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Japan beauty Shiseido Shiro
Taken from Dazed, June 2011Photography Lina Scheynius, styling Katie Shillingford

Why Japanese beauty and skincare still reigns supreme

Intricate rituals, innovative ingredients, and a sustainable mindset – the West is only just catching up on traditional Japanese skincare and beauty practices

If you typed ‘Japanese Beauty’ into a search engine a few years ago, you would have likely only received back images of Japanese geisha. While these highly trained women are an important part of Japanese culture, it’s easy for those in the West – who grew up learning about Japan through films and media that relied heavily on stereotypes – to assume this traditional beauty regime is the only way the country interacts with beauty and make-up.

In recent years, the emergence of J-Pop stars (such as Aiko, or the 100+ members strong AKB48), as well as increased representation through social media platforms, has allowed a different image of Japanese beauty to be celebrated. Finally, Japan’s intricate skincare rituals, their desire for natural ingredients, and their respect of science is garnering mass interest from beauty insiders. In fact, other industries are also picking up on the intricacies of Japanese culture that have for so long been undervalued.  

“There’s that perception that fashion is a European invention and then spread to the rest of the world, when actually there was a developed fashion culture in Japan,” explains curator Anna Jackson, speaking on the motivation behind the new V&A exhibition, Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk. Much like the kimono, geisha or geiko (depending on where in Japan they hail from) are recurring stereotypes associated with the Asian country. “Yes, in the past people have painted their face white, with small lips and led eyeliner,” offers Shiga-born make-up artist Tamayo Yamamoto, “but, just like anywhere else, Japanese beauty has been changing.” Among the new wave of Japanese creatives referencing their heritage while leading new trends are names like Kanako Takase (Pat McGrath’s former intern), Takayoshi Tsukisawa, and Rie Shiraishi

It doesn’t take much digging to find examples of the Japanese beauty influences that we routinely take for granted. Miyabi Kumagai, regional marketing manager at Japanese brand Shiseido, explains how our current obsession with natural beauty products (popularised in the West by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop) is nothing new for Japanese women. “For Japanese people, nature has always been a part of their life, they worship and respect it,” she adds. While it’s easy to become reliant upon beauty products that promise instant results, Kumagai explains that Japanese women typically focus their routines on prevention, living by the philosophy, “Sonae areba urei nashi,” or, “Anticipation will save you from troubles.”

“Japanese culture is about respecting the authentic tradition but combining opposite values to innovate and create a tension between them” – Miyabi Kumagai, regional marketing manager, Shiseido

It’s important, however, to be able to distinguish between natural and old-fashioned. A common misconception about Japan’s culture is that it is fixated upon tradition, or stuck in the past. Just as the V&A’s aim is to prove that the kimono is a fashionable item, “not just a timeless, ceremonial costume.” Kumagai is quick to point out that Japan’s beauty industry is constantly evolving. “Japanese culture is about respecting the authentic tradition but combining opposite values to innovate and create a tension between them.”

This tension is something Kumagai refers to as harmonious dualities: “Modernity and tradition, perfection and imperfection, respectful yet audacious.” Yamamoto is also aware of how these contrasts influence her work, “Japanese people love natural make-up,” she explains. Yet, they also embrace more modern, less natural additions to their beauty routines; “Coloured contact lenses have become a big thing in Japan because of Korean celebrities,” she gives as an example. Similarly, the obsession with mochi skin (skin that resembles the soft, bouncy Japanese dessert) is still going strong, while many young people continue to wear the Harajuku-led trend of placing exaggerated pink blush under their eyes.

It’s important to Yamamoto that she can shine a spotlight on Japan’s thriving and advanced beauty industry. Just last year, the creative took part in a photo series for Dazed Beauty alongside Japanese photographer Piczo. It was inspired by the traditional Japanese kabuki dancing (歌舞) and featured intricate wigs by Shunsuke Meguro, paying tribute to the country’s history. “We did this shoot to show everyone in the world about traditional Japanese beauty and culture,” adds Yamamoto.

The most significant way her culture influences her creative work though is in her approach to skincare. “Preparation is the first step to success,” she explains. “Make-up will never look its best if you don’t look after the skin properly.” Negar Mesbah Tabatabae, manager at luxury Japanese beauty store Shiro agrees with Yamamoto’s skincare outlook, “(Japanese women) pay more attention to their skin because, to them, inner beauty is more important than their outer beauty. For them it’s about having the first layer, your skin, perfectly done.” 

Tabatabae explains how Japanese women grow up understanding the importance of proper skincare, and so have an innate understanding of how a good routine affects their skin. “But now (women outside of Japan) are starting to understand they can’t underestimate how their skin affects them.” In fact, many have unknowingly turned to Japanese rituals to help manage their skin. Who hasn’t invested in a serum, tried double cleansing before bed, or put on a sheet mask? These rituals are all championed by Japanese women and many have been part of their culture for centuries. Double cleansing, for example, was a ritual introduced by geisha hundreds of years ago as a means to remove their thick, oil-based white face make-up. 

“Everything is ethical. It’s a new trend here (in Europe), but Japanese people have always done it” – Negar Mesbah Tabatabae, manager, Shiro beauty store 

Speaking with these women, who all interact with Japanese beauty daily, it’s clear that the worldwide beauty industry is constantly finding inspiration from the East Asian country. This is perhaps most evident in the way the industry is now interacting with the environment; for many companies, making our beauty routines more sustainable has become paramount. The Shiro store – whose products are all made in Japan and hand-picked by its founder Hiroe Imai – perfectly illustrates the Japanese respect for the environment. “Everything is ethical,” Tabatabae clarifies. “It’s a new trend here (in Europe), but Japanese people have always done it.”

The brand reduces waste by utilising ingredients others have ignored, like Kombu, a seaweed grown in North Japan that is rich in hydrating fucoidan and alginic acid. “People would use it in their soups and would give away the extras because nobody told them it could be really good for the skin,” Tabatabae explains. Similarly, the brand frequently uses anti-aging neem oil in their products. The ingredient comes from the neem tree, which Tabatabae explains is often referred to by locals as a “village pharmacy” because everything – its branches to its seeds – can be used. Nothing goes to waste. These ingredients, and others, including anti-aging enmei herb, antioxidant shiso and brightening yuzu (all sourced from Japan) have found their way into beauty products worldwide. 

The Japanese phrase mottainai (suggesting regret over wasting something that could have been put to use) is a mantra that many Japanese brands are living by to reduce waste. All of Shiro’s Japanese stores (and others) are now refusing to offer packaging to customers, unless directly requested. Though slow at becoming mainstream, these positive changes within the worldwide beauty industry are something we should all celebrate. 

With the current Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition at London’s V&A museum and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics later this summer, Japan is seeing a massive increase in representation within Western society. Yet, celebrations of cultures can often fall into trends; moments that will pass. It’s important that we are able to recognise that Japan is far more than a trend. While, of course, Japan is not the only country driving change within the industry, it is the energising force behind the introduction of countless ingredients and technologies. The Japanese beauty industry has undeniably transformed our daily routines. Now let’s give it the credit it deserves.