In ancient Japanese culture, the aristocrats of the Heian period (794-1191) are probably the most fascinating. Many of their values, practices and customs seem to be almost the opposite of what we consider obvious or “normal” in contemporary society. The aristocrats were members of society who held rank at the imperial court. There was little room for social mobility in Heian Japan, and the rank was inherited or granted by the emperor himself. Although only 1% of the population are aristocrats, almost all of the historical literature of this period is written by the aristocracy about the aristocracy. Very little is known about the lifestyle of ordinary people during Heian Japan.
Romance was alive and well at that time. If a man saw a woman of good taste and wanted to meet her, he would first find out where she lived. He would then compose a poem of about three lines. Everything in the poem demanded perfection, including the writing, the paper, and the type of perfume used to scent the letter and envelope. Depending on the season and the circumstances, a suitable tree branch or flower would be selected and attached to the letter. After judging the man’s level of sophistication and taste from the poem, the woman might then decide to invite the man for a visit. At the first meeting, the woman would sit behind a screen so that only her figure was visible and the two were chatting and possibly exchanging poems. If sufficient clues were provided by both parties, a physical relationship could ensue.
The concept of beauty was very different during Heian than it is now. Many beauty rules applied to both sexes. The naked body was considered ugly and always had to be dressed, often with several layers of clothing. The choice of outfit was critical and even a small mistake could be a source of great embarrassment or destroy a reputation. For both sexes, a plump figure, round puffy face, powdery white skin, and small eyes were considered ideal. A slim figure and dark skin were associated with the peasant class who often worked outdoors and did not have enough to eat.
Some rules were more specific to women. White teeth were ugly by Heian aristocrats, and women blackened their teeth with sticky black dye. When she smiled or laughed, a woman’s mouth might appear as a dark, toothless oval. Women also had to reposition their eyebrows because Mother Nature apparently made a mistake. To correct the “mistake”, the eyebrows were plucked out and then painted, usually quite thick, about 2-3 centimeters above the original location. Long hair was another feature considered attractive and women often grew their hair out so that it was longer than their body length. Washing all this hair was a job for the servants and could last all day.
There were also rules of beauty and appearance specific to men. A large amount of facial hair was not attractive, but a thin mustache and / or a small tuft of beard on the chin was considered ideal. Men may not have needed to pluck their eyebrows, but idealized depictions from this period show high eyebrows on the forehead. Aristocratic men of this period have a reputation for being feminine and in some works of art it is difficult to distinguish between men and women. This is particularly evident in the representations of children and young adults. Things have changed a lot since the days of the Heian aristocracy, but familiarizing yourself with their worldview helps put our own contemporary values into perspective.