Getting underneath the language of skin


“Obsessed” is probably the right word to describe the Japanese’s woman’s relationship with her hada (skin). From her earliest years, she is exhorted by her elders to look after her skin — scrub, cleanse, moisturize — to achieve that tsuru-tsuru (polished) texture and shittori (moist) feel. If a young girl should bruise her face in the slightest way, there is a big fuss: “Kizumono ni nattara oyome ni ikenai! (If you damage the goods, you can’t get married).”

Though this may sound hopelessly feudal and antiquated, to the Japanese it’s a matter of pride. Smooth, unblemished skin speaks volumes about the person’s lifestyle, psyche and intellect. What eyes are to the Western mind, so skin is to the Japanese: a window on the soul. My grandmother used to say that a woman can’t help the features she was born with, but “Hada no kirei wa shichinan kakusu (Beautiful skin will hide seven defects).”

Consequently, the language surrounding our skin has become incredibly diverse, and the Japanese woman is so attuned to its finer points that any woman rhapsodizing on the ideal epidermal state automatically launches into poetry. It’s not just the enormous range of adjectives, like sube-sube, sara-sara or tsuya-tsuya (all describing various degrees of “smooth” and “polished”), it’s the whole, exaggerated eloquence of it all.

A girl’s face can be described as a mukitate no yudetamago (a newly peeled hard-boiled egg) or sakura no hanabira (the petals of a cherry blossom) — it must be soft, but springy: Yubi o oshikaeshitekuruyo na (so springy it pushes back the finger that feels it). The almost imperceptible, delicate flush on the cheeks must recall the interiors of a conch shell. Oh, and here’s everyone’s favorite topic: the state of the kime (texture) of the skin. On good skin, the weavings are komakai (intricate) and perfectly aligned to create that smooth, firm texture.

Poets and novelists have always reveled in the language of skin, from Murasaki Shikibu to Junichiro Tanizaki. In “The Tale of Genji,” lovers met by only the faintest of candlelight and often knew each other more by the texture of their skin than actual facial features. When Tanizaki wrote about women, he first observed the skin on their cheeks and arms before commenting on the size and texture of their feet.

It’s no wonder the heroines in Japanese fiction have always been decidedly sensual — their images arouse, less from how they speak or what they do than the way they uh, feel, under other people’s hands. The authors also wrote in loving detail about the ways their female characters looked after their most treasured possession: by rubbing, exfoliating and scenting endlessly. Even the stuffy, pedantic novelist Rohan Koda, who wrote that a woman who was quick in her bathing (furo ga mijikai onna) was not worth praising. He said it indicated she did not care very much for her skin, which ultimately meant she was undesirable.

Which brings us to the subject of the bath. For the Japanese woman, bathing is a loving ritual performed between her skin and herself, and she’s conditioned to feel deprived whenever she misses an opportunity. Her bath products are highly personal and chosen with care, like the hechima (luffa) or akasuri taoru (exfoliating towel) she uses to rub down and shed old layers of skin, and the lotions she uses to moisturize herself. What she usually aims for during a bath is the sensation that her skin is so smooth it will literally repel water (mizu o hajikikaesu), causing small, pearly beads of it to form all over her skin. Should her skin absorb water, causing it to run down in rivulets (mizu ga shitatatriochiru) it’s a sign of (oh no!) sagging, creasing, aging.

So when a Japanese woman wants to relax or give herself a treat, she will not go overseas, but to an onsen (spa). These days, she knows of little hideaway places not listed in guide books, where the ryokan (inn) is affordable and gracious toward women traveling alone (this can be a problem with other inns, that view solitary female guests as potential suicides). Alone or with friends, she will lower herself into the hot, bubbling water, emitting the long slow sigh that belongs only to the Japanese woman soaking in an onsen: “Haaaaaaaaaaa.” So what if the effects are skin-deep — we’re grateful it goes that far.