Quest for Perfect Skin

  • Peter Barakan


    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt


    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Kaori Ishida

    Main guest

    In 1992 Ishida began work at a major Japanese cosmetics firm, where she went on to research “makeup culture” at the firm’s own Institute of Beauty Science. After leaving that position in 2000, she accepted a professorship at Komazawa Women’s University, where she conducts her investigations into rather a new field: the philosophical study of cosmetics.


November 10, 2016

Quest for Perfect Skin

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To many, the quintessential image of Japanese feminine beauty remains the pristine white visage of geisha and maiko, traditional entertainers who embody all that seems exotic and mysterious about Japan as inhabitants of the little-understood realm called the karyukai, the “flower and willow world.” In centuries past, geisha would apply a thick coat of snow-white oshiroi (once made from lead oxide, later rice powder) to ensure their features stood out in the dimly candle-lit chambers in which they entertained their male patrons.


Many women use a staggering range of skincare products every day.

However, the Japanese tradition of whitening the skin goes further back than the 19th-century emergence of the geisha as we know them today. Oshiroi was first used among the nobility of the Nara period (710–94), and in the Heian period (794–1185) was also adopted by the courtly shirabyoshi dancers whose elegant, stylized performances for the powerful elite laid the template for later geisha culture. 


It was in the Edo period (1603–1868) that cosmetics and skincare first found popularity among Japan’s broader population.

It was in the Edo period (1603–1868), as Japan enjoyed two centuries of peace and prosperity under the Tokugawa shogunate, that cosmetic products became more affordable to the wider populace. The growing availability of bijin-ga––painted scrolls and woodblock prints depicting beauties––further helped to spread popular notions of attractiveness, and cemented the ideal of irojiro-hada (“light-complexioned skin”), which our expert guest Kaori Ishida describes as not simply “light skin tone,” but “smooth skin without blemishes, freckles, pimples, or moles. Flawless skin...a perfect skin condition.”


Expert guest Kaori Ishida is known for her writings on the history and philosophical study of cosmetics.

Ishida goes on to explain, however, how that ideal was interpreted slightly differently during the two great cultural peaks of the Edo period, Genroku (approx. 1688–1707) and Kasei (approx. 1804–30), and she mentions a 19th-century beauty bible: Miyako Fuzoku Kewaiden (“A Handbook of Cosmetics in the Capital”), first published in 1813. This text contained all manner of tips––from boiling down pigs’ trotters for a collagen facial treatment; to exfoliating the skin post-bath with nourishing rice bran; and applying successive coats of oshiroi, which were patted off with a towel to display the radiant skin underneath––and remained in print for an astonishing 110 years.  



Beautician Tomoe Kakutani demonstrates how to work up a lather for cleansing the face.

Japan’s ideals of beauty may have varied in the years since. The 1960s saw tanned skin become fashionable for the first time, shedding its connotations of outdoor manual work to signify the beach-and-boat lifestyle of the pleasure-seeking taiyo-zoku (“sun tribe”) elite. Led by supermodel Sayoko Yamaguchi, the late 1970s and 1980s saw a return to the striking, classically inspired contrast of fair skin and jet-black hair, as Japanese trends became a signifier for otherness, heavily inspiring the global “new-romantic” movement. And the 1990s saw many urban youth once again reject the demure beauty ideals of preceding generations for the tanned gyaru style. In its most extreme variant, known as ganguro (“black face”), girls (and sometimes boys) would visit solariums and use fake tan for a chestnut-brown complexion, which was offset with white eyeshadow, lipstick, and brightly bleached hair. Recent years have seen a more natural look return to favor. 


These days, leading brands devote huge sums to research that combines both traditional techniques and cutting-edge science to supply Japan’s skincare-conscious women with the products they need to fight the advancing years and achieve the prevailing look. Latterly, this approach has inspired similar cosmetics booms in nearby countries like China, South Korea, and Taiwan. And as inbound tourism becomes increasingly important to Japan’s economy, one recent survey even revealed that cosmetics shops and beauty salons now rank among the top destinations for female visitors from these neighbors. 

This time, Peter Barakan literally takes a hands-on approach to the topic by working up a soapy lather in order to wash his face. He receives expert guidance, but how will he fare? Matt Alt, meanwhile, has an opportunity to learn some secrets from a “beauty witch,” a recent Japanese coinage that denotes an “ageless beauty.” Through their encounters and experiences, both Peter and Matt reveal a glimpse of the lengths to which many women will go in Japan for the sake of a perfect skin.


Makeup artist Miyako Okamoto explains how to achieve an extremely natural look.


Peter joins the quest for perfect skin. 

Also appearing

Kako Iizuka

56-year-old Iizuka's youthful looks have enabled her to build a career as an amateur model and beauty blogger, also earning her the nickname "Beauty Witch."

Tomoe Kakutani

Joined a major cosmetics company in 1988, where she is now senior beauty specialist.

Miyako Okamoto

Hair and makeup artist with a major cosmetics manufacturer, Okamoto has worked on numerous commercial TV, and magazine shoots, as well as overseas fashion shows.

*You will leave the NHK website.