Vintage Beauty: Destination Japan

Published in: Just For Fun, Makeup

Destination: Japan

Picture a beautiful woman with blackened teeth and shaved brows. Nope, I’m not talking about some crazy runway look at New York Fashion Week. In old school Japan, both were common makeup looks among women (and some men, too).



Ohaguro, the practice of dyeing teeth black, was a common beauty treatment in Japan through the late 1800s. To darken their smiles, men and women applied a savory blend of acetic acid (the compound that gives vinegar its sour taste and scent), iron and fushiko powder, a powder made from the sap of the urushi tree, also known as the lacquer or varnish tree.

Ohaguro also doubled as a dental treatment, protecting teeth from cavities and periodontitis, and its popularity began to wane in the 1870s after the Japanese government banned the practice among aristocrats.

High brow? How ’bout no brow?

Hikimayu, the practice of completely shaving or plucking eyebrows into oblivion, is still seen today. After removing the brows, Japanese women will sometimes draw them back in a little higher on the forehead using black ink (or mascara).

I’d always thought American flappers pioneered the look, but forms of it were popular in Japan well before the 1920s.

More vintage Japanese beauty bits from back in the day…

  • During Japan’s Edo period (1603-1885) women would shave their brows after giving birth and dye their teeth after getting married.
  • Vintage Japanese beauties often wore face powders made with lead (now considered a no no), which they’d dissolve in water and apply with a brush to their face, neck and chest.
  • In ancient Japan, blush was only worn by the wealthy. The color that was commonly used was extracted from the rouge flower, and it was a very expensive process.

Interesting, isn’t it?

I’m thinking about doing a series of these posts on the changing face of beauty in different cultures over the centuries. Let me know if you like the idea, and please comment if you know of any other interesting Japanese beauty trends from days gone by.

Your friendly neighborhood beauty addict,


P.S. If you’re new here, thank you for visiting. Makeup and Beauty Blog is a makeup blog with daily product reviews, beauty tips, giveaways and the random shenanigans of a crazy cat lady/makeup enthusiast named Karen (that’s me!). πŸ™‚


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So far, 55 people have commented on this article. How cool is that?

  1. Vanessa H says:

    Blackened teeth? That is a very interesting idea lol.

    I would love to see a post on the changing face of beauty!

  2. Kelly Keeton says:

    I love the idea of these kinds of posts. It’s really interesting to see what they did in other cultures and time periods!
    Kelly Keeton recently posted … Barielle Style In Argyle Fall 2010 Nail Collection Swatches &amp Review

  3. Rinnie says:

    I like reading about the history of how many practices have developed over the years, and make-up being one of my passions, I love this idea. You should totally do this series, it is very interesting to know that modern beauty traditions have deep roots over many cultures. I remember when I worked in a mall in Westwood, CA that had a kiosk selling original Japanese kabuki brushes and books on traditional applications of geisha make-up. I wanted to buy some but it was a little over my modest budget at the time. If you don’t mind doing the research I’d like to read these posts.

  4. JoJo says:

    Love the idea- keep them coming! x

  5. Shannon says:

    I would LOVE to read about that! I give that idea a thmubs up. πŸ™‚

  6. gio says:

    I love this type of posts, keep them coming. πŸ™‚
    gio recently posted … How to care for combination skin

  7. Kim says:

    This is a great idea, Karen! It’s amazing to see what different cultures, at different times in history, found attractive. I must admit that the thought of blackened teeth creeps me out though. The more discolored a person’s teeth get, the higher the heebie-jeebie factor for me! πŸ™‚

  8. Nina says:

    I love this article – esp because im interested in Japanese culture! Thanks!

    Although I must say, I dont think id ever want to dye my teeth black! πŸ˜€

    I read an article once about geisha makeup and the one thing that struck me the most was how they would exagerate the hairline on the nape of the woman because that was apparently a very sexy part of a woman’s body. πŸ™‚

  9. Trisha says:

    This was very interesting. You should totally keep doing these posts.

    As for the topic, those seem pretty extreme. Then again, since it was a part of Japanese culture, I’m sure they didn’t think it was weird. Although I do like the idea of the black teeth also protecting them from cavities. Nice!
    Trisha recently posted … An elf Haul From Target

  10. Glosslizard says:

    I love the idea! Evolution of cosmetics (or cosmetic practices)!

  11. shannon says:

    I LOVE THIS ARTICLE!! Please keep them coming:) so cool to see what other cultures perception of beauty is.. Thanks!!

  12. Melissa W. says:

    Years ago when I read Memoirs of a Geisha I was obsessed with the descriptions of their makeup. I love reading about beauty rituals of the past and I love seeing old vintage makeup and advertisements. I had not heard much about the practice of darkening the teeth though! I had to go find an image of it:
    Melissa W. recently posted … Top 10 Cutest Brands

  13. Chrissy says:

    Great idea for a post series Karen!
    Chrissy recently posted … A present for me!!! Wooohooo!

  14. christina says:

    Wow interesting posts
    I would love to read more about different cultures as well!!
    christina recently posted … GO JAYS GO!!

  15. Mai-Huong says:

    Another big thing is that single eyelids were considered very beautiful, as opposed to today in Asia, where having a prominent eyelid crease (like most Caucasians) is thought of to be prettier (which is evident by the amount of plastic surgery performed to achieve just that).

    I love this post! I’m very into Asian (and especially Japanese) culture, but that might be because I AM Asian, lol.

  16. lexi says:

    I love random beauty history like this! Good one…more please…

  17. Katrina says:

    You should definitely keep doing these posts! I find them super interesting!

  18. Mandy says:

    I love the idea of looking at the changing face of beauty across cultures and time! It really puts in perspective that although I bust my butt trying to look a certain way now, in 100 years time what I think is beautiful will be out of fashion. Reminded myself that beauty is a cultural construct helps me to accept my looks as they are.

    • Karen says:

      Sometimes I like to think about what will be considered beautiful in 100 years… I can’t even begin to imagine what sorts of innovations will be around at that time.

  19. Kate & Zena says:

    I love these posts.

    I don’t remember what century it was, but aristocrats and wealthy geisha used to make their faces stark white by using rice powder and a powder puff.

    Wealthy geisha used to put some kind of bird dung (I think it was dove and it was hideously expensive) to keep their complexions clear (um, ew!) during the 1920s and 30s. During this time, geisha used charcoal to fill in their brows as well.

    • Karen says:

      Oh yeah, I remember reading about bird poop being a very popular ingredient in skin products. Eww is all I have to say to that.

    • Rie says:

      Bird dung was actually used as a cleanser πŸ˜€ I saw it in a Japanese tv show while in Japan. They used to show women with black teeth and no eyebrows in historical tv shows but since it wasn’t really popular with the tv companies they stopped showing women with no eyebrows and black teeth.

  20. kelley says:

    LOVE the idea! one might get inspired, u never know πŸ™‚
    kelley recently posted … Fire in your new shoes

  21. Mary Eleazar says:

    I would love to read more about the history of beauty and beauty products–maybe, if possible, with a link to articles or photos? I live for this kind of stuff!

  22. Twetriz says:

    Great article Karen, even thou is hard to picture me with black teeth and no browns, is always nice to leaqrn new things. πŸ™‚
    Twetriz recently posted … Angel by Thierry Mugler For Women

  23. etango says:

    My academic RSS and beauty RSS coming together! There was an article I was reading about just this morning on how aristocrats in the Edo period were unknowingly giving their children lead poisoning from their use of white lead face powder. Researchers studying the bones of children found that their lead levels were much high than adults, probably because the children were accidentally ingesting the lead through incidental contact (breastfeeding is given as an example.)

  24. Tina says:

    This topic is a keeper. Blackened teeth, on purpose..hmmm, I thought it was just because they didn’t brush their teeth (perhaps I’m only thinking England and France). One of my favorite books is called Pink Think. It’s got a few tips in there regarding hygiene in the US. For etango: I thought aristocrats used wet nurses? That it was considered better for the child that mom not breastfeed?

  25. Atifa H says:

    Please continue with these kinds of posts! So interesting!

  26. Eve says:

    i totally love love this post and most def look foward to more!!!

  27. Liz! says:

    Very interesting read. I loveLOVE the idea you’re having about the definition of beauty across time and culture, it’s fascinating!

  28. Andrea says:

    I would love it if you did more posts like this πŸ™‚

  29. Erin says:

    Cool post Karen! Interesting because now everyone’s trying to bleach their teeth like craaaazy!
    Erin recently posted … Reader Request- China Glaze Grape Pop with Wet and Wild Glitz

  30. Yes, keep these posts coming! They’re really interesting to read πŸ™‚

  31. Kae says:

    Oh wow, I just now found out why my teeth were black as a child! I never show anyone my photos of me as a young child because I could never explain why my teeth are black in them. I vaguely remember my father telling me it was to protect my teeth. Mine weren’t full on black but they looked like a kid scribbled on every one of my teeth wtih a black sharpie.

    We moved to the US when I was around 6 and my first dentist trip around 8 or something. I remember the dentist asking me what it was and I couldn’t explain. This was all like 25 years ago so the details are a blur, all I know is I was really ashamed of my “dirty” teeth growing up in America lol.
    Kae recently posted … Lippmann Across The Universe

  32. shugal says:

    Great Idea!! I love to hear about different cultures and make up rituals…fun!
    Blackened teeth on purpose? wow. Learn something new everyday from you!! πŸ™‚

  33. K says:

    I would love for you to continue in this series! Learning about the background of makeup, something so essential to modern women, is pretty interesting.
    K recently posted … Another blow to the fairy tale

  34. Sherry B. says:

    It’s fascinating! Keep it coming, Karen, PLEASE!

  35. Liz says:

    I would love to see more posts on beauty in different cultures and/or different times.

  36. HanaBerlin says:

    I would love to learn about other beauty practices!!! Great idea Karen… If you get a chance lookup Chinese foot binding and Medeval beauty practices…

  37. Jessica says:

    Love this post! Keep them coming.

  38. amy says:

    I think this would be a great series, if you keep it going, i love learning about history of beauty, fashion and art/design and etc from different cultures. Oprah recently did a whole show about different ideals of beauty around the world. According to the show’s Japanese segment, nowadays, Japanese women like to use skin care with some kind of bird poo in it.
    amy recently posted … Fiercely Sunny NOTD OPI Nail Lacquer Shrek Forever After Nail Lacquer in Fiercely Fiona

  39. Jessica says:

    It was nightengale droppings, and you can still get it now… I can’t remember where I found that information. A few months ago, I was really into researching historic Japanese beauty habits, especially skin care. I use ground adzuki beans 3x a week as a scrub, and I love it.

    I would love to see more articles like this. I am a history and makeup buff!!!

  40. Shanette says:

    I would LOVE to see a post about different cultures beauty history! I am a huge history buff and little is known about makeup and beauty from the past.
    Shanette recently posted … Bibbity Bobbity BOO

  41. Saku says:

    I like this idea . I heard about the teeth thing. The Geisha makeup and the process of putting on the kimono and obi. Plus the designs are so pretty. I like history.^.^

  42. Ranyah says:

    The history of makeup and beauty practices and standards is such a great topic! It would also be interesting to post other practices from different countries and eras. I’d love to read more.
    Ranyah recently posted … baileys

  43. Marina says:

    That’s interesting. I’ve studied culture at uni so I obviously like beauty and culture together.
    Marina recently posted … Sunday 08072010 Beautiful Reading- Christmas Collections

  44. Phyrra says:

    I love the vintage beauty idea. You should definitely do more posts πŸ™‚
    Phyrra recently posted … Pretty Greens

  45. Petra says:

    Yes, definitely do more posts like this (personally I wouldn’ mind if they were even longer or more in depth – I can’t get enough of these topics, or cat-stuff, and I love Your writing style)! Really great idea to introduce to Your lovely blog, Karren. πŸ™‚

  46. Angel Dargis says:

    Seeing as how we just moved to Japan this is a really interesting topic. There are some crazy beautiful women here, but I can’t imagine them with black teeth!

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