As a university student, Hiroki Takahashi could barely step outside his home without a surgical mask on. Even when he did venture out, he was terrified of the fluorescent lighting ubiquitous in convenience stores and trains that ruthlessly illuminated what he was desperately trying to hide — a mass of pimples that had sprung up and spread all the way down to his neck.

The sudden onslaught of acne — which he had never experienced — prompted the 18-year-old Takahashi to frantically consult a dermatologist and even get a facial at a beauty salon.

But nothing helped his skin condition and he became withdrawn.

Ultimately, a lifesaver came in the form of a concealer he applied to his face one day. In what Takahashi recalls as an eye-opening moment, the way it camouflaged his acne opened his eyes to the therapeutic potential of makeup for men.

“It was at that moment when I realized that makeup isn’t just something you apply to make yourself prettier — that you can also use it to cover up your skin problems,” Takahashi, now 29, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“And I thought that, if wearing makeup makes me feel so relieved, there must be a whole lot of other men out there who would also appreciate its power. That’s when I decided that I would turn this into a career.”

And so began Takahashi’s career as a self-described makeup adviser catering exclusively to men.

Today, he is spearheading an effort to change the image of makeup as the domain of women, defying the stereotype that men who wear it are effeminate. He promotes makeup simply as a means of grooming that he says is no different from shaving, getting a haircut or working out.

“I really don’t see the difference between guys working out and guys putting on makeup,” he said. “Underlying these two acts is the same desire to make themselves look more presentable.”

Makeup can serve as a powerful confidence builder for men, Takahashi said.

Hiroki Takahashi applies makeup on Tomoya Kubo at his office in Tokyo last week. | SATOKO KAWASAKI
Hiroki Takahashi applies makeup on Tomoya Kubo at his office in Tokyo last week. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

“I’ve seen many men begin to behave more confidently after applying just a bit of makeup to their faces, learning to look people in the eye and laughing out loud in the middle of conversation — things they couldn’t easily do when part of themselves was ashamed of their looks,” he said.

“Such self-confidence will give them more opportunities in life, and I believe it’s my job to enrich their lives in this way.”

As president of Tokyo-based cosmetics firm MBP.NEXT, which he founded last year, Takahashi regularly provides makeup services, holds seminars to teach men the basic do’s and don’ts of beauty products, and travels wherever his services are needed. He published his first book last year, detailing his makeup techniques and a list of recommended cosmetics.

Although makeup is still largely associated with femininity in Japan, Takahashi said the nation is nonetheless edging toward changing that assumption, especially compared with 10 or so years ago, when he was grappling with his acne.

“I think that 10 years ago, men wearing makeup were still treated in Japan as an anomaly. They were seen as behaving a bit ladylike, harboring a desire to become women or fetishizing bijuaru kei (visual style) rock music,” he said, referring to a gothic and androgynous fashion trend inspired by glam rockers.

Takahashi’s parents thought he was overreacting to what are usually regarded as women’s concerns.

“They simply didn’t understand why I was making such a big deal about developing rough skin, given I’m a man,” he recalled. “They were like, ‘You’re a guy. So get over it and hold your head high.'”

According to researchers at Fuji Keizai Group, demand for male-oriented grooming products grew over the past decade, with its latest survey estimating the domestic market for facial care products reached ¥23.1 billion last year, up 4.5 percent from a year earlier.

Takahashi attributes the uptick partly to the development of versatile products that can easily be applied to men both in terms of color and texture. As a result, he says, more Japanese women are casually encouraging their boyfriends to try these products to see if they are effective in assuaging their skin concerns.

“Some of my clients say they came to visit my seminar at the recommendation of their girlfriends,” Takahashi said, adding that the influence of Korean pop music culture — where male idols sport milky white facial skin and painted lips — could also be a factor behind the uptick in Japan.

Takahashi’s clientele are mainly men on the cusp of middle age who want to regain their youthful looks. Some travel long distances for consultations at his Tokyo office, coming from regions as far away as Kyushu, Kansai and Hokuriku.

Their motivations vary, but many are by and large dissatisfied with their appearance. When asked what they don’t like about their faces, for example, the vast majority say they know “something is not right” but can’t quite put their finger on it, leaving Takahashi to troubleshoot.

But some do have specific things they want to cover up, such as dark circles under their eyes or five o’clock shadow. There is also a demographic that agonizes over appearances so much they even consider having plastic surgery, according to Takahashi.

Hiroki Takahashi is interviewed at his office in Tokyo on Jan. 31. | SATOKO KAWASAKI
Hiroki Takahashi is interviewed at his office in Tokyo on Jan. 31. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

“They are still hesitant to do surgery because of the potential risk and costs involved. They come to visit my seminars to see how much makeup can do to alleviate their problems before deciding whether to proceed,” he says.

Unlike makeup for women, the procedure for men espoused by Takahashi only takes up to 15 minutes to complete and involves a much smaller collection of tools, including concealers, eyebrow pencils and powders.

“Instead of applying foundation cream to the whole of your face, you just pinpoint an area you care about by using pencils and concealers,” the makeup guru says.

“The main purpose of makeup for men is to simply add the necessary and eliminate the unnecessary. We don’t need anything elaborate that women might wear to look prettier. For us, makeup is just an extension of self-grooming.”

Indeed, this is the kind of magic Takahashi was performing for Tomoya Kubo, a 29-year-old internet company employee, at his office in Tokyo last week. Having never worn makeup before, Kubo was incredulous as he watched Takahashi dexterously trim his unkempt eyebrows and apply concealer to lighten the shadows under his eyes.

“I can tell my face is a few shades lighter now,” Kubo said after the 15-minute session, marveling at how the annoying dark circles had disappeared.

“Some of our company’s longtime clients often tell me, ‘Man, you look exhausted,’ but since we know each other very well, I can give an easy reply and we’re cool. But God only knows what other clients might have thought of me when they saw my pale-looking face for the first time,” he said.

“I probably can’t do makeup every morning, but I’m certainly up for it when I have a big day coming up — like when there is a huge business talk or presentation that I need to hold at work.”

As our interview draws to a close, I notice Takahashi’s eyes surveying my face and landing on my eyebrows.

“I’ve been dying to do something about your eyebrows,” he told me with a chuckle, noting the grooming I’d done with my electric clipper — the only thing I have that can substitute for a trimmer.

He then adroitly penciled in a curvy line to replace what I’d shaved off and make me look a little less “rugged,” as he put it.

“You look much better this way,” our photographer said in amazement after Takahashi concluded his magic.

It goes without saying that a few seconds later, I was taking a selfie.

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews profiling people in various fields taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society.

Key events in Takahashi’s life

2010 Enrolls in cosmetology school while attending university in Osaka.

2011 Joins hair salon in Kyoto.

2012 Joins hairstyle and makeup agency in Aoyama, Tokyo, working to develop cosmetics.

2013 Joins leading cosmetics firm in Tokyo.

2015 Goes independent, establishing cosmetics firm Mbp in Tokyo.

2018 Rebrands Mbp as MBP.NEXT and publishes how-to book on makeup application for men.

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