Japanese model Rinka wants women to know there's no shame in aging

by Mai Yoshikawa


The prefix “anti” is often used before the word “aging” in Japan, as if there are only two choices — youth and beauty, or age and wisdom — and the former is preferred to the latter.

But top model Rinka wants a little bit of everything. She is out to empower women to celebrate aging by telling them there is no need to choose one over the other, and that no woman comes with an expiration date.

Rinka, whose real name is Chieko Nenaka, is one of the country’s most recognizable cover girls, her face splashed across magazines sold at newsstands, bookstores, convenience stores and supermarkets.

The 44-year-old has sharply defined facial features likely inherited from her Dutch grandmother and ever-changing hairstyles that keep her fans intrigued.

The “Rinka effect” causes any item she is photographed wearing — from New Balance sneakers to Levi’s jeans to Patagonia bags — to instantly sell out.

Standing at 165 centimeters, the wife and mother says she may not have the flat stomach, slim waist and hourglass frame that society deems ideal, but she says her body shape is real and that she has come to terms with it, wrinkles, sagging and all.

Despite being coveted by publishers and paparazzi, Rinka has chosen to put family before work since her son was born five years ago and now splits her time between Honolulu and Tokyo.

“If you ask me what my profession is, I’d have to say ‘mother.’ My son is with his father when I’m working. Our family rule is to arrange our work schedules around our son,” Rinka says.

Taking into consideration her limited time, she has become more selective about her modeling assignments, and even more so after taking on another role as the creative director of lifestyle brand “Maison de Reefur,” which was launched in 2012 in Tokyo’s trendy Daikanyama neighborhood.

With four shops across the country and a plan to expand to at least 10 locations by spring of 2019, Rinka says her workload on the corporate side has kept her off the runway and away from the cameras.

“I think juggling work and parenthood is a challenge for any mother, and obviously I don’t get to spend all my time for myself like I used to,” Rinka says. “But I gave birth late so I was able to live life at full speed and get a lot done when I was single.”

With 1.3 million Instagram followers (@rinchan521), Rinka believes her mostly-female fan base does not just appreciate what they see on the outside but also what she keeps relatively private, things she gives glimpses of through social media.

“I think my fans support me not because they think I have the looks or the body, but more because they can relate to the way I approach life,” she says. “So I’m being careful not to let those people down.”

“As a businesswoman, as a mother, as a human being, I want to live honestly. Balancing work and family is very difficult but thanks to social media I’m able to stay connected.”

Like anyone, Rinka has faced her share of professional struggles. She never aspired to become a high-profile model but was discovered by a scout on the streets of Tokyo at the age of 18 and quickly rose to national stardom, or so it seemed.

She maintains her success did not come overnight, as she endured less-fruitful periods in which she tried singing and acting, a time she calls the “soul-searching period,” which lasted until she broke through and established herself as a celebrity model.

In many ways, she has aimed to emulate her idol, 1990s-era British supermodel Kate Moss, who also had various phases in her long and successful career.

“Now that I’ve built my career this far I can say I’m a model but back then I didn’t have that (identity) that I could call my own,” Rinka explains.

For a long time, she contemplated how she could blaze her own trail by stepping out of the traditional path followed by models in Japan. She did not want to move from one fashion magazine to another and end up a clothes horse for unadventurous, conservative fashion that is deemed “appropriate” for her age.

Fortunately, she says, by the time she was in her mid-20s the so-called otona kawaii (ageless cute) trend came around so she never had to go that route.

“Japanese culture embraces what’s young and cute so there haven’t been as many options for older models and I’ve always felt uncomfortable with that,” says Rinka, who admitted the difficulty she has faced in keeping a sense of freshness throughout her 25-year career.

“I’m tackling the idea of how to express the beauty of a woman and each layer of her story that shows in her features, but it’s hard to beat the kawaii culture. I guess it has to do with the Lolicon boom in Japan,” she says in reference to what’s known as the Lolita complex, or a sexual attraction to young girls typically by older men.

According to Rinka, there are two types of models, like there are two types of Barbie dolls — the original 1959 version with its too-good-to-be-true beauty, and the 21st-century version that comes in various body sizes, some with cellulite, acne and stretch marks.

She was quick to point out she belongs to the latter category, and she is not ashamed to show her body on social media to let women know what’s realistic when it comes to shape, size and skin.

“Some people prefer to see only beautiful things and have a distaste for what they consider ugly, for instance, a pregnant woman’s body. But I’m here to encourage people to think differently,” she says.

“I get told how not pretty I am, or how imperfect my figure is, and it’s not nice,” she adds. “Nowadays, with Photoshop, you can deceive people but you can’t lie to yourself. When I feel old and ugly I tell myself I can send positive vibes to women feeling the same.”

Rinka advises women not to believe the stereotypes and myths of aging that treat growing old as a negative, and not to fear the loss of youth.

She compares the human art of graceful aging to the life of a tree repeating the word nenrin, or the growth rings that increase over time, adding beauty and strength to the tree trunk.

Though she hates to exercise, she pushes herself to run, lift weights and practice yoga because of the post-pregnancy body changes she sees in the mirror. But she only does it because she knows where she wants to stay — staring out from the cover of a glossy fashion magazine.

And she believes the face that has got her so far tells a story that is only getting more interesting as she ages, like it does for all women.

“When you see me in a magazine I may not look like a mother and you may think I’m pretty for my age, or I’m too girly for my age, or I lack character, or whatever. That’s the outside,” she says.

“But when someone looks at that photo and sees me, it’s ‘me’ that you see. I believe that all aspects of my life, not just the way I dress, become a part of the ‘me’ that you see in that image. I’m nearing 50. I’m tired. I’m scared. But I’m trying. So you should too. That’s the message I want to send.”