The Japanese tradition of dyeing one’s teeth black.
To make the teeth black, black dye from a mixture of powdered iron fillings and water, vinegar, or wine was painted on the teeth.
It was not permanent and needed to be reapplied every day or every other day.
The black dye would come off on the lips so makeup was put on to hide the stains.
There were many reasons for blackening one’s teeth:
- Indicated a girl had come of age
- Signified a married woman
- Prevented tooth decay
- Symbolized fidelity
- To make one look attractive
The custom can be traced back to antiquity, though its origin is lost.
Both men and women practiced teeth blackening.
Mention of blackened teeth can be found in Heian Period writings (794 to 1185 A.D.) such as Tale of Genji, Lady Murasaki’s diary and more.
“In the middle of the twelfth century, the nobles of the court, who went to the wars, all blackened their teeth; and from this time forth the practice became a fashion of the court.” (Mitford pg. 203)
During the Muromachi Period (1336-1573)
Blackening one’s teeth was common among nobles, samurai, and provincial warriors.
However this fashion was not followed by the lower classes
Why was black teeth symbolic with loyalty and fidelity?
White teeth would eventually change colors.
In contrast, the color of blackened teeth was unchanging like loyalty.
Those with white teeth were seen as….
Objects of Scorn & Derision
A worthless battle trophy head
In 1585, when Jesuit Joao Rodriques visited Japan, he observed a number of boys with blackened teeth.
However the men had all abandoned the practice and many women were also sporting natural colored teeth.
Years later the practice of blackened teeth later made a revival, becoming the mark of a married woman.
“In the upper classes, young ladies usually blacken their teeth before leaving their father’s house to enter that of their husbands, and complete the ceremony by shaving their eyebrows immediately after the wedding, or, at any rate, not later than upon the occasion of their first pregnancy.”
(Mitford pg. 203)
In 1870 the Meiji government banned blackened teeth.
However white teeth still didn’t quite catch on.
In the 6th year Meiji, the Empress made a public appearance with unblackened teeth. After that, every woman followed the Empress’ example.
(Dalby pg. 77)
- Kimono: Fashioning Culture by Liza Crihfield Dalby (1993)
- Japanese Costume : And the Makers of Its Elegant Tradition by Helen Benton Minnich (1986)
- The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan by Ivan Morris (1964)
- Japanese Costume: History and Tradition by Alan Kennedy (1990)
- The First European Description of Japan, 1585: A Critical English-Language Edition of Striking Contrasts in the Customs of Europe and Japan By Luis Frois (2014)
- Tales of Old Japan By: Baron Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford Redesdale (1871)
- For Appearances’ Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks, Beauty, and Grooming By: Victoria Sherrow (2001)