JIN-389 -- Black Ships and Brown Hair

The J at pan Inc. Newsletter
Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News
Issue No. 389
Monday October 23, 2006 TOKYO

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Black Ships and Brown Hair

The other day I visited Sankeien in Yokohama. Sankeien
garden is an anomaly in a city that takes pride in a
history of serving as a conduit for the introduction of
things modern and Western. Hara Sankei, its creator, spun
from a fortune made in the silk trade his own vision, of
teahouses and summer villas in a pagoda-studded pinescape.
He realized this vision by dismantling old buildings in
Nara, Kyoto, Kamakura and elsewhere, and reconstructing
them at Sankeien.

I dropped by the former Yanohara House, a farmhouse with
a steep thatched roof, which had been spared from rising
waters following the damming of the Shogawa river in
Gifu Prefecture. In its attic I saw a set of utensils for
blackening the teeth. This got me to thinking about the
vagaries of fashion.

Blackening the teeth dates from ancient times in Japan.
However, the stratum of society who performed this
practice changed with the age. From the 17th century
women blackened their teeth upon marriage, sort of a
rite of passage to adulthood..

But why, for example, not wear the hair in a different
style upon marrying instead of doing something
that seems contrary to ideals of comeliness? Imagine
Julia Roberts with a sable smile or Nicole Kidman with
teeth the color of pitch. The practice would impose a
blackout on the incandescent smiles of Hollywood
femmes fatales.

In Japan, women in the roles of wives in the ubiquitous
period dramas on television never have blackened teeth.
This historical lacuna is perhaps one reason why many
young Japanese don't even know such a practice existed.

Commodore Matthew Perry, who led his Black Ships into
Japanese waters a second time in 1854, may have unwittingly
hit upon the rationale for blackening the teeth when he
paid a call on the head of Yokohama village. The headman's
wife and sister greeted him with a smile revealing blackened
teeth. "We should think that the practice [of blackening
the teeth] was hardly conducive to connubial felicity,"
says the official narrative of his voyage to Japan, "and
it would be naturally inferred that all the kissing must be
expended in the ecstasy of courtship."

If the practice did not make for a passionate conjugal
relationship, perhaps it was, after all, intended to
discourage adultery.

Although Perry was revolted by the coal-black smiles of the
headman's wife and sister, he admired their black hair.

If Perry could return to Japan today, what would he think
of Japanese women with white teeth and hair different
shades of brown?

-- Burritt Sabin

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