Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Age of Tranquility and Peace: Heian Japan #10: The Dark Smile of Beauty, Ohaguro

I present the tenth in my series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, just click here for an overview of the Heian era.


Beauty standards vary wildly by culture and time period. Paleness, for example, has often been historically valued for its implicit lack of association with outdoor labor. A proper aristocratic Heian beauty would take this to an extreme by using rice-powder (or lead-based, yikes) make-up to ensure a pale face. Such a beauty regime isn't particularly unusual cross-culturally, but those same Heian beauties would combine the facial work with something a bit less common (even if not unique to Japan): blackened teeth.

Actually, following the lead of the imperial family, this blackening of the teeth, ohaguro, was seen both among aristocratic men and women, even though it tended to be more common in women, and the relative gender balance would vary throughout the Heian era. While in later periods teeth darkening was often associated with older married women, in this era it tended to be more associated with adolescents and coming-of-age.

The involvement of both men and women might seem odd at first. Black teeth were desired because they were considered beautiful. This means, in turn, that men were applying a beautification treatment. This was  consistent with general Heian aesthetic ideals. Although there were obvious differences between what was expected of men and women, the underlying Heian obsession with beauty was applied to both genders. A proper aristocratic man was expected to be beautiful in his own way. One might even argue that the two fundamental pillars of Heian thought were beauty and harmony.

Darkened teeth were valued for multiple reasons. Black teeth contrasted nicely with the common pale white make-up. In addition, Heian aristocrats found aesthetic value in the color itself. There's also the more practical reality of limited dental care in this period often leaving the typical citizen, even aristocrats, with unattractive yellowed teeth if not otherwise dyed. In addition to the aesthetic aspects, ohaguro also acted as a sort of a primitive dental sealant and helped to limit tooth decay. While the people of the period may not have had a full handle on why ohaguro helped their teeth, they were aware of the health benefit.

Despite evidence that teeth darkening may have started centuries prior to the start of the Heian era, it seems to have become firmly established during the Nara era (710-794) and then became wide-spread (among aristocrats at least) during the Heian period.  It's specifically referenced in the 11th-century Tale of Genji. The practice would linger on in Japan until the 19th-century, when it was banned as part of general cultural reforms by the government.

The actual dyeing was accomplished with an acidic mixture of tea, vinegar, rice wine, and iron fillings. This was not a permanent procedure, and generally required reapplication every few days or so. Besides the basic time inconvenience, the dye itself smelled awful.

Ah, the things people'll do for beauty.


Diane Carlisle said...

I'm half Japanese, but ah, we learn something new!

Eye surgery has become very popular there as well, moreso than I'd say breast augmentation here in the US.

J.A. Beard said...

The eye surgery thing seems to be spreading all over East Asia, well, at least Korea as well, as it was super-common over there both in terms of operation and desire for the operation when I lived there.