Beauty in Heian Japan, 794 1185 ce

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Beauty in Heian Japan, 794 - 1185 CE

Halfway around the world and around the same time, the Japanese society was enjoying a period of great peace — and great opulence — like never before. Though it coincided with the medieval period of Western Europe, it can be argued that the Heian period shares more similarities with Classical Greece and Rome because of their prosperity and advancements in art, culture, and literature.

Heian standards of beauty might look strange to modern eyes. Faces were ideally soft and round and painted a powdery white, but teeth were painted pitch black to contrast white skin (a process called ohaguro). Their lips were painted dark red and often smaller than their natural shape, as small features were considered more beautiful. This included the eyes and nose. In a practice called hikimayu, women shaved off their eyebrows and repainted them in dark smudges high on their foreheads, closer to their hairlines. Heian women also prized long, dark, shiny hair, which they wore straight and flowing down their backs like a sheet; in fact, this look was called kurokami, loosely translated as “black paper”.

The aristocrats of the Heian period were painstakingly aware of the power of beauty. Like the Ancient Greeks, they believed that beauty made one a better person. Unlike the Greeks, their thoughts on beauty were more calculated than philosophical, as beauty was often used as a political and social weapon to convey subtle messages about rank, refinement, and power.

Perhaps somewhat relatedly, the Heian aristocrats were victims of their own leisure, taken down by the samurai class who would usher in the feudal/medieval period of Japan. It’s a bit hard to defend yourself when your hair is longer than your body.
Tomoe Gozen [a female samurai] on Horseback
Fortunately for us, she [Tomoe Gozen] inspired a number of Japan's great woodcut print artists. Because no contemporary images of her exist, artists have free rein to interpret her features. The sole surviving description of her, from the Tale of the Heike, states that she was beautiful, "with white skin, long hair, and charming features."

This gorgeous rendition of Tomoe Gozen shows her almost as a goddess, with her long hair and her silk wrap flowing up behind her. She has the traditional Heian-era woman's eyebrows - the natural brows are shaved off, and then bushier ones are painted high on the forehead, near the hair-line.

Peasant Women: The lives of peasant women contrasted greatly with the lives of women in the upper classes. Since most accounts from the period deal with the concerns of the aristocrats, who were only about one-tenth of one percent of Japan's population, we know very little of the lives of the vast majority who were commoners. We do know that women worked alongside men in a kind of rough equality and had some control over household decisions. They held some property rights, including rights of inheritance and divorce, although they could not remarry. In contrast to aristocrats, peasant women often wore their hair short and, since families needed their hands for labor, married late, usually to someone in their own village or group of villages. Farmers only took one wife. As time went on, however, the later feudal age samurai ideal of the obedient, submissive woman was accepted by the common people and peasant women lost much of their earlier independence.

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