Embodying Japan: Cultures of Sport, Beauty, and Medicine 2017

Korean Beauty in Japan

             The issue of being a zainichi, or ethnic Korean born in Japan, is one that I find has strong ties to the perception of beauty in Japan. Due to the increasing popularity of media such as K-Pop and Korean cosmetics in the Japanese market, identity as zainichi has steadily become tied to these other consumable commodities, which surround Japanese in their everyday lives. Whether via Korean dramas, boy bands, or even popular Korean YouTube vloggers, beauty in Japan now must contend with and incorporate elements of Hallyu, or the Korean wave. The product of this addition to the Japanese beauty standard can be seen not only in popular films, such as the 2001 movie Go, but also through cosmetics and YouTube vlogs. All three avenues are explored on this page, ultimately culminating in the suggestion that Korean beauty standards have increasingly become a part of Japanese beauty as well through the direct involvement and portrayal of zainichi.
            Beginning with the 2001 movie Go we viewed in our class this semester (JAPN 482 at UNC), the link to beauty is perhaps more difficult to discern than with the other two forms of media discussed here, but it might be easiest to conceptualize this link in terms of what the protagonist, Sugihara, does not find beautiful: himself, a zainichi constantly getting into trouble with the law and, as a result, with his own family. The one time it appears Sugihara begins to think of himself as “beautiful” (or perhaps just not ugly) is when pursuing a relationship with Sakurai. Throughout the film, and especially when they first meet at a friend’s party, we see that he idolizes Sakurai for her unrivalled beauty (the audiobook he is listening to as she descends the staircase describes the pure, distinctly Japanese beauty of the geisha in the Yoshiwara prostitution district) and so, by consenting to a romantic relationship with him, it is almost as if Sakurai’s presence transfers a bit of this normalcy (and beauty) onto him. After all, couples (even in Japan) are often conceptualized as a unit, as with the phrase fuufu, or romantic couple, written out in the corresponding kanji characters (literally “husband” and “wife” next to each other, like so: 夫婦.)

Thus, when Sakurai so negatively reacts to Sugihara revealing his identity as a zainichi, the ultimate slap in the face is her emphasizing her Japanese first name, which she had concealed up until that moment: Tsubaki, which is the name of a Japanese flower, and thus has the connotation of being not only pure and beautiful like a flower, but also above all very Japanese. By the end of the film, however, the Japanese audience is encouraged to, like Tsubaki Sakurai, accept Sugihara for who he is and for his own beauty, which in his case is very rough and chiseled like a boxer (just like his father.)
            Another interesting aspect of Korean beauty in Japan comes in the form of cosmetics, which have recently gained popularity, especially in popular urban centers like Tokyo and areas like Shin-Okubo, a Koreatown in Shinjuku (see page 55 of the PDF on this page.) Through the recent influx of Korean cosmetics into Japan, it is perhaps obvious to note that this influx serves as a bridge between the kinds of flaws Korean cosmetics companies (like Etude House and Tonymoly) purport to be able to fix and those that Japanese cosmetics companies (e.g. Shiseido and Shu Uemura) would like to highlight. As Mikiko Ashikari notes in her article “Cultivating Japanese Whiteness”, whitening creams form an entire segment of the Japanese cosmetics industry valued at at least 160 billion yen as of 1997 (Ashikari 74). This number has surely grown with the addition of yet more brands via South Korean import. With SK as the origin of many of these kinds of whitening creams, I am mainly curious regarding a single perception regarding Korean women gleaned from Ashikari’s ethnographic fieldwork. From page 84 of her article:

… [T]he skin color of… non-Japanese [people] often comes to be perceived as darker or different to the Japanese eyes. One [Japanese] woman in her 30s happened to find out that a friend of her friend was a Korean student. Then she said, ‘Uh ha, that’s why her skin has a whiteness which cannot be found in our Japanese skin.'

What is so interesting about this excerpt is at first Ashikari’s insinuation that non-Japanese people are generally perceived as darker first (although the word “different” that follows could mean any number of things) contrasted with the Japanese informant’s assertion that her friend’s Korean identity explains why her skin is so much whiter than a Japanese woman’s skin. I would be curious to ask this woman more about her reasons for believing so: whether it be, as I would hazard a guess, linkage of the Korean companies that sell whitening products in Japan and the Korean models advertising these products, or a remnant of Japan’s colonial history with Korea resurfacing in the form of a then commonly-held stereotype about Korean women that has been left unchecked. In any case, it is clear to me from this kind of remark that at the very least some Japanese women have internalized a certain perception of Korean beauty from their cosmetics shopping habits. As Courtney Cho from our class discusses further on one of her pages in the form of an interview, plastic surgery is another interesting lens through which to examine Korean beauty in Japan that is beyond the scope of this page.
            So why does Korean beauty in Japan matter? Simply put, the intensity of globalizing forces in Japan in recent years (especially in preparation for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo,) has led to consumer trends like the influx of Korean beauty product lines and the popularity of Korean vloggers, which in turn has brought Korean beauty standards into the country. I suggest that the video included below, featuring a YouTube personality named Hyuk, is an interesting lens by which we might consider the more human aspect of this change. As with the fictional Sugihara in the movie Go, the vlogger Hyuk has to answer some difficult, probing questions from his Japanese fans that occasionally appear to make him visibly uncomfortable despite being overwhelmingly complimentary. I feel that the reason for these kinds of reactions from the vlogger is the way that the questions are phrased, in that they seem to imply that the viewers were expecting something else, or that they see him mostly as zainichi rather than Japanese. For example, comments like “Your Japanese is so good” and “What kind of girls do you like?” were common. For those interested, I have transcribed two short sections of the video into English below:

3:28: (reading comment from a Korean YouTube user) "No, your Japanese is too good! Ha. When I first saw you, I thought you were Japanese!"
3:32-38: (visibly uncomfortable) Thank you.... (voice-over: No, even if I'm being complimented by Tteok-bokki [referring to commenter's avatar image] it's a little complicated...)

5:51: (reading a user comment) "Congratulations [on getting many subscribers]! You also have a lot of male fans, don't you? I am always excitedly watching your videos. Good... when I've watched, I aways feel so relieved [that you got through making the video]. I'm looking forward to your future activities [videos]! Question: When you think about something, do you think in Japanese? Korean? Which one?" 
6:04-6:44: So about this... when I'm in Japan I think in Japanese. When I'm speaking in Japanese... like... my brain switches into Japanese-mode. It's kind of like I have a switch in my head... (laughs) (on-screen text: "You probably don't know what I'm talking about so just please ignore this.") So, when I'm speaking in Japanese I *boop* switch into Japanese, and do everything in Japanese. Both speaking and thinking... and perception/cognizance. So, if I switch into Korean then both my speaking and thinking becomes Korean. Neither of them is the "main" one... how should I put this... it is like whichever/either one is my language, you know? (laughs)

I highly recommend watching his other videos as well, as they provide a very current glimpse into the life of a Korean young adult raised in Japan, while the movie Go serves as a great introduction to this complex identity and the way that Japanese-Koreans are perceived as beautiful (or, in Sugihara's case, beautiful until "outed") by other Japanese. 



Ashikari, Mikiko. "Cultivating Japanese Whiteness: The 'Whitening' Cosmetics Boom and the Japanese Identity." Journal of Material Culture 10.1 (2005): 73-91. Web.

Go. Dir. Isao Yukisada. Perf. Yosuke Kubozuka and Ko Shibasaki. Toei Tokyo, 2001. MP4.

Hyuk ヒョク. “
Gekitsuu to warai no shitsumon koonaa. [Q&A Jilmunkoneo]” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 22 March 2017. Web. 26 April 2017.

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