The word kesho (makeup) is beautiful to look at — made up of the kanji characters ke (to metamorphose) and sho (to decorate). Combined, they evoke far more than the mere act of making up. Novelists have poured much ink over the depiction of a woman applying powder, dabbing rouge or performing that special ritual of Japanese femininity, mayukaki (drawing one’s eyebrows).

Japanese women spend more on kosume (cosmetics) than in any other country in the industrialized world. And it goes without saying that kosume products don’t come cheap.

My friend Chiemi, a 35-year-old marketing executive, says her monthly bill for makeup and related kiso keshohin (skin-therapy products) have come to exceed the fee on her parking lot (a painful 42,000 yen per month).

Misako, a colleague who is 29 years old and a fan of the Stilla and M.A.C. brands, recently caved in and splashed out on a foundation spiked with pure platinum powder (reputed to have antiaging effects), along with related platinum-ingrained sapuri (supplement pills) — to the tune of 250,000 yen.

And let’s not forget the incredible time and effort that goes into the process of kesho — many women forgo their morning coffee, never mind their breakfast — to spend 10 minutes on each eyebrow, in the firm belief that yoi mayu wa yoi kao o tsukuru (good eyebrows make the face).

A slight notch below eyebrows in the plucking order come matsuge (eyelashes). Japanese cosmetic manufacturers have spent the past three decades developing a high-tech mascara that prolongs the life of eyelashes; there are now eyelash and eyebrow salons in all major cities in Japan, where women go for plucking, trimming, extending and thickening. My colleague Fukumi, 34, goes to one before any party, date or business presentation and won’t batter an eyelash in spending 15,000 yen there. For her, it’s bi no toshi (investing in beauty). Interestingly, women will go for the eyebrow/eyelash treatment far more readily than get a leg wax; it’s part of the culture that reveres the face and hides most other body parts under kimono folds.

Don’t ask how these women have the time and the finances. A Japanese woman may be wearing rags and up to her ears in debt, yet she will never skimp on the all-important ritual of kesho. Gracious and polite, she will do almost anything you ask but will definitely draw the line at leaving the house with no makeup. Fukumi says such an act would be hadaka yori kowai (scarier than being naked).

It’s rare to find a suppin onna (a woman with no makeup), although until the 1950s it was considered gauche and sinful for shiroto-onna (a nonprofessional woman, i.e. those not in the water trade) to wear anything more than a light patch of red on her lips.

As for married women, and especially those with children, any kind of ostentation was banned, including dresses or kimonos in bright colors, a hair perm or other hallmarks of frivolity. Despite this, Japanese women love cosmetics no matter how enlightened or modern they have become. Kesho has become a badge of femininity. In areas like Yamagata Prefecture, young women worked the benibana (safflower) fields to yield the red dye for juban (kimono lingerie) that they themselves could never use.

As for Japanese men, they admire a made-up woman in a way that’s more complex than their Western counterparts. Many profess to having a weakness for atsugesho no onna (a heavily made-up woman), believing that they are eager to please.

Men are more ready to praise a woman who makes an effort (doryoku suru) over a woman who does nothing more than wash her face in the morning before bolting out the door. An editor I know at a fashion magazine says he makes a point of strolling through the cosmetics counters of department stores whenever he can. He calls it me no hoyo (eye nourishment). There is nothing more off-putting, he says, than a woman devoid of kesho, for it seems either like an indecent disregard for aesthetics or bravado.

And as much as they like atsugesho, these types of men are also fond of kesho o otoshita suppin (a pallor with all the makeup washed off) for women who habitually put on elaborate kesho end up with a completely different face underneath. The difference between the two faces serves as the turn-on: “It’s like I’m dating two different women at the same time,” the fashion editor tells me.

The metamorphosis works both ways.

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