Japan Glances

Cosmetics in Japan

Society Culture

Japanese cosmetics span new and traditional varieties. The wide choice of beauty products also continues to adapt to meet the evolving needs of users.

Beauty is only skin deep, they say—and in Japan, as elsewhere, the surface is often thought to count most. Whether to cover blemishes, enhance natural features, or express one’s personality, Japanese cosmetics offer a wide range of choices to meet the varying tastes of users.

Remaining Young

Many Japanese women in pursuit of a fair complexion take extra precaution to shield themselves from the damaging ultraviolet rays of the sun by donning hats and elbow-length gloves and holding aloft parasols. Sunscreen and SPF-infused foundations also form an important part of protection routines.

But even when wrinkles or skin blotches appear, Japan has a wide range of beauty products that make it easier to look and feel younger. Department stores and shopping malls generally offer lineups from leading cosmetic makers, including Shiseidō, Kanebō, Kaō, Kōse, and Pōla along with SK-II and other skin care specialists. Brands generally have counters staffed by beauty consultants who stand ready to dole out makeup advice.

Convenience stores, drugstores, and ¥100 shops also offer a wide array of cosmetics, from leading names to discount lines like Chifure and Cezanne. In addition, customers will find accessories and other items like eyelash curlers, facial masks, exfoliants, and moisturizers.

There has been increased demand in the Japanese cosmetics industry for natural and organic makeup products for users suffering chemical sensitivity, allergies, and other issues, leading to a variety of new products and brands. This has also opened the door for companies not traditionally associated with beauty aids to apply original research toward new and innovative products. For example, seasoning maker Ajinomoto has developed a beauty line featuring amino acids, drink maker Yakult offers products utilizing lactic acid, and Mikimoto has a selection of pearl-infused items. Other firms joining the cosmetics fray include Fujifilm and Suntory.

Time-Tested Beauty Aids

Japan boasts a cosmetics tradition stretching back centuries that utilizes readily available, natural ingredients. Many of these old-fashioned items have enjoyed a resurgence as modern science has come to better understand their beauty properties.

One such example is the lowly loofah, or hechima. Women in rural areas are said to have used juice from the stem of the spongy gourd as a moisturizer and skin toner, applying it directly to the hands, face, and other sensitive areas. The juice of the loofah, known as hechima-sui in Japanese, continues to appear as an ingredient in a variety of beauty aids. Rice bran was another popular item thought to remove blemishes, prevent wrinkles, and rejuvenate skin. Bursting with vitamins E and B2, komenuka is still working its beautifying magic in face washes and packs.

In the past, geisha and other entertainers as part of their professions became well versed in the use of different traditional beauty items. Sake was not only imbibed with customers, but drops of the drink, rich in amino acid, were frequently massaged into hands and other parts to prevent drying. This knowledge remains alive today in the form of sake extract that is added to many different cosmetic products. Camellia oil, a great source of oleic acid, was equally valued to moisten skin and hair, keeping them looking young and healthy. Tsubaki abura remains an active ingredient in shampoos and creams.

Perhaps one of the more unusual beauty aids in use since early times is nightingale droppings. Teeming with proteins, enzymes, and other beneficial compounds, the guano was applied directly as a facewash to cleanse skin and brighten the complexion.

Blotting paper made with washi has also been long relied on to keep skin looking its best. The fine fibers of the traditional Japanese paper absorb facial oils, keeping pores open and clean. Yet another much-loved accessory is the Kumano fude from Hiroshima Prefecture. Generally associated with calligraphy, these brushes sport thin bristles that are equally suited to applying makeup.

A set of Kumano makeup brushes.

An Aesthetic Eye

An established cosmetic trend in Japan is deftly applying eyeliner, eyeshadow, and mascara to give eyes a fuller look. Most leading brands offer an extensive line of these products. In the last few years, false eyelashes and eyelash extensions have grown in popularity, particularly in association with such photo-heavy events as weddings, school entrance ceremonies, and graduations. Specialty salons and other, less costly options have emerged. Customers willing to pay for top-of-the-line extensions can expect to enjoy longer lashes for periods lasting up to a month.

As the world gets busier, though, Japan has seen an uptick in people looking to save time by doing their makeup on the trains and subways instead of at home. One rail operator in Tokyo has taken steps to address the issue with posters on carriages and in stations. The effectiveness of these campaigns remains to be seen. Regardless, the dynamic Japanese cosmetics market is set to remain an influential force shaping society and the economy.

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