Sun protection in Japan

Japanese women are famous for their beautiful skin. Not only do they seem to stay wrinkle free a lot longer than Western women, many of them also appear to have a perfectly even skin with a beautiful glow about it.

Japanese beauty expert Chizu Saeki, author of the book 'The Japanese skin care revolution', aged 66
Japanese beauty expert Chizu Saeki, author of the book ‘The Japanese skin care revolution’, age 66 – Image from

How do Japanese women achieve such beautiful skin? Apart from paying a lot of attention to skin care, and possibly genetic factors, I think the main reason is that Japanese women stay out of the sun. They do this not only to keep their skin young, they also want to keep their skin as white as possible. While in Belgium many women prefer ‘a healthy sun-kissed glow’, in Japan the beauty ideal is for skin to be as white as possible and free of any blemishes.

Japanese women take staying out of the sun to a whole other level. While most Western women (or should I just speak for myself?) already feel quite proud of themselves if they remember to put on some sun screen before leaving the house in the morning, Japanese women use many different attributes to avoid the sun.

Of course there is the age-old classic, the parasol or umbrella. It is really very common to see people in Japan using a parasol to shield themselves from the sun. Department stores play into this by selling beautiful summer parasols. I have to admit that even I have taken to the habit of using a parasol in summer in Japan. My main motivation is not so much skin care (I think the damage is already done there) but avoiding heat stroke. The summer sun in Japan is very intense. It took me a little while to overcome my culturally based embarrassment since people in Belgium would probably laugh at anyone using a parasol. After getting used to it however, I found it very convenient.

sun protection in Japan
Mid July in Inuyama. The sun is beating down on the pavement and as you can see from the empty street, anyone in their right mind has sought refuge inside. Only two gaijin wander the afternoon streets. It is so hot that a sunshade seems required even while standing in the shade ^_^

A second popular attribute is the summer hat. In Belgium, only the most hardcore fashionistas will be seen wearing a summer hat. In Japan however, hats are very popular. There is a vast range of beautiful summer hats available. Some women, mostly elderly ladies, will even wear special hats with neck and throat covers.

hats and sunshades in the summer in nagoya
Queuing to enter Nagoya Castle Festival in August. Sunshades and summer hats in abundance.

Some women go even further. They insist on keeping all body parts covered at all times, despite the smouldering summer heat of 35° C and over. This results in wearing tights and long-sleeved tops in summer. For women who still want to wear a short sleeve top but protect their skin at the same time, special arm and hand covers exist that can be slipped on when going outside or when driving a car.

protective arm covers for sale in Japan
Protective arm covers for sale
japan sun protection gloves
A stylish Japanese lady with elaborate sun protection, consisting of a parasol, long gloves and nylons that were probably marketed as offering extra UV protection – Photograph by Martin Goodwin

Even women who work the land do their best to keep their skin as fair as possible. They will always wear gloves and a special hat that covers their face and neck as much as possible.

Farmer woman working the land in Japan
Farmer woman working the land in Japan – Image by Aaron Whitfield

The final attribute, and the one that surprised me the most, are special hand covers to be used when riding the bike. The covers are attached to the steering wheel and cover the hands completely.

bicycle with sun protection in Japan
A bicycle with protective sleeves for the hands

Now that I am living in Belgium again, I have eased up a bit on the sun discipline. After a long, dark Belgian winter, Belgian people tend to soak up as much sun as they can get during the summer. But the Japanese attitude towards the sun did have a lasting impact on me. I have gone from being an avid ‘sun worshipper’ to a careful recreational user.


32 thoughts on “Sun protection in Japan

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  1. Nice blog and walking 1500km in Japan I always say my two most important daily rituals are stretching and suncream. One question though… any idea if they suffer from vitamine E deficiency? (I think vitamine E is the one from the sun…? If not I mean the one we get from the sun).

    Cheers, d’Arcy.

    1. I think the vitamin you get from sun exposure is vitamin D. I’m not sure if vitamin D deficiency is a problem in Japan. I’ve certainly never heard of it. Japan gets a lot of sunshine (a lot more than Belgium), so perhaps even with all that protection, they still get plenty of exposure to the sun. Not sure though.

  2. That’s one of the things I love about Japan! People don’t make fun of my ludicrously over the top sun protection measures, because theirs are even greater!

    I’m Australian, though; the damage was done before I was ten, so I’m going to look a hundred when I’m forty.

    1. I’m afraid the same goes for me. Lots of damage was done before I knew better. But I’m hoping better late than never still counts for something here!

  3. My mom and aunt are funny about sun protection. My mom and aunt have so many hats! And my aunt has driving gloves. I find it all pretty funny but they used to work in the fields so they got used to protecting themselves from the sun. Being Mexican I tan easily and I rarely put sunscreen on @_@ we do happen to have really good skin.

    1. Of course skin type is very important when considering sun protection. I have often wished I was more of a Mediterrenean type who bronzes easily and has beautiful olive skin. But alas, like most Belgians I have a very light skin. When the first sun hits Belgium, it often results in people with lobster red skin after spending an afternoon in the sun. You are lucky to bronze easily and have good skin to boot! ^_^

  4. Me too! I started using a parasol in the summer mostly because it’s cools you down by a few degrees! The sun is so strong here in Japan. But I don’t think I can ever do the long gloves in the summer. Way too hot!

  5. I so do not understand anyone who wears nylons with sandals. Beats the whole purpose of wearing sandals with less covering so as to keep your feet cool…

    1. Haha, you are so right! This reminds me of my Japanese teacher in Belgium. She used to complain about the same thing. In her office in Japan people would put pressure on her to wear nylons with sandals, since it was considered more proper. She said she could not understand why anyone would wear nylons in the Japanese summer heat.

  6. Great blog Helena!
    Yes we Japanese try to stay away from the sun as much as we can to keep our skin in good condition and to stay white. When i lived in Europe, some people asked me what’s my secret to stay younger than my age. I always answered them because we always try to avoid sun light, cover up in the sun as much as we can. And when people laugh at you, we say ‘あとでわらうのは、わたし’ It’s me who laughs last!

      1. Mari-chan, thank you for commenting! I always love to hear your perspective, since it’s the opposite of mine (I mean having lived in Belgium as a Japanese person). The saying you mention also exists in Belgium. I will try to keep it in mind the next time someone laughs at me 🙂

    1. That’s too bad. I hadn’t expected that since I also saw men using hats and sunshades while I was in Japan. If you look at the picture of the Nagoya Castle queue, you will see half the people with sunshades are men.

      Have you become a secret sunscreen user then? In the morning before you leave the house? Quickly in the bathroom at school? :p

  7. Hi Helena,
    I remember this while I was in Japan. I come back home and people sun bath and wrinkle. I’m careful because of my red-hair and pale skin. But I must admit, I’m lucky at 49 years of age, I don’t have many wrinkles. I’ve been careful about the sun for years. When I saw Japanese woman and men using umbrellas in the sun I was a little confused. Not anymore! They are wise people! I miss you and enjoyed my short visit to Japan and meeting you and your husband. Hope all is well with you!

    Take care,

    1. Hi Bonnie

      It is so nice to hear from you again. I also vividly remember your visit. We had so much fun! I think many things that Japanese people do seem silly at first, but when you think about it, I often find they have the right idea. Fortunately (?) up til now the weather in Belgium has been so bad that I have not yet been placed before the dilemma of whether or not to use my sunshade in Belgium 🙂

      Best wishes, also to your family

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