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Confessions of a Tokyo Local: Is My Skin Too Dirty?

Updated: Jan 24, 2020

日本語版: ページの一番下までスクロールします

I had the opportunity to reach out to a young, aspiring magazine editor, Tomoko Kojima, who spoke to me about the beauty standards in Japan and how they’ve been presented in campaign imagery, how they’ve affected Japanese society’s perception of beauty, and how she would like Japanese beauty standards to be more inclusive in the near future.


What is deemed beautiful changes depending on who you are, what you value, and even where you’re from. Something that can be seen as beautiful in one country may be seen as unattractive in another country. The guidelines that we use to decide whether or not someone is beautiful is called “beauty standards.” Beauty standards are “the socially constructed notion that physical attractiveness is [a person’s] most important assets, and something [everyone] should strive to achieve and maintain.’ In the West, beauty standards have changed drastically over time and vary because of the diverse population within Western countries, however, we’re seeing women with various skin tones, body sizes, heights, ethnicities, hairstyles, and more being exemplified in all sorts of media campaigns. But, it’s still FAR from perfect and we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to being more open-minded and accepting of what beauty is here in the West. However, the things that are deemed beautiful in the West may not be seen as beautiful in other nations.

During the interview I conducted with Tomoko, she informed me that one of the most pressing issues regarding beauty standards in Japan is the importance placed on having light/white skin. There is the belief that the lighter your skin is, the more beautiful you are. White skin is a traditional concept of beauty, with the notion of fair complexions as beautiful in Japan started in the Heian Era, from 794AD to 1192AD. Those who have darker skin are considered “lower class” or “commoners” because those who worked outside would become darker easily compared to the rich who would stay indoors and be able to avoid tanning from the sun. Fast forward to the 19th century where Japanese women who were entertainers would wear very white makeup and red lipstick since that represented prettiness, sophistication, and grace. These women were known as geishas and they were very skilled in various forms of traditional entertainment, like art, singing, and dance. This is a beauty standard that greatly affects a lot of people because they feel like if they aren’t as white as humanly possible, then they are no longer worthy, or they experience “otherness” from everyone else.

Beauty comes in all shades and shouldn’t be dismissed or devalued just because someone isn’t seen as “pure” enough to be beautiful. When asked about how the beauty standard of being “pure” and very “white in complexion” makes her feel, Tomoko said, that it makes her feel both "weird and uncomfortable." Because of the fact that the dominant culture in Japan constantly tells people how beautiful white people and those with whiter complexions are, Tomoko mentions how a lot of young, Japanese girls use lighter-toned foundation and/or dye their hair blonde or light brown to try and fit into those Eurocentric beauty standards. Additionally, she said that “a lot of Japanese girls don’t like their eye shapes, so they make their eyes look bigger and rounder by using glues to widen them to appear more European, with the use of coloured contacts, as well.”

To add on to that, Bihaku (美白) means “beautifully white” in Japanese and was popularized in the early 90s when skin whitening cosmetics and products became more well-known. This is not just an issue exclusive to Japan, however, as brown and dark-skinned Asians have been excluded and constantly overlooked by the media and society for years. The global skin-whitening market was valued at $4.8 billion in 2017, according to Global Industry Analysts, and is anticipated to reach $8.9 billion by 2027, with Asian countries making up a major segment. When asked if Tomoko felt like she needed to go out of her way to ensure that her skin remained light in complexion, she answered "because I was born with a darker complexion than the majority of Japanese people, my grandparents would tell me that they didn’t like my skin colour and that my skin looks “dirty.”” However, for her, she says that she doesn’t really care about making her skin look lighter, so she’s been living with her natural skin colour ever since she was a child. But, she acknowledges the fact that because she’s not as light in complexion as most Japanese guys want, they don’t find her attractive. She often hears from Japanese men how they prefer girls with lighter skin tones because it looks “clean and beautiful.” Regardless of all of that, she has never felt like she needed to make her skin lighter because it “doesn’t look healthy” in her opinion.

It's been made quite apparent that colourism (the belief that lighter skin tones are more superior to darker skin tones) is a universal issue and one that Tomoko, who describes herself to be the average Japanese girl, regularly has to deal with. Understanding that she is beautiful regardless of the shade of her skin is a serious emotional and psychological battle that she has to regularly deal with and something that she believes that a lot of other Japanese people struggle with quite often, as well.

When asked about the type of celebrities and influencers represented in the various forms of campaign imagery, Tomoko informed me about many Japanese pop stars, Instagram influencers, actors and actresses, and models who are seen as being incredibly beautiful and fawned over partly because of their light skin or "Eurocentric" features.

Here are some of Tomoko's examples:

This pressure to conform to such a such a strict beauty ideal can cause people to experience negative psychological effects, such as having very low self-esteem and even developing depression, especially if they’re predisposed to these beauty ideals from a young age when they are still growing and learning about themselves. It’s unfair that people have to jump through hoops and alter so many natural parts of themselves just so that they can conform to these unrealistic beauty standards and be respected in society. It’s excessive to have to invest so much in skin whitening products, cover every fragment of exposed skin from the sun (not for religious purposes, but to avoid getting darker from naturally tanning), and bleach oneself through various remedies to be “beautifully white.” Everyone is beautiful regardless of what the colour of their skin is, so they shouldn’t be condemned or ostracized from society if they don’t look a certain way or fit a certain standard.

Lastly, I asked Tomoko what she suggests people within the Japanese society do in order to move away from the idea that “whiter is better” and step towards being more accepting of all skin colours within Japan and she said that she said she believes that “people are not supposed to change how they look because they are different from other people’s beauty standards.” She adds on, “but at the end of the day, I think it’s hard to make Japanese people change their minds because most Japanese people have been conditioned to believe beauty is one, certain way by the Japanese media, so unless the Japanese media shows the beauty of different ethnic backgrounds and skin colours, they won’t ever change their mind.” In the end, she says, “I hope in the future, everyone can realise they are beautiful in their own way.”

I’m not Japanese, but as a black woman, I deal with the effects of colourism on a daily basis. Darker-skinned people report higher experiences of microaggressions, darker-skinned black women report more physiological deterioration and self-report worse health than lighter-skinned women, and it even affects our ability to secure employment. This study found that a light-skinned Black male with a Bachelor’s degree and typical work experience was preferred over a dark-skinned Black male with an MBA and past managerial positions. People may think that having these restrictive beauty standards are just a regular part of society and that you should either conform or keep quiet, but these beauty standards are inherently problematic, and we need to work towards being more inclusive.

One of the ways that society makes marginalized people feel like they are unworthy and relegates them into the shadows of society is by convincing them that they are ugly. They come up with new ways to say that our bodies, our skin, our style, our hair, and everything that makes us unique and who we are is undesirable. However, we shouldn’t let that repress us into believing that beauty can only be a certain way. Beauty is ALL types of faces, ages, skin colours, body types, genders, and heights. Instead of only believing that beauty should be one way, we need to be more inviting and open-minded to the countless forms of authentic beauty that exists. More than what is presented on the outside, TRUE beauty is a reflection of who we are on the inside, so ensuring that we learn to love ourselves as WE are and make others feel accepted and welcome as THEY are is when we’ll truly understand what beauty actually is.



東京ローカルが語る: 日本の美の基準









最後に、私は小島さんに「白い方が良い」という考えから脱却し、日本の人びとが多様化するために日本の人びとにどんなことを提案するかを尋ねました。 「アジア人にはアジア人にしかできないスタイルとゆうものがあり、西洋人には西洋人ならではのスタイルがあるものです。日本人が変に白人風のメイクをすると不細工に見えたり不自然に見えたりするのは仕方がないと思います。日本の女性たちがアイデンティティを認識し自分たちの容姿に誇りをもつにはメディアやキャンペーンの存在が重要だと考えます。幼い頃から目にする世間の美の対象と自分を比較して憧れを抱くのは仕方ないことです。しかし最近では日本でも一部のメディアでは様々なジャンルの女性たちが見られるようになってきたと思います。これからの将来、自分と同じような人たちが活躍する機会が増えれば増えるほど人々の美の基準も幅広く進化していくはずです。」と言いました。


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