People watching – Tanned skin

While visiting the Hachiko statue in Shibuya, I noticed a Japanese girl with tanned skin. Both her skin tone and overall styling caught my attention and I snapped a picture of her.

japan tanned skin

Japanese girl with tanned skin

In Japan, the classic beauty ideal is to have a skin that is as pale and white as possible. To achieve this look, Japanese women go to extreme lengths to avoid sun exposure and use whitening products, referred to as bihaku 美白. This preference for white skin is believed to stem from past times when poor people worked the land and had tanned skin, while rich people stayed indoors and thus had lighter skin. 

sekkisei by kose skin whitening japan

One of the most popular skin whitening product line in Japan is the Sekkisei line by KOSE

The girl in the first picture, however, has a perfect tan, which leads me to believe that she purposefully went for this look with tanning creams or sessions in a tanning salon. Given the Japanese preference for pale skin, her skin tone stood out.

After doing some research on tanned skin fashion trends in Japan, I discovered two trends. The first one is Ganguro, which was popular from the mid-1990’s to about 2000. Ganguro is characterized by a dark tan and contrasting make-up. The trend died out in 2000, when the sudden popularity of pop singer Ayumi Hamasaki sparked a renewed interest in white skin.

ganguro japan tanned skin

Ganguro fashion trend with tanned skin and contrasting make-up

ayumi_hamasaki

The popularity of pop singer Ayumi Hamasaki, with her perfect pale skin, contributed to the popularity of bihaku skin whitening products

The other trend is B-style and seems to be a more recent thing. In B-style, Japanese youngsters try to imitate the look of American hip-hop stars, aspiring to look as much like Afro-Americans as possible. Dutch television show Metropolis made a short documentary on the subject. This trend is far from mainstream however, seeming to revolve pretty much around a single store in Tokyo called Baby Shoop.

b-style tanned skin

B-style is a trend where Japanese people try to look like Afro-American hip-hop stars. It is only a very small subculture.

Looking at the girl in my picture, she doesn’t seem to be belong to any of these two trends. She has tanned skin but pretty subdued make-up compared to Ganguro style. Her clothing seems quite provocative to me, but then again, the metropolis Tokyo isn’t the same as provincial Toyota City or conservative Nagoya to which I am used to, so maybe in Tokyo this look isn’t quite so outrageous? I would love to get other people’s perspective on this, to see how they perceive this look and how it would look to a Japanese person. Feel free to join the discussion in the comments section.

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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 blogs.reuters.com

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.