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Isehan-Honten Museum of Beni - Explore Japan's Traditional Makeup Culture

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Learn more about traditional Japanese makeup at the Isehan-Honten Museum of Beni! Located in the Aoyama area of Tokyo, this facility is the only place where you can try on the red lip color used in the past and even purchase it.

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The Japanese people of the late Edo period (19th century), enjoyed a rich public culture. By that time, not only the ladies from aristocratic or samurai families and courtesans but also common female citizens could afford to apply makeup.

In the capital city of Edo (current Tokyo), there were several cosmetics shops. Selling red lip color, known as beni, was a thriving business in those days. Beni was made from the red pigment extracted from safflower and producing it implied a painstaking process. The craftsmanship of producing beni was handed down orally, only to the heirs of the craftsmen.

After Japan opened its doors to the commerce with Western countries, many European goods were introduced into the country and, as a result, the traditional Japanese natural red lip color was replaced by the more flamboyant Western cosmetics.

This article will introduce the only remaining manufacturer of beni, Isehan-Honten, and its fascinating museum where you can learn about Japan's traditional makeup culture and even try on some traditional red lip color!

Isehan-Honten Museum of Beni - Learn about Traditional Japanese Cosmetics

Minami Aoyama: Experience Japanese Traditional Make-up and Learn about Japanese Aesthetics of Edo period at Beni Museum

The façade of the Beni Museum. ©Ryoichi Toyama. Photo provided by Isehan-Honten Museum.

Isehan-Honten is the last remaining manufacturer of the Japanese traditional red lip-color known as beni. It boasts 200 years of history.

Beni Museum

We had the opportunity to interview Ms. Emiko Abe from the Public Relations Office of the Beni Museum, who kindly introduced us to the fascinating history of Japanese red lip color.

Matcha: What were the traditional makeup products like?

Ms. Abe: White, red and black were the three basic colors that were highly regarded in the Japanese aesthetics of ancient times. White symbolizes purity, while black, as it does not mix with other colors, connotes chastity. Red is believed to help protect against evil. The women of the Edo period (1603 - 1868) applied red lip color lavishly. Deep red turns into crimson which in turn becomes iridescent when applied in great quantities. We can trace how the women of Edo times used to do their makeup by looking at ukiyo-e block prints.

Beni Museum

Twelve views of Modern Beauties: Tegowas (woman of unyielding appearance) - Ukiyo-e print by Keisai Eisen. Isehan-Honten Beni Museum Collection

Matcha: What can visitors experience at the Beni Museum?

Ms. Abe: Our visitors can try on beni, the traditional Japanese red lip color, for free. As beni is organic, the color will look different on each individual; depending on one’s complexion and body temperature, the red color comes in a different nuance. The intensity of the color also changes depending on the amount of water used, and on how many times it is applied. In other words, with only one beni container, the color variation can be quite diverse. Beni is just like a living creature and that’s why it's so fascinating.

Beni Museum

When you buy chemical lipstick, you want to try testers in order to find the best color on you. You do not need to do that with beni. It will be the best color on you by itself. You can visit our museum, try Japanese beni on your lips and see how it would look on you.

Beni Museum

What Exactly Is Beni, The Japanese Red Lip Color?

Beni Museum

Matcha: Why does beni look greenish in a container?

Ms. Abe: The iridescent green glow of the beni is proof of very fine quality, which is achieved through exquisite craftsmanship. The crimson color pigment extracted from safflower is brushed onto a sake cup and the color changes to glowing green. Only when you scoop it with a watery brush, the red color reappears.

Beni Museum

©Ryoichi Toyama

Beni Museum

Safflower extract in a dried state

As you know, safflower is 99% yellow and we extract only 1% of red pigment from it. It takes various painstaking processes and craftsmanship in order to bring out the right pigment. Beni is a very precious cosmetics. You will know it yourself when you try it on.

Matcha: Can we buy beni here at the museum?

Ms. Abe: Yes. We have beni in various types of containers - from sake cups to temari-shaped (*1) containers, as well as lid containers. The containers are made of Imari porcelain and are very pretty too. They can be great gift items, and of course can be bought just for personal use. We also have sets that contain a lip-brush made with weasel hair. Weasel hair is very soft to the skin and comfortable to use.

*1... Temari: a Japanese traditional handball, usually made of beautifully colored thread. It was one of the favorite toys of the young girls of aristocratic families in the past.

Beni Museum

Weasel hair lip brush

The price ranges from 9000 yen to 18000 yen for set which includes a cushion and a box. The weasel hair lip brush is priced between 1800 yen or 3000 when sold separately.

Beni Museum

Beni in special containers made in collaboration with artists.

Beni Museum

A Lip Makeup Set

Beni Museum

Lip Makeup Set in a package

Beni Museum

©Ryoichi Toyama – Beni in a handball shaped container.

Enjoy the Exhibitions within the Beni Museum

Matcha: What kind of objects do you have on display and what can visitors learn from the exhibitions in the Beni Museum?

Ms. Abe: At our museum you can learn more about the history of traditional Japanese makeup and the aesthetics of Edo period, as well as about how beni is produced. We are the only remaining beni manufacturer in Japan and we believe it is our obligation to preserve this culture.

Beni Museum

© Ryoichi Toyama, Photo provided by Isehan-Honten Beni Museum (photographing is not allowed inside the museum)

Ms. Abe: We have a collection of rare books on traditional make-up and aesthetics, and variety of make-up tools such as vanity cases from 19th century. It is worth taking a look if you are interested in make-ups.

Beni Museum

©Ryoichi Toyama "“Make up in the culture of Kyoto”, Beni Museum Collection

Beni Museum

© Ryoichi Toyama - A makeup set for married women to paint their teeth black.

Matcha: Could you mention some of the unique features of the Edo period makeup?
Ms. Abe: In the Edo period, married women used to paint their teeth black. As I explained earlier, black was one of the three basic colors in those days, and it symbolized the women's chastity. When a woman married, she would start painting her teeth black and when she gave birth, she would shave her eyebrows. It may sound like a weird practice but there is actually a good reason behind it. The blackening substance prevented her teeth from being affected by abscesses. It was a very practical cosmetic product.

Matcha: Lastly, please tell us what is your message for the international visitors of the museum.

Ms. Abe: We have English pamphlets and museum descriptions available, as well as English speaking staff. You will be welcomed with a cup of safflower tea. We would like to help visitors from around the world to better understand the traditional Japanese makeup culture. When you come, please try putting on the traditional red lip color. When visiting the fashionable Aoyama area, do stop by our museum.

In Conclusion

Beni Museum

© Ryoichi Toyama

Beni Museum

Photo courtesy of the Beni Museum

In Japan, beni is used not only as a cosmetic product. We use it in various stages of the rites of passage. Because red is believed to protect from evil, mothers apply beni on a newborn baby’s forehead. A bride’s costume is a white kimono, but the inner garment contains a red layer, for the same reason of protecting the wearer from evil.

Beni is an important part of the Japanese culture and lifestyle. I am sure you will enjoy learning more about the traditional Japanese makeup items at the Isehan-Honten Beni Museum.

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Written by

Lived in India, France, Russia and Thailand. Worked at American Companies. Now a writer and entrepreneur.

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