heian beauty

Beauty ideal in Heian Japan

There were many other aspects of a beautiful personal appearance. Both men and women prized a rounded, plump figure. The face in particular would ideally have been round and puffy. Small eyes were ideal for both sexes, as was powdery white skin. Aristocrats with dark complexions, both men and women, frequently had to apply makeup to appear more pale. Even most capital military officers, many of whom were civilian aristocrats with no military training at all, would not have dared appear in public on formal occasions without makeup.

There were still other standards of personal beauty in Heian times. For women, nature unfortunately put eyebrows in the wrong place. To correct this problem, women plucked out their eyebrows and painted them back on, usually quite thick, an inch or so above their original location, thereby beautifying the face. Also, extremely long hair – longer than one’s own body – was de rigueur for an attractive Heian woman. Washing such hair was an all-day affair requiring the assistance of numerous attendants. Again, notice the connection with wealth and leisure. 

Standards of male beauty were, in many ways, quite similar to those for female beauty. Although men were not required to shave or pluck their eyebrows, idealized depictions of handsome men show the eyebrows high on the forehead. Men would ideally have a thin mustache and/or a thin tuft of beard at the chin. Large quantities of facial hair, however, detracted substantially from one’s attractiveness. Looking at art of the Heian period, or even art of later periods depicting scenes of Heian courtly life, it is sometimes difficult to tell men from women from the face alone. The merging of male and female features is particularly apparent in depictions of children and people in their teenage years.

Heian Beauty .  Kogiku, a beautiful maiko dressed in Heian Era court attire during Kyoto’s Festival of Ages. She represents Ono no Komachi, renowned for her skill as a poet and rare beauty.  Oct 26, 2006, Kyoto, Japan.  Text and photography by Melissa Rose Chasse on Flickr