The Black Teeth Custom – Between Ohaguro and Globalization

by ebazaar 23 June 2010 No Comment

Ohaguro CustomI received one reply to my previous post on the issue of Ohaguro’ or Black Teeth Custom, which was once a very popular custom in the ancient Japan. The question pertain to the reason as to why the practice was banned in the Meiji period, well, instead of replying straight, I find this is a very interesting issue to discuss and research on and so I did, and decided to write a post on it. By the way, you can read more on the introduction from my previous post titled Old Japanese Custom Interesting Japanese Ancient Custom: Ohaguro or Black Teeth.

The Black Teeth or Ohaguro as a Significant Point in Cultural View

Culture do not only indicates the beginning of a civilization but describes the ways of life for a particular group of people, society and even nation. I guess, before we could understand the main point why the practice was banned, we should be able to grasp the idea that Ohaguro is just a cultural form that is being practice due to a couple of reasons and are affected by many factors as well as basis.

Color has many symbolic properties and is often adapted in many societies around the world. The reason as to why something should be red, white, black or in any other color have its own reasoning and meaning. Buddhism has great influence and impact in Japanese faith development and according to the faith, black is the ‘static’ color that will never change and cannot be dyed with another. Thus it represents constant strength and dignity from its visual weightiness.

Why ancient Japanese people blackened their teeth?

  • In the Heian Era (794-1192), Ohaguro becomes popular among males especially court nobles and commanders, as well as samurais. The practice symbolized untouchable loyalty, and the proof that one should not serve two masters at once.
  • The practice was followed by young women during the Edo period (1603-1867), who first blackened their teeth to enhance their appearance when they are ready to find a husband. At that time, black teeth were ‘in fashion’ and it was thought that it made the women looked beautiful. From then onwards too, Ohaguro became the symbol of married woman and fidelity.
  • The Japanese woman in ancient times wore black teeth with another reason that is to emphasize the white powder they usually wear on their face (oshiroi). The women were said to apply oshiroi or white powder in order to hide expression on their faces and it was thought that Ohaguro is effective in making an expressionless face. That is why some said that Ohaguro is a custom that hides one’s expression.
  • Ohaguro has a connection with urban legends at that time too about a evil spirit that feast on virgin’s blood. Therefore, it was noted that in order to deceive the evil spirit, many young girls blackened their teeth.

Why Ohaguro is banned by the Japanese government?

So you see, many of the basis and reasoning behind Ohaguro are highly related to the ancient Japanese ideology and beliefs, which at that time were untouched and undisturbed by foreign ideas. However, Meiji Era had been, whether directly or indirectly the turning point of Japanese history where many aspects of life have derived from the desire to be like Westerners. Western culture had penetrated Japan and the Japanese were overwhelmed and fascinated by it, losing confidence in their own cultures.

Globalization had brought the untouchable Japan through a profound change in terms of education, thought, and culture, of which include the custom of Ohaguro. At this time too, ‘white teeth’ were in fashion and had been the symbol of purity and beauty. There were still practices of Ohaguro till late 1800s but it was back then around that time, the idea of Ohaguro being not so civilized were spread and the custom slowly disappeared. Ohaguro was banned on 5th of February 1986 and the regulation were forced on the aristocrats in the Meiji Era, although some still continued the practice since it was indeed a custom being practiced for quite a number of centuries, making it hard to abolish once and for all. It was not until Empress Shouken appeared in public without Ohaguro and women follow suit and the custom died out.

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