When 'beauty' is more than skin deep

by Fernando Flores

Contributing Writer

It all began sometime in the Heian Period (794-1185) of Japanese history. A woman of unparalleled beauty was born in the northern prefecture of Akita, a region known for its harsh winters, strong sake and delicious rice.

Ono no Komachi was a poet lauded in Japanese history, but it was her appearance that gained even more significance — she became the definition of beauty. Her pale skin, big eyes, small nose and black hair were admired as definitive characteristics of women in Akita, leading to what is now known as “Akita bijin,” (Akita beauty), a concept that is now strategically used to market the prefecture to other regions in Japan with a relatively high rate of success.

But the stereotype and expectations emanating from it have also placed an undue burden on today’s Akita women.

“I really get stressed every time I introduce myself as someone from Akita,” says Mika Miyazaki, a 19-year-old university student from Akita. “I know that they will reply with ‘Oh, an Akita bijin!’ But I know they are lying because I’m not beautiful.”

A survey conducted in spring 2017 by Ayabe Beauty Clinic Fukuoka, a major beauty clinic based in Fukuoka, revealed that 37 percent of Akita women feel under pressure to meet the beauty standards that society expects of them. The clinic surveyed 300 women in their 20s through 40s in three prefectures — Fukuoka, Kyoto and Akita — where the notion of “bijin” exists locally, and asked participants whether they felt that their physical appearance lived up to what others expected.

With 18 percent of women in Fukuoka responding as feeling the need to maintain a certain beauty standard and 12 percent in Kyoto, Akita’s rate is considerably high.

The pressure can run so high for some women that even something as simple as going outdoors can become a source of anxiety. Hanako Tanikawa, a 20-year-old Akita office worker who enjoys outdoor activities says, “I try to stay away from the sun as much as I possibly can. That way, I can preserve my light skin color.”

It’s not just young women who feel the need to “beautify” themselves. Older generations, too, feel constrained by the ideal of Akita beauty.

“There are so many beauty salons. Even the elderly care about their image,” says Tanikawa. “Even the most basic salons are crowded with elderly clients.”

The Prefectures Grading Research reports that Akita, which has a population of around 1 million — roughly the same as the city of San Jose in California — has 28.6 beauty parlors per 10,000 people, the highest of all 47 of Japan’s prefectures. Compared to an average of 20.7 for the country as a whole, the number reflects the demand for beauty treatments in the region.

According to the Ayabe Beauty Clinic survey, women in Akita Prefecture were found to spend an average of ¥50,000 each year on beauty treatments and cosmetics. Though this may not appear particularly high compared to the ¥71,000 spent by women in Fukuoka, it’s still considerable given that the average annual salary for Akita workers is ¥3.6 million, around three-quarters of million less than that in Fukuoka.

Despite the concept of Akita bijin not being welcomed by all women, it has, along with the Akita inu (the dog breed made famous by Shibuya Station’s Hachiko story and statue), become a noteworthy source of positive attention for the region, where depopulation and aging are advancing faster than any other prefecture in the country. This, at least, has given many local citizens reasons to celebrate the phenomenon.

Japanese language teacher Kaoru Suzuki says: “Personally, I feel happy when I get called an Akita bijin, and people do so because they want to flatter you. It also makes me feel proud about my origins.”

Marketers in Akita have leveraged that positivity to the fullest. Following World War II, a rice producer began branding itself as Akita Komachi, using “Akita Bijin Ono no Komachi” as a slogan, says Akita culture researcher Yo Negishi. “Later on, ‘Komachi’ came to be used for branding everything in Akita, from the bullet train to anything that you could imagine.”

The success of Akita Komachi rice, Negishi adds, may have led to a trend in contemporary marketing’s appropriation of Akita bijin ideals. And this, in turn, has led to its perpetuation.