Note: When I talk about pale and tan skin, I’m not referring to race – this article is discussing artificial means of changing natural skin colour.

(image from Egg magazine, December 2008)

With the hot weather (sort of) upon us, the quest for a summer tan is high on may people’s agenda. Where Samuel & I live in Telephone Tower is very close to sea (there’s even a nudist beach for the brave!), and all summer long we see lobster-like people with sunburn heading to and from the coast. But hey, we live in the West – what’s it like in Japan?

If you happen to be in Japan in the summer months, you can’t help but notice older women totally covered from head to toe despite the heat – I’ve also seen these women cycling around Osaka in what look like chemical warfare suits with full-on anti-UV visors. Madness you might think, or too much vampire fiction, but anti-UV protection, and indeed pale skin is big business in Japan, and the rest of Asia too.

From skin lightening cream and soaps to what amount to bleaches, pale skin is in for both the young and old alike. Pale skin has long been considered traditionally beautiful in Japan – just think of the contrast between kimono silk, dark hair and white skin. In the West as well as the East, lighter skin often meant less time outdoors – waif-like creatures perhaps pursuing upper-class intellectualism, that certainly couldn’t be confused with a tanned farmer out in the sun. Therefore, in the minds of many wealth and lighter skin went hand in hand. Issues of colonialism and out-dated social stereotypes aside, I read an article recently on the way Japanese skin shows age – apparently sun spots become more noticeable rather than wrinkles, and this may go some way to explaining the aforementioned anti-UV suits.

However, there are sections of the fashionable youth that do prefer a tan. Stemming from the ganguro (lit. black face) and manba fashions, there was a huge pro-tan revolution and large numbers of tanning salons still exist. Although current gyaru fashion doesn’t explicitly require a tan, the two are still often talked about together. Some have linked this fashion for artificially darkening the skin to the popularity of African-American culture in Japan. Personally, I’m not convinced by that explanation – I think it has much more to do with the rejection of traditional beauty ideals by the disaffected urban youth. Dark tans are still popular with the ora-ora crowd, yet with their somewhat nationalistic take on traditional imagery, their dark tans and lightened hair take on a wholly different cultural context – one that puts them on the fringes of society, by choice or not.

I try my hardest to look after my skin, what with having large tattoo coverage I have to be careful of sun damage, and Samuel and I both love to moisturise – a habit he picked up in Japan! There are downsides to both artificially lightening and darkening skin, and I think the current generation who are experimenting with changing their skin colour may regret the choices of their youth. Beauty is, after all, not only skin deep.


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