Representing Ideology: Gender and Japaneseness in Women's White Faces

Dr Mikiko Ashikari (PhD of Social Anthropology)

Sunday, 12 May, 2002; 7:30-9:30pm

Chetwynd Room, King's College

In Japan, the majority of mature women wear foundation which makes their faces look whiter than they really are, whenever they go to public places, both in the daytime and in the evening. My talk is about middle-class Japanese women as they have experienced and represented their gender in relation to the whitening of their faces. Many Japanese women who live outside Japan for a long time come to stop the practice of face-whitening as long as they are living outside the Japanese community. One of these women said that it was easy to spot the Japanese women who have just come from Japan due to their identical white painted faces. My research suggests that the face-whitening practice is related to the public representation of ideal womanhood based on the ideological division by gender - soto (outside the home)/men and uchi (home)/women - within Japanese society. Women's white faces serve as an item of vocabulary in a symbolic language, which communicates gender relations. Through the dominant representation of gender relations, women learn how to negotiate not only a better position within gender relations, but also the power which is tied to the gender ideology.
Both my street observation and questionnaire survey suggest that the vast majority of women wear foundation in public place. However, middle-class Japanese women do not often wear foundation at home, and they usually decorate their faces with foundation before they go outside. They claim that they put on foundation before they go to soto because wearing foundation in public places is echiketto (etiquette) or joshiki (common sense) for mature women. Wearing foundation in public places appears to be the norm for middle-class women in contemporary Japan. A middle-class woman who happens to go to work without make-up one day is irritated to find herself being questioned by her colleagues, both male and female, who want to know what is wrong with her, why she isn't wearing make-up, and whether she is feeling ill. Middle-class men and women take it for granted that a woman will wear make-up in public. In other words, since the great majority of women - more than 95 percent of them - wear make-up in public places, if a mature middle-class woman appeared with an unmade-face in public, she would inevitably be making a statement. An informant told me that such a woman gave the impression of being a grass-roots activist, a feminist activist, or a non-Japanese. The tone of her voice revealed that she did not want to be mistaken as any of them. Focusing on women's white faces, I analyse gender in contemporary Japan. I would appreciate it if you give me any comment from a "native" point of view in the meeting.