Japanese women’s obsession with whiter skin

Numerous visitors to Japan must have noticed when traveling at the end of spring and under the strong sun of summer that Japanese women seem to run away from sun rays and do not hesitate to use a whole arsenal of more or less sophisticated products and supplies to avoid exposure. We can observe a range of diverse accessories, from the essential umbrellas and gloves, sometimes covering up to the shoulders, to large hats and caps with sunshades similar to Darth Vader's helmet (surprising equipment of older ladies), and even handkerchiefs fashioned like niqab.

Western Europeans have a long history of avoiding the sun. As early as the 10th century, aristocrats aimed to keep their skin as white as possible, sometimes forcing the trait with harmful cosmetics so as to stand out from the peasant population, tanned by long hours of work in the sun. During the reign of Louis XV in France, even men made up their face with white powder. Being pale was a sign of nobility until the Industrial Revolution, where workers moved from outside fields to indoor plants. Being tanned became synonymous with wealth, showing a carefree life of outdoor hobbies, and this remains today.

In Japan, despite kilometers of beaches along tens of thousands of kilometers of coast, the search for a milky tone started as soon as Nara Era (8th century) and still remains important today. During the following centuries, making up the skin pure white (a method close to the geisha’s) showed a sign of belonging to the aristocracy. This pure white was also accentuated with an intense red on the lips, which contrasted naturally with the black color of Japanese hair.

The porcelain trend faded during the 20th century, especially after the WWII, which was influenced and replaced by Western styles, proposed by a culture of image, and reinforced by cosmetic brands, such as Shiseido. Except for a short fad of gyaru, popularized by young girls, Japanese women have remained globally faithful to the minimalist trend, and we speak about 美白 bihaku, which literally translates to "white beauty." This concerns mostly women; men are a lot less concerned with this quest.

Dermatologist are delighted, as avoiding abusive sun rays is the best natural way to prevent skin problems. Only resident of Okinawa, with a natural darker skin tone due to centuries of tropical life, discredit this habit.

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