“I Like Your Smile” – The Tale Of Blackened Teeth

‘Now people whiten their teeth but some time ago blackened them.’

“I like your smile”, he said. This line melts my heart, but this ancient Japanese tradition might not sit very well with most of us, but hey, “it is what it is”, they say.

Wikimedia Commons/Italian walrus-63 

Blackened Teeth were Trendy?

Ohaguro was a trend commonly practiced among women in different parts of the world- including South-east Asia and South America but was predominantly existent in Japan. Ohaguro roughly translates to “blackened teeth”. We don’t know when this practice exactly came into existence, but it’s believed that it originally began during the Kofun period which is an era in the history of Japan from 300 to 538 AD. The word “Kofun” means old mound and this explains the architectural developments taking place during this period. Buddhism was introduced during this period around 538 AD. There were several other political and literary developments that took place during this period. There were cultural developments during the Heian period which was from 794 to 1185 AD. “Haniwa”, which refers to the excavated bones and clay figures from this period, were found showing traces of blackened teeth, hinting at the long tradition of this custom. Women played a huge role in the Heian literary culture.

How did they do it?

This custom of Ohaguro was practiced by obtaining a dye that was ingested in a drink called “Kanemitsu”. The dye was created by soaking iron filings in tea or Sake with vinegar, and when the iron would oxidize, the liquid would turn black. It didn’t taste very pleasant, so to make it better, cinnamon, cloves, and anise was added to it. The women would drink this dye and gradually, their teeth would turn black. It’s unfathomable when one comes to think of it, but very empowering at the same time. Identifying with a certain culture, the feeling of belonging is extraordinarily strong. Ideas of beauty develop from what society deems as “beautiful”. It started with the nobility practicing this culture but in the later period, it descended to the social, working classes as well.

There are various reasons behind it

In Japan, pitch-black objects were viewed as something incredibly beautiful. Naturally, Japanese women wanted to associate themselves with something that was seen as beautiful by society and could be one of the contributory factors.

“Blackened teeth” declared the coming of age for boys and girls when they hit puberty (genpuku or mogi). It was a celebration and was seen as a sign of maturity. The process would begin to establish that they were sexually mature.

This tradition was practiced by adult aristocrats in the later years regardless of gender. Although, it’s safe to say that it was commonly practiced by married women daily. This, according to them, prevented cheating in marriages. Geishas were also prominent representatives of this tradition.

Foreigners who visited Japan during this period were baffled by this practice and they wondered why these women would intentionally “disfigure” themselves and believed that these beauty standards were strange and repugnant, in many ways. It wasn’t something they were used to. Funny how ideas of “beauty” will forever be dictated to women and it sure isn’t anything new.

It was largely considered as a symbol of liberty, freedom, and determination. It was a unifying process. These women enjoyed creating their distinct notion of aesthetics. Japanese women were granted an extensive degree of both social and sexual liberties, and this custom truly celebrated the determination of matured, married women and women coming from all walks of life.

These women were systematically taught that “Red”, “Black” and “White”, were the colors to be used, to look “beautiful”. Their cosmetics were centered on a palette of these 3 colors. Red for their fingernails, lips, and rouge; the white powdered face was considered as the “essence of a beautiful woman, and black, which would be used to repaint their eyebrows, eyes, and teeth.

As these women practically covered their faces with white powder, their teeth would seem “yellow”, or “decayed”, and so to cover this decay, and the ‘yellow-ness’, they would practice Ohaguro.

  • Many Samurais also blackened their teeth as proof of their loyalty to their masters.
  • The people were generally convinced that Ohaguro helped to prevent cavities, and other tooth and gum problems.
  • This practice ceased to exist in 1870 when it was banned by the Meiji Government, but Japan hasn’t entirely forgotten about this age-old practice.
  • Japan has seen dramatic changes concerning the general ideas of beauty, but to this date, geishas serve as the highest standard of beauty- flawless skin, petite bodies, round faces, and a quiet, agreeable demeanor.

Women all over the world still don’t get accepted, respected for who they are and what they wish to embrace. Black teeth or not, we can move past dictating terms to our women and instead focus on who and what they truly are.

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