1825 - 2016

Japanese traditional craft: Beni for cosmetics

Isehan-Honten Museum of Beni

Beni-making techniques and the culture of makeup handed down from the last beni-ya

Japanese traditional beni for cosmetics
Beni is a natural cosmetic that is made only from a red pigment extracted from benibana (safflower) petals. In Japan, beni has been used since ancient times in lip rouge and cheek rouge. The crystallization of the red pigment refined to a high grade by craftsman has an iridescent green glow. This glow is evidence of high-quality beni produced carefully by hand using traditional techniques.

Dissolving beni - The moment that beni’s color is changed from an iridescent green to a deep red.

Isehan-honten, the last beni-ya
The custom of wearing makeup spread among the common classes as well as the upper classes during the Edo Period. Especially in the mid- and late Edo Period, beni with an iridescent green color was sold as an expensive cosmetic. Beni production and trade thrived in and around Kyoto. However, the beni industry, which reached its peak during the Edo Period, began to decline after the Meiji Period. Imports of cheap and versatile chemical dyes gradually replaced beni-dyeing and beni cosmetics in the market. Just a few beni-ya (beni shops) in Kyoto, the center of beni production, remained in the Showa Period. Now Isehan-honten is the only beni-ya that has inherited and continues to use production methods unchanged from the Edo Period. Kyoto was long the main area of beni production and sales. Beni production in Edo started to prosper in the late Edo Period (late 19th century). Isehan-honten was established at Kobuna-cho, Nihombashi, in 1825. Founder Hanemon Sawada started his own shop after apprenticing at a beni and oshiroi (face powder) wholesaler in Toriabura-cho, Nihombashi, for about 20 years. The shop was called Iseya-Hanemon, and it used the name Isehan. This is a picture depicting Isehan-honten in the Meiji Period.
From benibana to benimochi
High-quality benibana (safflower) is needed to make high-quality beni. After benibana was introduced to Japan in ancient times, regions that produced benibana gradually spread, and benibana became widely grown all over Japan at the beginning of the 17th century. The Mogami benibana brand grown in the Ushu Mogami area (present-day Yamagata Prefecture) built a reputation for quality and quantity. This brand name became firmly established in the early 18th century and was traded at high prices. Mogami benibana was transported to consuming regions such as Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo from the production areas. To maintain higher quality, fresh benibana flowers were processed into benimochi before being transported. Benimochi was sent to cloth-dyeing companies and beni-ya through benibana wholesale stores and used to dye cloth and make beni. Benibana farms in Yamagata even today start to pick the flower petals and make benimochi when the flowers begin to blossom (from beginning to mid-July).

This photo was taken at the home of benimochi in Yamagata (the Taisho period)

Photo of making benimochi in Yamagata in the early Showa period[no.1]

Photo of making benimochi in Yamagata in the early Showa period[no.2]

Photo of making benimochi in Yamagata in the early Showa period[no.3]

Photo of making benimochi in Yamagata in the early Showa period[no.4]

Photo of making benimochi in Yamagata in the early Showa period[no.5]

The last beni-ya—Handing down beni-making techniques
The beni-ya conducts many processes to extract the red pigment from benimochi. Experienced craftsmen with honed techniques and instincts play the most important role in extracting color from the natural product. Isehan-honten has inherited manufacturing methods unchanged from the Edo Period. While some of the environment and tools have been modernized, Isehan-honten still produces beni by hand for many of the processes. Because the techniques to make iridescent green beni are secrets handed down orally from parent to child, they may not be published here in their entirety. Only some of the traditional processes are introduced here.
Women putting on beni
Until the Edo Period, Japanese women’s makeup was based on the traditional aesthetics of oshiroi, beni, ohaguro(black painted teeth), drawn eyebrows, and shaved eyebrows. An English diplomat who visited Japan in the final days of the Edo Period wrote that women’s natural beauty was “marred” by oshiroi and ohaguro (from A Diplomat in Japan). However, this “marring” was an expression of Japanese women’s taste and aesthetics of the time. There were just three colors of cosmetics – white oshiroi, red beni, and black ohaguro and eyebrow powder, and beni was the only chromatic color. It was used not only for lip and cheek rouge but also for eyeliner, as a makeup base, and as nail polish on occasion. Beni makeup performed many roles.
From traditional to modern-day makeup: New forms of rouge
While the Meiji government implemented modernization policies to catch up with the European powers, Japanese makeup styles also needed to shake free from traditional beauty styles. Along with importing cosmetics from Western countries such as France, Germany, and the United States, many kinds of cosmetics and skincare items including soaps, creams, pomades, perfumes, unleaded oshiroi, and multicolor oshiroi, were researched, improved, and developed in the Japanese cosmetics industry in the Meiji Period. However, many Japanese women still used lip rouge that was brushed inside beni-choko (domed rouge container). The turning point came in 1917 when Nakamura Shinyo-do released the first domestic lipstick (bo-beni). After this, the form of Japanese lip rouge changed from beni-choko to the lipstick type.
Lipstick after World War II: When Japanese women’s lip makeup changed
After the end of World War II (1945), lip makeup in Japan completely changed. Until then, women preferred to put beni only on the center of the lip to create the look of a small mouth. Although some modern girls quickly adopted Western makeup and clothes and wore the latest fashions in the Taisho Period and early Showa Period, they were a minority and not yet widespread. After World War II, however, many Japanese women began to clearly draw the outline of their lips and apply red rouge to all of their lips. There was a strong desire to follow trends in the United States, including the latest trends in makeup and fashions. The lipstick application technique of drawing the outline of lips with a lip brush, applying rouge inside the outline, and blotting it with a tissue was introduced in magazines as being popular in the United States and changed Japanese women’s ideas about lip makeup dramatically.
By:Isehan-Honten Museum of BENI
Credits: Story

Photo by Ryoichi Toyama

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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