Traditional Japanese Makeup

Japanese woman in makeup

Geisha and Kabuki makeup are two of the better-known traditional Japanese makeup looks. Japanese women outside of these artistic occupations, however, also used makeup to enhance their features.

Japanese Women and Makeup

Japanese women can often look ethereal with their pale skin and contrasting dark hair. While their complexions are already naturally fair, Japanese women often try to make their skin appear even more pale through the use of cosmetics -- traditionally, this was achieved with rice flour. This isn't the same "white face" seen on Kabuki theater actors, who use oils and waxes to mask their faces. Rice flour and other bird-dropping derived face powders have been used for centuries, along with other makeup accessories that slowly found their way to other nations, including America.

Oil blotting papers and facial scrubs made from finely ground red beans are other innovations that keep Japanese women looking beautiful.

The Look of Traditional Japanese Makeup

The average modern Japanese woman wears cosmetics much like women all around the world. A pale complexion is still prized, so this is one area that differs from countries where a tan is considered healthy-looking.

Traditionally, Geisha and Kabuki theater can provide a glimpse of what traditional Japanese makeup was like.

The Geisha

Women who were or are Geisha enjoy a long and elaborate process to create this traditional look. This isn't a look you can create in 10 minutes. It requires great skill and perfection to apply Geisha makeup correctly.

Hallmarks of Geisha makeup include:

  • A white, matte face
  • Thick, dramatic, black eyebrows
  • Touches of red around the eyes
  • Red lips

Geisha achieve such a pale face with the help of waxy oils and paste. While most women hear advice to blend their makeup well, Geisha purposely leave a small area around their hairline exposed, as well as two V-shapes at the nape of the neck (this is considered a highly desirable area in the culture). Depending on her age, a Geisha will either only color the center bottom of her lip or will paint her whole mouth. Full, lush lips are not the goal of a successful Geisha look.

While a new Geisha wears this time-consuming makeup look in the beginning, as she ages, she gradually adopts a more natural look with less makeup.


Anyone who has seen a Kabuki theater actor will instantly recognize this traditional makeup look, which enjoys a few similarities with Geisha makeup, such as the pale face and red color around the eyes. The Kabuki "mask" isn't the same for every actor, as the individual components identify each according to his age, gender or social status. Applying Kabuki makeup can take several hours. The most prominent colors in Kabuki makeup are red, pink and blue, along with the background of white and the dramatic black accents. Each color represents something different:

  • Red: Anger or passion
  • Pink: Youth
  • Dark blue: Sadness
  • Light blue: Peace
  • Black: Fear

While women usually concentrate cosmetics around their eyes, cheeks and lips, Kabuki actors use their entire face as a painting canvas.

Historical Makeup

Most Japanese women aren't Geisha and you won't see Kabuki makeup outside of the theater, but knowing a bit about the cosmetic traditions of this Asian nation is sure to enlighten. It's especially interesting to note the differences between traditional Japanese makeup and modern makeup for women all around the globe.

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Traditional Japanese Makeup