The Evolving Face of the Japanese

Society Culture

A beautiful face might seem eternal but standards of beauty change over time. Japan in recent years has idealized the “small face” (kogao) for both women and men. Professor Harashima Hiroshi discusses how facial characteristics have changed in Japan in line with societal changes and evolving ideas about beauty. (Interviewed by Kōno Michikazu.)

Harashima Hiroshi

Received his doctorate in engineering from the University of Tokyo. Has been a visiting researcher at Stanford University and a professor at the University of Tokyo. Founded the Japan Academy of Facial Studies in 1995 and currently serves as its chairman. His works include Kansei to jōhōshori (Sensibility and Information Processing; coauthor) and Kaogaku e no shōtai (An Invitation to Facial Studies).

An image of Jōmon face with a markedly convex face, relatively heavy facial hair, and a square jaw.
(Photo: Harashima Hiroshi)

An image of Yayoi face with relatively thick facial skin and monolid eyes.
(Photo: Harashima Hiroshi)

KŌNO MICHIKAZU Our theme today is the facial characteristics of the Japanese people. I’m hoping to hear your thoughts on how our outward appearance and our standards of beauty have evolved from ancient times to the present and how they reflect the times in which we live. First, though, I think it would be helpful to go over the origins of the Japanese people. In your writings, you explain the latest anthropological findings, which indicate that our origins can be traced to two separate peoples. The first entered Japan from the seas to the south tens of thousands of years ago. They’re referred to as the Jōmon people because they were already present on the Japanese archipelago at the dawn of the prehistoric Jōmon period. The Jōmon people have a southern physiognomy, with pronounced features, a markedly convex face, relatively heavy facial hair, and a square jaw. The second strain arrived more recently, historically speaking. They came from the interior of northeastern Asia, a region that includes Siberia, and migrated to Japan by way of the Korean Peninsula some time between 2000 and 3000 BC. They’re called the Yayoi people because they brought to Japan agricultural methods that laid the foundation for the more advanced culture of the Yayoi period. They had faces adapted to a colder climate—flatter, with less prominent features, exposing a smaller surface area, and with relatively thick facial skin, which yields the monolid eyes. Their earlobes were also smaller to minimize the possibility of freezing, and they had relatively little body and facial hair.

HARASHIMA HIROSHI In terms of the general image, the Jōmon physiognomy is boldly chiseled and sharply defined, while Yayoi features are flatter and more subtle. You might say the Jōmon face has a more Western flavor and the Yayoi a more Eastern flavor. The Mongolian wrestlers who have become so dominant in professional sumō of late have typical Yayoi faces.

The Yayoi people arrived in Japan later and brought with them rice cultivation and various aspects of China’s advanced culture. As a result they established themselves as the ruling class, dominating the aboriginal Jōmon people. This ongoing relationship between the Yayoi and Jōmon strains shaped the basic Japanese perception and standard of beauty with regard to the human face. But from the Meiji era [1868–1912] on, the Western physiognomy became increasingly familiar, and a growing admiration for things Western helped restore the prestige of the Jōmon type. This exotic Jōmon-type face became even more popular after World War II, with the influx of American culture. In Japan today, there’s really no dominant preference for one or the other. I think the general feeling is that each type has an appeal all its own.

The Face of Modernization

KŌNO Are there any other generalizations that we can make regarding the Japanese physiognomy today?

HARASHIMA They say that people’s faces mirror the times in which they live, and it’s true; you can tell all kinds of things about an era by reading people’s physiognomy. From the Meiji era on, the Japanese were focused on catching up as quickly as possible with the West, where the Industrial Revolution was already well advanced, and after World War II, that effort accelerated even further. Naturally, the effects of that process have shown up in people’s faces.

Computer simulation: Face of the future?
If current trends continue, Japanese men's faces will become triangular within a hundred years.
(Photo: Harashima Hiroshi)

One aspect of daily life that has changed dramatically is diet. Since the end of World War II, the Japanese diet has become heavily slanted toward soft foods. In earlier times, people would take about an hour to finish an average meal in order to chew their food well, as everyone was told to do. These days you need no more than five or ten minutes. The amount of chewing that we do has decreased drastically. Things like hamburgers hardly require any chewing, so our masticatory strength has declined, and our jaws don’t grow as large as they used to. I was wondering what people’s faces would look like a hundred years from now if current trends continued, so I collaborated with the anthropologist Baba Hisao to generate a computer simulation. The result is a bit different for men and women, but one thing both have in common is smaller jaws. Men’s faces become triangular. Women’s faces, which are rounder than men’s to begin with, end up rounder still because of the smaller jaw.

Abrupt changes in lifestyle impose all kinds of strains on people, which inevitably distort the physiognomy. One example is the alignment of our teeth. People’s teeth stay pretty much the same size regardless of diet, so when the jaw shrinks, there’s not enough room for all the teeth, and they grow in crooked. This isn’t just a cosmetic issue; it also causes problems with chewing, which can affect the stomach and other digestive organs. So it’s likely that the demand for orthodontists will continue to rise in Japan.

Signs of Infantilization

KŌNO In addition to the shape of the face, there’s also the matter of size. For example, the kogao, or small face, seems to be very much in vogue among women.

HARASHIMA Yes, women’s magazines these days are full of makeup and hair tips for making one’s face look smaller or thinner. I can think of a number of explanations. One has to do with fashion in clothing, and the fact that the Japanese now wear Western-style clothes instead of traditional Japanese attire. With Japanese-style clothing, a larger face is more becoming. But a smaller face looks better with Western clothes, because they’re designed for Westerners, who have smaller faces.

Another key point about the term kogao is that it suggests not only a physically small face but a childlike face. The craze for kogao is in part a craze for cute faces, reflecting our society’s bias toward the cute and childish as opposed to the mature. At some level, I think it’s closely intertwined with the infantilization that we see throughout our society.

KŌNO And this preference for kogao extends to men’s faces as well, doesn’t it?

HARASHIMA That’s right. In a way it’s an unnatural preference. In the animal kingdom, making the face look larger is a common strategy for augmenting the male’s presence to intimidate rivals or enemies. The most obvious example is the male lion, whose mane makes it look much bigger than it actually is. But in Japan nowadays the male entertainers most popular with girls and young women are all men with small faces.

There’s also a tendency among younger teenage girls to go for more feminine or androgynous men. While girls of that age are interested in the opposite sex, they’re also a bit frightened. They dislike facial hair, one of the obvious signs of maleness. And if the man has lots of body hair, forget it. They go for the clean, smooth look. For this age group, the ideal idol is either a feminine man or a masculine woman. In the past, girls of that age often became enamored of some older, tomboyish girl at school. These days they idolize the otokoyaku [male role players] in the all-female Takarazuka Review or women pro wrestlers.

Nowadays, women seem to be calling the shots in that regard. In the past, our society was male-centered, and women accommodated men’s attitudes and tastes, but now it seems that women are altering men to suit their own preferences. The ideal of manliness has undergone a complete transformation, for example. Of course, the underlying expectation is the same—that a man will steadfastly protect a woman. This is true in the animal world as well. The basis on which a female judges a male’s attractiveness is his apparent ability to protect her, so that she can raise her children without fear. When competition for survival is fierce or there are serious enemies to contend with, women are attracted by the kind of rugged virility that can protect against such threats. But while a man endowed with sheer physical strength seems desirable during times of conflict or trouble, in peacetime he might actually create problems. Or even worse, he might use that physical strength on the woman in the form of domestic violence. This helps explain why the ideal of manliness has been shifting from rugged strength and toughness to kindness and gentleness. I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all; it’s proof that we live in a peaceful society. Historically speaking, it’s very similar to Japanese society during the Edo period [1603–1868].

Thoughts on Feminine Beauty

HARASHIMA The qualities of a human face are not something objective; they’re determined by the relationship between the beheld and the beholder. We see the same face very differently depending on our feelings at the time and our relationship with that person.

My own theory is that feminine beauty can be classified according to a time scale, ranging from three seconds to thirty years. A three-second beauty is someone who makes you turn your head involuntarily when you see her on the street and think, “Wow, what a beautiful woman!” This is almost completely superficial. In fact, it may have more to do with her figure and how she’s dressed than her face. Next is the three-minute beauty. A typical example would be a receptionist, someone with whom you communicate for about three minutes. She presents you with a professionally arranged countenance and deals with you across a counter that creates an impassable barrier. Next comes the thirty-minute beauty. When you talk with someone for thirty minutes, her true countenance comes through, and you find beauty not in her superficial features but in the natural charm of her facial expressions. With a three-day beauty, the beauty you perceive is a product not just of her countenance but of her values and her outlook on life. Finally, there’s the thirty-year beauty. This is the woman who has been with you over the years, through thick and thin, and even though you may have cheated once or twice, in the end you know she’s the one for you.

KŌNO In Japan, men typically speak disparagingly of their own wives, although part of that is modesty. The most obvious example is the word gusai [stupid wife], traditionally used by males in reference to their own wives. You hear stories about the shock caused by Japanese men who translate this word literally into English and talk about “my stupid wife” when talking to their American acquaintances.

HARASHIMA I’d like to see more people with good faces around us, so I’ve compiled “Thirteen Precepts for a Better Face,” and number three on the list is, “Faces grow beautiful when they are complimented.”

Creating Your Own Face

KŌNO Words like “pretty” and “cute” are easy to use, but given the whole spectrum of feminine beauty, I wonder if our vocabulary isn’t a bit inadequate.

HARASHIMA The word bijin [“beauty”] used to be something that appeared mainly in men’s magazines, in the context of articles that analyzed or compared varieties of feminine beauty from a male perspective. Nowadays you most often come upon it in women’s magazines, which are always running features with titles like “How to Be a [something or other] Beauty.” Now women are establishing their own goals for beauty, based on their own standards. This is a big change. Formerly the standards were set by men and society as a whole. Today, women who’ve reached a certain age are starting to set their own goals for the kind of beauty they want to become.

In Japan, we’ve long said that beauty is only skin deep, and it’s what’s inside that counts. The underlying assumption here is that one neither can nor should change the face one got from one’s parents. But to some extent it’s possible to alter one’s face through one’s own efforts, and to that extent, I think it’s a wonderful thing to say, “I’m going to make my face the way I want,” and set one’s own goals for the kind of face one would like to have at age fifty, say. It’s possible to find beauty in every age group. In many Western societies, the appreciation of mature beauty is firmly established as part of the culture.

KŌNO I recall a Western actress saying not too long ago that she valued her wrinkles as a record of the life she’s led. In countries like France, you see plenty of female celebrities who are admired for their mature beauty or the distinctive character of their faces.

HARASHIMA It so happens that number ten of my thirteen precepts is “Look on your beautiful wrinkles as the pride of your life.” But I have to say that this one isn’t very popular among women. When a woman close to me read it, she got her back up and scolded me for not appreciating how seriously women take their wrinkles. “If you must include it,” she said, “then you should also include, ‘Look on your beautiful bald head as the pride of your life.’” So I did. But men don’t mind women’s wrinkles that much, do they? By the same token, some men are terribly self-conscious about balding, but when you ask women, it turns out that they don’t give it much thought. In any case, I think it’s important to develop a type of beauty appropriate to each age; it’s awful for women to think of themselves as faded flowers just because they’re past their twenties. I’d like women in their fifties to find a beauty unique to that age group and pursue that ideal. We may be right in the midst of a major transition in this regard.

The Faceless Society

KŌNO It’s been about fifteen years since you founded the Japanese Academy of Facial Studies [J-face] back in 1995. An academic society devoted to the study of the human face is a rarity, not only in Japan but throughout the world, and the media took quite an interest in it. Have you thought about why people have suddenly become interested in studying the human face?

HARASHIMA I think it’s been aptly expressed by philosopher Washida Kiyokazu, a member of J-face. He says, “The only time the stomach comes under close scrutiny and we start worrying about our own stomach is when it isn’t working properly. When the stomach is working as it should, no one gives it any thought. No doubt the same is true of the face. If people are especially concerned about the face nowadays, I imagine it’s because the faces of the Japanese have become so lacking in character.” He also said this: “There has never been a time when the media was so awash in faces. Turn on the television, and you see faces everywhere. And these faces are presented merely as objects for us to ogle. Real faces aren’t something you can just stare at in that way. As soon as your eyes meet, you naturally avert your gaze. That’s how it is with real human faces. But with the faces on TV, it’s different. Nowadays, when we’re deluged by faces as objects, it seems that real faces are losing their character.”

These days it’s quite common to see young women putting on their makeup on commuter trains. It doesn’t bother them in the least that people are watching. They casually apply their makeup right there on the train in the midst of a crowd of faces, just as if they were doing it in front of their TV. I can’t help but feel that people have grown so used to seeing faces as objects in the media that they’ve come to think of faces as mere signs or symbols instead of as the faces of real human beings.

Another thing is that, with e-mail, it’s become the norm to communicate without ever showing one’s face. Until now, face-to-face contact was basic to human communication. Even with the telephone, although we weren’t communicating face to face, we could at least infer something about a person’s countenance from his or her tone of voice. But with e-mail, you have nothing but text. Not only that, on Internet forums, people can hide even their names. That’s why I call our era the age of faceless anonymity. In earlier times, when the role of the face in communication was taken for granted, no one felt the need to give any special thought to the human face. Today, when people’s faces are hidden as often as not, we’ve begun to feel the need to explore the role of the face in communication and what the face means to people today.

Historically speaking, this kind of anonymity began with the rise of modern urban society. When people abandoned their rural villages for the city, they were able to escape from the constraints of those close-knit, insular rural communities and find freedom in anonymity. This anonymity is part of what gave the cities their energy. On the other hand, it also made them hotbeds of crime. But despite this dark side, there’s no question that cities powered the development of the modern age. Faceless communication also has the potential to open the door to a new era. People talk a lot about the evils of the Internet, but there’s no denying that, for all its negatives, the Internet is generating a new kind of energy that’s moving in a positive direction.

KŌNO Be that as it may, I’m very troubled by Dr. Washida’s observation that the faces of the Japanese today are losing their character. To some degree the Japanese have always had a low profile in the international community. What a shame if the profile we do show to the world is a face with no character! One can only hope that interesting faces begin to make a comeback here in Japan and around the world. With that in mind, I’d like to conclude this discussion with a list of Dr. Harashima’s Thirteen Precepts for a Better Face:

  1. Get to like your face.
  2. Faces grow beautiful when they are observed.
  3. Faces grow beautiful when they are complimented.
  4. Think of any unusual facial feature you have as the key to your own special charm.
  5. Stop being self-conscious about a feature, and people will stop noticing it.
  6. Every time you knit your brows, you scrunch up your stomach as well.
  7. Open up the space between your eyes, and your outlook on life will broaden as well.
  8. Keep your mouth and teeth clean, and smile easily.
  9. Make a point of keeping your countenance symmetrical.
  10. Look on your beautiful wrinkles or your beautiful bald head as the pride of your life.
  11. One-third of your life is spent sleeping. Put on a pleasant face before bed.
  12. Put on a happy face, and you’ll feel happy inside, and your life will be happy too.
  13. Pleasant faces and unpleasant faces are catching.

(Translated from an interview conducted in Japanese in October, 2009. Interviewer Kōno Michikazu is former editor-in-chief of Chūō Kōron.)

Jōmon period Yayoi period beauty