The tall, handsome foreigner took a seat next to a Japanese woman. Drinking in her delicate beauty, he leaned over and asked in a gentle voice: "Would you mind if I talk to you?"

The exotic Asian beauty tossed her long, silky black hair over her shoulders as she faced the stranger, her dark, deep, almond-shaped eyes piercing into his. Her lovely red lips curved into a demure smile, encouraging the man to continue in his faltering Japanese.

"Has anyone ever told you how beautiful you are?"

A woman as cool and confident as she seemed to be might have laughed at his cliched question. But instead, that flower of Nihon suddenly lost her composure.

"No, no, no, I am not pretty, there are so many prettier women than me," she said quietly, looking down to the ground. "I need to lose more weight, my legs are too fat . . . "

According to a recent survey by soap brand Dove, the picture this scenario paints would apply to many modern Japanese women -- and it's primarily a picture of women with extremely low self-esteem.

The May 2005 survey of 2,100 women from 10 Asian countries, including 200 Japanese aged 15-45, found that when they were asked "When was the last time you felt beautiful?", 67 percent of the Japanese answered, "At least more than a year ago."

Not only that, but 54 percent of Japanese womanhood declared themselves "dissatisfied" or "not very satisfied" with their looks; and 69 percent felt they were "overweight" or "slightly overweight."

Can this be true? Are most Japanese women fat and ugly?

"Of course not," said psychologist Akira Ito. "Look around, there are many beautiful and fashionable Japanese women."

However, he said that he wasn't surprised by the survey's findings. A specialist in social psychology, Ito explained that one of the main reasons for many Japanese women's low self-esteem is the lack of flattery they receive from the other sex.

"Maybe some Japanese young men make an effort until they can get the girl into bed," Ito said, laughing. "But usually, they find it very difficult and embarrassing to compliment women, as if men who freely praise women are frivolous."

As a corporate consultant, Ito often visits companies to teach employees and their bosses how to compliment each other. During these sessions, Ito asks the group to pair up and gets one person to praise the other for a full five minutes.

"People can't handle five minutes, or even a minute," he said. "I was aghast at how rare it is to be flattered in Japanese society, whether at work or at home."

But, according to the Dove survey, receiving praise boosts your self-confidence.

In comparison with Japan, for example, the survey found that out of 200 women from the Philippines, 81 percent said they had been complimented on their beauty in the previous week; 71 percent had "felt beautiful" within the last week; 87 were "very satisfied" or "quite satisfied" with their looks; and 61 percent said their weight was "just right."

But flattery is not the only source of a glowing self-image, Ito pointed out. He said that many Japanese women have no inner standard of beauty for themselves, and always compare themselves to others.

"Many women are actually not enjoying fashion, but are being forced to dress fashionably from fear," Ito said. "Their fear of standing out or fear of embarrassment drives them to spend so much money to become 'beautiful.' But they still don't feel they are beautiful because the original purpose was to save face."

So why don't these women feel they are beautiful -- at any price?

A key reason, Ito said, is that the main beauty icons are models with small faces, long legs and extremely skinny bodies that are flamboyantly presented by the media.

"Comparing themselves to those beauties in magazines and elsewhere," Ito said, "women tend to deduct points against themselves. Instead of emphasizing the positive, they dwell on the negatives."

To break down this stereotyped standard for beauty, Dove has launched a worldwide "Real Beauty" campaign to scout "regular people" as models. In this, members of the public are being asked to look at pictures of "ordinary" women and vote on their appearance, alloting points for whether they are "sturdy or sexy" or "past it or glamorous," for example.

In Japan, the campaign started Aug. 1, via the Internet and mobile phones. That month, too, there were two large panel screens in Tokyo's Ginza and Osaka's Umeda districts on which voters could see the real-time results of the ballots. The vote is expected to continue on the Web site until the end of the year.

"We want women to realize or remember again what 'real beauty' is," said Haruka Maeda, Dove's campaign manager. "Because true beauty lies inside each person."

"Until Japanese women do realize their unique inner beauty, they'll only be 'clones,' dressing and looking exactly the same," Ito added. But at the same time, he is optimistic that one day Japanese men and women will be able to praise each other naturally and gain self-confidence in their appearance.

"If people begin to realize their own true beauty, I believe Japanese society will change," he said. "Changing politics or the economy may be one way to transform society, but changing things like this can also change Japan."

Backing up Ito's theory was Sakiko Yanagihara, a 29-year-old who just returned to Japan from a year's studying in Taiwan.

"I felt beautiful when I was in Taiwan -- but I don't here," she said.

"Why? The answer is simple -- the difference in men's attitudes."

Everywhere she went in Taiwan, Yanagihara said, the men showered her with compliments. But not here.

"Japanese women don't know how to respond to compliments because they are not used to them," she said. "That's why when they go abroad and are showered with flattery, many fall for men quickly -- and some get labeled as 'easy.' "

In Japan, though, she said that her "gorgeous looking" friends are hardly ever complimented by male friends -- though they are often told to lose weight.

"I used to compare myself to other women, and I had all kinds of complexes about my figure and my face, feeling the need to lose weight or wishing I had sharper features," Yanagihara recalled. "There are just so many beautiful women here that I think everyone sets their beauty standards too high."

On her return, Yanagihara also said she was astonished at how much Japanese women spend on their appearance -- from bags and watches to shoes and cosmetics.

"In Taiwan, I saw a woman on a date and she was wearing shorts with elephant prints all over them," she said with a laugh. "Taiwanese men are even kind enough to go on a date with a woman wearing elephant-print shorts!"

Try that in Japan. Your date might never forget you -- but he'd never ask you out again.