period (794-1185), when it was a luxury item. It gradually spread to the masses in the late Edo Period (1603-1867).
Although commonly referred to as “Komachi beni,” after the woman in a popular love story, it began to fade at the start of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when imported dyes spread throughout Japan. Since beni was also used to make dye, many producers struggled to compete with the cheaper imports.
Beni finally became obsolete after the war, when a boom in Western-style clothing and lipstick swept the nation. But this traditional piece of Japanese culture has not been lost yet.
Isehan Honten Co. has been making beni in the traditional way since 1825 and is the only surviving Edo Period producer in the country.
Established in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district, Isehan Honten, now located in Chiyoda Ward, is trying to revive the traditional cosmetic with the help of modern business techniques and traditional lacquerware knowhow.
“We feel that we need to get some activities going. Otherwise, traditional beni culture will go extinct,” said Sayaka Kanaji, who works in the promotions department. There are only two craftsmen left who can produce beni in the traditional method, she said.
Beni is obtained from the yellow-orange benibana flower, which contains a pigment that is 99 percent yellow. The remaining 1 percent is the special red pigment that is beni.
Although Isehan Honten has been selling beni, it never did much promotion. But in 2005, it took a different tack and promoted beni culture, releasing Komachi Beni in four different cups priced at about ¥12,000 each.
The company also set up a beni museum in the trendy shopping district of Omotesando in September 2006 that has a salon where customers can try out the products.
“When we say protecting the traditional culture, it does not really mean we create a museum and just show off our products there,” Kanaji said. “To help this kind of culture grow roots and stay alive, we think it’s important that it be accepted by the customers and actually gets used.”
Komachi Beni comes in small, thin cups called “ochoko” that are lined on the inside with layers and layers of beni.
One Komachi Beni, which can be used roughly 40 to 60 times, takes about 2,000 safflowers to make. Although the color of beni is red, what sets it apart from regular lipstick is its iridescent quality. According to Isehan Honten, good quality beni produces that iridescence when dried.
Once moistened with a brush or a finger, this iridescence turns red, and the color’s strength changes depending on the amount of water used or the number of times it is applied to the lips.
“When people hear that it’s a lipstick from the Edo Period, many would think of a really strong color of red,” said Kanaji. “But they change that image when they actually try it on.”
She also said the texture of beni is quite different compared with Western lipstick.
While regular lipstick often consists of oil-based ingredients with a greasy feeling, Komachi beni is light on the lips.
“It feels like you are dyeing your lips,” instead of laying it on, Kanaji said.
She said beni products are most popular with women in their 40s and 50s, but she also hears that younger women are starting to use it regularly.
Another project the company has been engaged in since April 2007 involves lacquer artisans from Kanazawa and Wajima in Ishikawa Prefecture working to revive “itabeni,” the small decorative palates used to carry beni around in the Edo Period.
Although itabeni, which are about 5 cm long, also became obsolete, 54 have been created by 28 lacquer artisans, whose creativity is well-reflected in the pieces.
The process wasn’t easy to duplicate because no one knew how to make them and there were no instructions.
One of the artisans, Kimiyoshi Hirasawa, who usually crafts patterns for traditional lacquerware using elaborate hemp cloth and lacquering techniques, said making itabeni was especially difficult because they are so thin.
Hirasawa’s piece, Kazakiribane, which is shaped like a feather, won the top prize at a contest held by Isehan Honten.
Hirasawa said the delicate piece is just 0.5 mm thin.
“I can’t really think of anything that thin among the lacquer artifacts I work on,” he said, adding that it involved many attempts over several months to make.
But he said making itabeni was a good experience and he learned from it.
He also said the culture of beni and lacquerware is actually similar, offering more hope for preserving the craft.
“Beni itself has such a charm . . . and I think lacquer artifacts are very beautiful,” he said. “I think it will get even better when the two are fused together.”
The Beni Museum is displaying itabeni works until Sunday. It also plans to hold an itabeni sale from July 4 to 6. For more information, visit www.isehan.co.jp