Japan’s Makeup Mania: Do People Really Put on Makeup Just to Go to the Convenience Store?

Did you know that in Japan, going out without any makeup on can be considered rude? Some women even feel embarrassed meeting people outside of their family without makeup, saying it's like showing up naked! If you feel astonished by either of these statements, you're not the only one. We had fellow tsunagu Japan editor Loan from Vietnam—a country with very different thoughts on makeup compared to Japan—talk about what parts of Japan's makeup culture she was surprised about for this edition of our deep-dive series "Culture of Japan."

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During the Morning Commute, Japanese Trains Become Mobile Makeup Rooms

During the morning rush hour when everyone is trying to get to work, you’ll often see female commuters putting on their makeup inside the train. This may seem strange at first. In Vietnam, when you don’t have time to put makeup on in the morning, you just don’t do it at all, and that’s that. But despite Japan having a lot of informal rules about what you shouldn’t do inside trains, like talk on the phone or eat or drink, cosmetics tend to get a pass. Why, though? Putting makeup on is such a private thing, and if the country really is so obsessed with it, aren’t those commuters embarrassed being seen in their natural state?

●Our Japanese Staff's Comments

People who put on makeup on public transport don’t mind strangers seeing them without their makeup on. It’s their friends and colleagues from work or school that they’re worried about. They feel like they must look their best for them. Plus, their reasoning is that they aren’t bothering or hurting anyone. But the truth is that many cosmetics have very powerful fragrances, so, in fact, the practice does bother a lot of people…

Some might say that these people are just being efficient with their morning routines, waiting until they’re sitting inside a moving train with nothing else to do other than to put on their makeup. They might say that it speaks to the industrious, hard-working mentality of Japanese people. But, in reality, it’s nothing that complex and definitely not something to brag about!

Japanese People Will Patiently Wait in Line to Fix or Reapply Their Makeup Throughout the Day

It’s not just trains. Public restrooms at train stations, department stores, and restaurants are often filled with women forming long lines just to fix or reapply their makeup. It’s not unusual to see someone finish their meal and then pop into the toilet for a little touch-up, even when it looks like they don’t need it at all.

●Our Japanese Staff's Comments

A lot of Japanese people spend their lunch breaks, afterwork and afterschool hours, or company drinking parties constantly fixing or reapplying their makeup. That’s because they are worried about their makeup coming off and consequently being labeled lazy or rude. Also, Japanese people simply value appearances a lot, and want to look their very best when interacting with others. However, the recent uptick in the use of masks has definitely led to fewer instances of people constantly fixing their makeup.

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Everyone Does It, From Middle Schoolers to the Elderly

Another thing that might surprise foreign visitors to Japan is seeing female students, some as young as middle schoolers, buying makeup. In Vietnam, many people oppose girls using cosmetics before graduating high school, with rules in place that outright forbid coming into school all painted up.

People might also be surprised by the sight of so many women over 60 putting on makeup inside trains, which is pretty common in large cities like Tokyo or Osaka. For people like me, it might actually be the first time seeing women the same age as my grandmother fussing around with cosmetics. But there’s of course nothing wrong with trying to look your best no matter what age you are.

●Our Japanese Staff's Comments

Many schools in Japan do actually forbid wearing makeup. But not all of them, and even in the ones that do, there are students who simply ignore the rules and use cosmetics. Japanese girls are raised in a culture obsessed with makeup, and they see it everywhere, from models to cosmetic tutorials and reviews featured in teen fashion magazines and websites. Recently, some companies have even started releasing makeup with child-friendly ingredients aimed specifically at very young customers.

As for seniors, they are one of the key demographics targeted by Japan’s makeup market. That’s why so many cosmetics boast their supposed anti-aging properties. This is definitely more of a thing in large cities where there are more people concerned with their looks. They’re the ones who keep buying makeup well into their autumn years.

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Masks Don’t Stop the Makeup Mania

You might think that since a mask covers half your face, it eliminates the need to fuss around with makeup. However, in Japan, many masked people still put the time and effort into their makeup. That being said, ever since the pandemic, the way Japanese people put on makeup has changed.

To save themselves some time, many have opted to only focus on the parts of their faces that aren’t covered by the mask, like their lower chins and their eyes. So, masks might save you some money on cosmetics, but they don’t completely eliminate the need for makeup... in Japan. You might make the case that it’s the result of Japanese people striving for perfection in all things.

●Our Japanese Staff's Comments

I think it’s a very Japanese thing to care about the tiniest details and to want the parts of your face that everyone can see to look absolutely perfect. Recently, we’ve actually seen more and more people applying heavier, more distinctive makeup to the parts of their faces not covered by a mask. Also, because we’re all now masking all the time, the cosmetics market has exploded with brand-new products like extra-strong foundation that won’t get wiped away by the mask or setting sprays for long-lasting makeup.


Japanese People Wear Makeup All the Time, Even If They're Just Going to the Convenience Store

Most Japanese people put on makeup whenever they go out, no matter where to, be it school, work, a job interview, the supermarket, or the post office. There are even people who’d never go to the convenience store without putting on their face first. Even in these times of online classes and meetings, a lot of Japanese people like to look their very best and thus put on makeup. This includes nearly every female Japanese employee at tsunagu Japan!

And the makeup mania does not stop inside the home. A lot of Japanese women say they’d feel embarrassed if their partners saw them in their natural state. This has caused a lot of insecure, young girls to go to drastic lengths, like only removing their makeup after their boyfriends have gone to sleep. About five years ago, I saw a Japanese TV interview where the girls would present themselves to their boyfriends without any makeup on for the first time and observe their reactions. The majority of the guys were taken back and said they preferred them with makeup on. In Vietnam, not wearing makeup when you’re with your partner is the most normal thing in the world. And even those girls who do touch up their faces a bit tend to keep it very simple so that there isn’t that much of a difference between their natural and painted faces. But things work differently in Japan.

●Our Japanese Staff's Comments

I think it’s fair to say that, to some Japanese people, showing others their natural face feels like being naked or opening their hearts to them. It’s a very intimate thing that’s not done with people outside your family. Plus, Japan has so many high-quality cosmetics on sale, you can always easily pick up a set that will transform you into a completely different person! That's part of their appeal, but also makes people afraid of what others might think when they see them in their natural state. So if you’ve just started to date a Japanese girl and see her without any makeup, please try to hide your surprise and be nice to her, haha.

There Are So Many Different Types of Japanese Cosmetics

Before I came to Japan, makeup started and ended for me with lipstick and a little powder foundation, excluding special events like weddings. Japan takes cosmetics more seriously, though, and the people here use a wide range of products for any and all occasions, be it work, leisure, or ceremonies of all kinds. For example, Japanese people usually start with a carefully-applied concealer base to make their skin appear naturally clear. Then comes the eyeliner, eyeshadow, and so many other cosmetics that you can get everywhere in Japan, from drugstores to 100-yen shops. Because of this, I now use a lot of different cosmetics like eyeshadow and blush. This may all seem like a huge hassle, but with so many steps involved in the makeup process, planning it all out can actually be a lot of fun!

●Our Japanese Staff's Comments

During my trips abroad, I often saw people with very simple makeup. That led me to realize that us Japanese people have really complicated the whole makeup process. First, we wash our faces, then we apply skincare products like lotions, emulsions, and creams. Next comes the base, the foundation, concealer, a little powder touch-up, the eyebrows, eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, blush, lipstick, and, with some people, contouring and highlighting. Japanese makeup is a seemingly never-ending process!

Even Men Have Started Getting Into Makeup

While there are many countries that think men shouldn’t use makeup, Japan isn’t one of them. They’re still not the majority, but more and more men here now use cosmetics and think nothing of it. According to a May 2021 survey by the cosmetics site @cosme, 90% of women between the ages of 18 and 24 think that there is nothing wrong with men using makeup.

Nowadays, a lot of products on the market, like face wash, concealer, foundation, or eyeliner are targeted specifically at men, and it’s not just cosmetics. There are also many salons out there that offer mani-pedi and eyebrow treatment services for male clients, which are quite rare in Vietnam. In fact, a lot of places around the world, Vietnam included, openly criticize men for using makeup, so for a Vietnamese person like me, it was a bit surprising to see so many Japanese men fussing over their personal appearance so much.

●Our Japanese Staff's Comments

A lot of countries around the world are opposed to men using makeup, but Japan doesn't seem to be, and I think a big part of that has to do with the massive popularity of K-POP over here. Every year, we get more and more young men who use cosmetics and get spa treatments, and most people are totally fine with it. One of my male friends, too, has recently started going to a salon to get rid of the thick facial hair that has been bothering him for years.

Unisex, Korean-style makeup has become popular among teens and young adults, but most Japanese men use cosmetics for simple things like cleaning out their pores, concealing acne scars, improving their complexion, and generally making themselves look more presentable.

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Why Do Japanese Women Seem So Obsessed With Their Looks?

●Our Japanese Staff's Comments

There are a number of reasons why so many Japanese women are so concerned with their looks.

One is the tired, old gender stereotype that women should always look beautiful. A lot of people in Japan still strongly believe that and consider women and makeup a natural combination, labeling those who don’t use cosmetics as “lazy” and “slovenly.” As a result, many Japanese men feel more attracted to women who use makeup, which leads to women thinking that they have to paint their faces in order to get a man.

The second reason is Japanese collectivism. That’s something all Japanese people learn from an early age at school, and it makes you afraid of going against the flow. So, if the majority of Japanese women use makeup, the remaining ones will naturally start to wonder if they’re in the wrong for not following their example.

The third reason is the proliferation of Japanese cosmetic companies and new products entering the market all the time. Living here, you keep seeing new makeup products in seasonal, trendy packaging hitting the shelves in malls, drug stores, and convenience stores all year round. All it takes is the right combination of an interesting product and an eye-catching ad copy for you to buy something without thinking. It’s near impossible to not obsess with looks and makeup in such an environment.    

The above being said, in recent years, there has been a growing Japanese movement opposed to "lookism" (discrimination based on physical appearances). This has led to a lot of TV variety shows being criticized for making fun of how people look or universities getting rid of beauty pageants that promote the idea that beautiful people are somehow superior. But even with all that, the cultural expectations for Japanese women to use makeup are still here and probably won’t be going away anytime soon.

How Living in Japan Changed My Opinion on Makeup

When I first started living in Japan, I rarely used makeup, and when I did, I kept it very simple: some powder foundation, a little lipstick, and I was ready for a day at the office. However, one day, I was asked at a company drinking party by a male colleague why I didn't use makeup. That really caught me off guard because in Vietnam, most men don’t concern themselves with things like that. In fact, most Vietnamese women tend to go to work without any makeup on. My surprise only deepened when another colleague sitting next to me at the party said that I’d look prettier if I used makeup. That’s when I first realized that makeup is basically mandatory for women in Japan.

Every country has its own ideas about makeup but, as they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Fast forward two years since my move to Japan and I now put on makeup most times I leave the house. The drinking party was one of the main things that changed my mind, but I also realized that my job included interacting with clients on a daily basis, and I didn’t want them to think that I was rude or didn’t understand Japanese culture by showing them my bare face. That being said, daily makeup use isn’t good for the skin, so I don’t do my face when going to the gym or shopping, or I keep it very simple with just a little lipstick.

I still think that Japan obsesses too much about makeup. To me, Japanese people have naturally beautiful skin and really don’t need to cover it up with so many cosmetics. It also seems exhausting to keep worrying about your appearance. On the other hand, using high-quality cosmetics to make yourself prettier can give a person a boost of confidence. Plus, it might be a good thing that you can see so many interesting cosmetics wherever you go in Japan.


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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Nguyen Loan
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