Angus Trumble
A Brief History of the Smile

The most elaborate schemes and methods of cosmetic enhancement have evolved in Japan. There, bemused westerners, such as Lesley Downer, the author of a popular account of this private realm, may be astonished by the sight of a geisha, glossily coiffured, gorgeously bedecked in layers of kimono, her face 'masked in dead-white powder prepared from ground nightjngale droppings,' the underlip 'stained peony red.' Downer recalls her first encounter with such a 'tiny, fairy-like' geisha. 'I gasped when she opened her small mouth. In the chalky-white face with the blood-red lips, her teeth were painted black. It was macabre, like looking into a black hole.' Tooth-blackening is not unique to Japan. The custom is still practiced among some tribes of the Upper Amazon basin, for example, the Achual, and it is also mentioned in the Kama Sutra among the sixty-four cosmetic arts to which the perfect woman is expected to devote herself, in those brief periods when her attention is not entirely focused on the immediate needs and pleasures of her husband. It is relatively high on the list, at number nine; 'coloring the teeth, garments, hair, nails and bodies,' three notches down from tattooing. Yet, nowhere did the custom of painting the teeth black send down such deep roots as it did in Japan. Ohaguro or kane, the ancient Japanese custom of tooth-blackening, evolved over centuries and, like so many other Japanese manners and customs, has meant various things at various times, some of them quite contradictory.

According to one school of thought, ohaguro originated in the Buddhist idea that white teeth reveal the animal nature of men and women and that the civilized person should conceal them, if by no other means than beneath a coating of black dye. A more pragmatic, historical explanation is that ohaguro was first adopted in the households of samurai warriors as a measure to protect their wives and daughters from being kidnapped or raped by their enemies. In other words, the teeth were originally painted black tu look rotten and, therefore, repellent. The dye was for centuries produced by scraping oxides from nails and other scraps of iron soaked in tea, sake, and other ingredients. Many sources agree that the practice was also thought to protect against tooth decay, and even to encourage the development of healthy teeth. This belief may well be an example of that universal tendency in the nursery, schoolroom, and dispensary to affirm that something really unpleasant is actually good for you. No wonder tongue-scraping was a prominent part of the daily toilette; the bitter taste and black stains of iron oxide must have crept into every corner of the mouth and spoiled, or at the very least radically altered, all but the strongest flavors, making a misery of eating and drinking.

In fact, for centuries right up to the nineteenth century the Japanese disregarded serious levels of toxicity in their cosmetics: osfuroi, the powder used to whiten the face, was imported from China as early as the seventh century. It consisted of keifun, mercury chloride, and empaku, white lead, and was carefully applied to the face by successive generations of aristocrats for 1,000 years; by the seventeenth century the practice had spread throughout all regions of Japan and all classes of people. The long-term effect of rubbing in these toxic chemicals does not bear thinking about, and it is hardly surprising that by comparison nightingale droppings offered a welcome alternative when, in the 1870s, the poisonous properties of lead and mercury were finally understood.

In the earliest times, the custom of tooth-blackening gradually came to symbolize the high status of those of the nobility and samurai class who practiced it; black teeth were, in effect, socially exclusive and therefore smart. Smartness duly transformed the practice into a mark of beauty. Well before the twelfth century, tooth-blackening marked a girl's coming of age. So did oki-mayu, the practice of shaving off her eyebrows and substituting painted ones; konezumi, a mixture of lampblack, rouge, gold leaf, and sesame oil was occasionally used, but there were plenty of other recipes and a variety of brushes and spatulas with which to apply the gooey makeup. At first these 'adult' cosmetic procedures were adopted by girls of thirteen, but eventually, by the nineteenth century, the acceptable age climbed to seventeen.

Having become identified with mature women, ohaguro was also adopted by certain noblemen and high-ranking samurai, as well as some geisha and high-class prostitutes. Accounts of several twelfth-century campaigns by the armies of Yoshitsune and Noriyori mention certain courtiers who had adopted the 'effeminate' custom of tooth-blackening and were thus easily identifiable by their opponents in battle. One warrior, upon removing the helmet of a slain nobleman, found his opponent to be a boy of sixteen, his face powdered, his teeth elegantly blackened.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.