Why did Japanese women blacken their teeth and why did they stop doing it?

Showing your white teeth was thought to be like showing the white of your bones. The blackening liquid was also thought to preserve the teeth. The practice was outlawed in the Meiji era in order to not offend foreign visitors or more generally to gain their acceptance as a Westernized and therefore equal nation.

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10 Comments

  1. Angie said,

    July 5, 2008 at 1:21 am

    Can anyone help me understand this practice a little better? If showing one’s white teeth was thought to be like showing the whites of one’s bones, why was it only women who blackened their teeth?

    There are echoes of the Chinese practice of foot-binding, although this is only an uneducated personal intuition. Please email me if you have additional information or historical context.

  2. alexcase said,

    July 5, 2008 at 1:30 am

    I’m as little an expert as you, but I’m guessing modesty has always been more important for women- even now it’s only women and very camp men who cover their mouths when they laugh

  3. billadakilla said,

    July 10, 2008 at 3:49 am

    Japanese women darkened their teeth to make their skin seem brighter, as this usually went in hand with wearing really light (maybe even white?) makeup.

  4. alexcase said,

    July 15, 2008 at 8:38 am

    Good theory. Did they darken their hair as well then, because not all Japanese hair is very black?

  5. Trish said,

    October 6, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    Thank you for answering my question. Recently watched Kurosawa’s Sanjuro and a delightful
    older woman had a blackened mouth. She was so charming she made it seem lovely. But I
    was wildly curious!! I know of the habit of covering the mouth when smiling/laughing. This
    fits.

  6. Amy said,

    May 31, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    I don’t know if this is true but I am reading a book by Lesley Downer I think it is, called The Last Concubine. She has researched Japanese culture her whole life.
    The main character had her teeth blackened as she was going to have “known a man,” she was about to loose her virginity.
    So maybe it was a sign of that, but I’m just getting that from a book written by a researcher.

  7. Lisa said,

    July 3, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    I’ve also been reading that in the Heian period, men also blackened their teeth once they went through their coming-of-age ceremony. Even after that period, high-ranking warrior and aristocratic men blackened their teeth, resulting in the Sengoku era phenomenon of warriors deliberately blackening the teeth of the warriors they’d beheaded so as to claim they killed a superior-ranked enemy (which would bring a great financial reward if true).

    I gather it wasn’t a good tactic to use because by the later Sengoku period, the only men still blackening their teeth were males of the Imperial family and kuge (very high ranking people).

    If everything I’ve read is true, then it wasn’t just women who blackened their teeth – at least, not originally anyway.

  8. Lotta said,

    August 11, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Glad I stumbled on this page; very interesting. Like AMY I am reading The Last Concubine and looked up teeth blackening as I was curious.

  9. May 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    [...] cultural cue that many Japanese women use, which is to cover their mouths when smiling or laughing. Japanese women even used to blacken their teeth, a practice stopped a long time ago. [...]

  10. Woziel said,

    December 16, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    What did they use to blacken their teeth?


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