Beholding Japanese Beauty

Nailing a Fashion Trend

Culture Lifestyle

The past decade has seen an explosion of interest in nail art among Japanese women. The number of nail salons and schools to train the “nailists” (as they are called) has skyrocketed. Here we take a look at this growing fashion trend.

Kinoshita Mihori

Debuted as a makeup artist in 1977. Attended Tokyo Polytechnic University, where she majored in photography and art design. Learned about special effects makeup and nail techniques in the United States, and then worked as an art director after returning to Japan. Was appointed the head of the Japan Nailist Association’s educational committee in 1985 and is currently the association’s director and planning committee head. Has served as a fashion advisor to a wide range of celebrities and public figures. Has served the representative director of Yumi Creation, Inc. since 1996. Published works include Rika-chan neiru book with Kinoshita Mihori (The Rika-chan Book on Nails with Kinoshita Mihori). (Japanese only)

Rise of Nail Art in Japan

The art of manicure and nail design in Japan has taken off in recent years. Along with generating many new nail salons, this fashion trend has even resulted in the new English(-like) word nailist—a term used to describe the manicurists and nail technicians. Not surprisingly, the term was coined and has been popularized by an organization called the the Japan Nailist Association.

(Left) The Japan Nailist Association organizes a nail expo every November to coincide with “Nail Month.” In November 2012, the two-day 17th Tokyo Nail Expo, held at Tokyo Big Site, attracted 54,000 visitors. (Right) One of the its highlights was a “natiful” contest (a term that combines “nail” and “beautiful”), where models are judged for their overall appearance, including hair, makeup, dress, and of course nails. (Photo courtesy of the Japan Nailist Association.)

Kinoshita Mihori could rightfully be called the “founder” of the Japanese nailist movement for her role within the Japan Nailist Association since its inception and her work on the frontlines of the industry. Kinoshita popularized in Japan the style of sculptured nails, which originated in the United States in the 1980s, and she has also has created an original Japanese nail-care system.

An Eye and Hand for Detail

Tonomura Masako, a nailist at Yumi Kinoshita Make-up & Nail Atelier, placed second in the 2012 Tokyo Nail Expo’s “natiful” contest for professionals. She says that the defining characteristic of nail services in Japan comes down to the hospitality afforded customers and the ambience of the salon space.

Tonomura’s entry in the “naitiful” contest, which took her over a month to prepare, incorporated an East-meets-West style, incorporating such traditional Japanese elements as peonies and paper fans.

Kinoshita is one member of the Japan Nailist Association who has helped set up the system for training nail artists. She has also made full use of the Japanese eye for detail and talent for executing intricate processes. Today, Japan’s nail professionals are considered to be some of the best in the world, and the country is in the midst of a boom in nail art. Kinoshita notes that a growing number of women of all ages enjoy doing their nails, and that the nail industry has grown even during the recession. She thinks that this popularity stems from the fact that, ”women can look down at their nails and derive a deep sense of satisfaction in this preeminent example of beauty for its own sake. Another great thing about the art, Kinoshita explains, is the “calming and soothing benefits of having your nails done.”

According to data compiled by the Japan Nailist Association, industry sales in 2011 reached ¥208.5 billion, marking a twofold increase over just six years. The number of nail salons, meanwhile, rose to 19,500, also doubling over a five-year span. At present, around 60,000 people every year take the skills test administered by the Japan Nailist Examination Center, which is now the ticket to finding employment at a nail salon. In Japan, there are roughly 300 schools that offer courses on nail art and around 30,000 nail artists. Clearly, given these figures, nail art is here to stay.

Gel Nails Meet the Needs of Today’s Busy Women

The origins of nail art can be traced to the artificial nails popularized by Hollywood actresses in the 1970s. In the 1980s the first nail salon opened in Japan, where nail began to head in a new direction.

Kinoshita describes the history of nail art in Japan. “Gel nails are the predominant type of coating used in Japanese nail salons today. The gel, in its semi-liquid state, is applied to the nail and hardened with an ultraviolet light or light-emitting diodes. Gel nails are pliable and less likely to crack or get scratched.” Since 2007, they have been the most popular offering for a variety of reasons, as Kinoshita explains:

“Gel nails caught on quickly because they dry in no time and suit women’s busy schedules. They were popular among both working women and full-time homemakers alike, because the gel can strengthen nails that tend to crack as people get older. Gel nails enhance the health of the nails and offer more possibilities for decorations and a wider range of designs and colors.”

A design by Nadine (left) and Hokuri (middle) featuring gel nails with a bright color base. (Right) Toenail creations from Tóut Soleil.


The Sparkling Nail Designs of Japan

How do Japanese nail trends compare with those in the United States and Europe?

According to Kinoshita, “Europeans go for a healthful looking beauty, so basic styles are popular there; the most common technique used is to apply a coat to the base nail. In New York, career-minded women lean toward simple styles, such as single color designs and French nails with a white stripe.”

This contrasts with the Japanese style. “In Japan,” Kinoshita explains, ”women often have their nails painted gradations of a base color or have their nails colored with a single tone and decorated with rhinestones or glitter. And many women redo their nails regularly. This is what people mean when they refer to the Japanese style, which is catching on in Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam.”

Women often visit a nail salon for the first time around the time they get married. Nails done in a pink or white base with pearl or flowered “bridal tips” are particularly popular. (Photo courtesy of Innocent) (Right) Nails are also decorated with rhinestones, studs, and glitter. (Photo courtesy of esNAIL)


Do-It-Yourself Nail Art

Goods line the shelves of at the stalls of Nail Expo.

Some Japanese women prefer to do their own nails rather than go to a nail salon. A range of products are available for these women, including nail-care goods and shaping tools, application devices for soft gels, nail polish, and decorations like glitter and rhinestones.

A Sha-Nail Pro sheet of butterflies. The sheets are intended for professional nail artists but can also be purchased by individuals in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Props Co.)

Nail stickers, which can be applied directly to nails, are ideal for people unable to create intricate designs themselves. Sha-Nail Pro decals, marketed by Props Co., are high-quality, super-thin stickers that are only 80 microns thick. The stickers come in sheets with detailed photos of a particular pattern, such as butterflies or flowers. Complex designs can be created by cutting and layering them.

Nail design in Japan reflects the country’s orientation toward technological innovation, manual dexterity, and customized services. And now these fashionable, eye-catching designs are spreading to other parts of the world.

Photos of nail art courtesy of (from left) Takata Masumi (Office Glowbiz Style), Nadine, and La Couronne.

(Originally written in Japanese by Ushijima Bifue. Bammer photograph by Kawamoto Seiya. Editorial supervision provided by Kinoshita Mihori, president, Yumi Kinoshita Make-Up & Nail Atelier.)

Photographs courtesy of

La Couronne (nail salon), Shinjuku location
Odakyu Department Store, Sixth Floor
1-1-3, Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo

esNAIL, Shibuya (main location)
A2 Building, Sixth Floor
28-3, Udagawa-chō, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Nadine (nail salon)
5-6-24, Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Hokuri (nail salon)
4-12-16, Ogikubo, Suginami-ku, Tokyo

Tóut Soleil, Daikanyama location
Daikanyama Station Building, second floor
19-4, Daikanyama-chō, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Jyukaan, Room 2
3-8-7, Kita Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Asia design art beauty lifestyle fashion women Nail nail art beauty care soft gel aesthetics foreign West occupation certification techniques skills test