Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics. Laura Miller. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 256 pp.
Reviewed by Richard Chalfen
her latest book, Laura Miller has combined her skills as a linguistic
anthropologist and scholar of Japanese society and culture to produce a
compelling and provocative treatise on Japanese beauty culture as it
developed in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. In doing so she contributes
to a reinvigorated understanding of visual culture, one that goes well
beyond the anthropology or sociology of fashion and notions of the
body-as-text. She explores such problematic domains as the politics of
appearance, the roles played by the hegemonic European beauty ideology,
media acculturation and media socialization—the ways and means that
“beauty treatments and ideas actively journey around the world as part
of a global body transformation enterprise” (p. 66), among others.
Miller presents many details of past and contemporary preferences for
beauty in Japan. Readers will find detailed discussion of eye-lid
modification, teeth-blackening, white skin, hairline aesthetics (heads,
eye brows, pubic zones/v-lines), nipple bleaching, Lolita complexes,
Karaoke diets, among many others. I mention these early to focus
instead on the real value of the book, which lies in how Miller
theorizes connections to broader conceptual frameworks, questioning,
for instance, the commonly held belief that “some concepts of female
attractiveness are universal and are therefore intimately grounded in
biology and evolution” (p. 73).
Introduction and eight chapters focus on changing beauty ideologies,
the ample existence of aesthetic salons (not the same as spas or beauty
parlors), female and male preferred appearances, beauty etiquette and
manners, the diet industry and surrounding language and beauty imaging
practices. Each chapter is very well organized and united with themes
that question origins and contemporary interpretations of beauty
practices and looks. This nicely illustrated book concludes with an
impressively useful 25-page bibliography.
provides her readers with a good view of what participant observation
looks like in contemporary modern urban circumstances. Her credibility
is enhanced with in-person, face-to-face interactions with members of
the Japanese beauty culture. For instance she personally undergoes
treatments at several aesthetic salons, gaining first hand accounts of
how body improvement is marketed as scientific process, including such
props as special uniforms, technological equipment, clinical and
laboratory settings, all of which promote an atmosphere of control,
prediction, and success via science. She visits the Takano Yuri Beauty
Clinic and the Socie Salon for the Basic Bust Up course to see the
medicalization of breast fashion; she also visits several male esute
salons with a male friend to understand better male counterparts; and
she works and lives in Osaka, affiliating with Japanese friends,
staying at each other’s apartments, observing and learning beauty
secrets that ordinary people use on a daily basis.
offers young scholars a superb example of blending ethnographic
practice and cultural studies—in terms of both model of argumentation
and logic. She exploits the “multidimensional nature of cultural
studies” by integrating personal observations, interviews, historical
details, and “textual/linguistic interpretations of media images and
products as legitimate support” for her ideas (p. 15). While it was not
Miller’s primary objective to expose fraudulent practices and bogus
products, she is not afraid to speak out and reference ineffectuality
via another sense of scientific validation.
author asks us to consider the pushes and pulls of beauty standards,
changing beauty values and fashions as she explores the complexity of
the beauty economy and beauty nationalism. For example, when discussing
dieting, Miller links “slimming to broader social, political, and
economic factors…Dieting is an arena where social and individual needs
converge. It is multi-determined, emanating from a combination of
beauty politics, cultural proscriptions, and individual desire” (p.
173). She examines the central variables that ground such standards,
origins for beauty norms and, in turn, questions how all of this fits
into past and present consumer capitalism as she states: “The body has
become a focus for capitalist expansion, and contemporary Japanese are
urged to seek new bodies around which to frame their personalities” (p.
18). In another case, when discussing symbolic features of breast
enhancement/augmentation (producing a “prolonged front”), she explores
links between “breast fashions, a trend toward the surface expression
of identity, and the spread of global Euroamerican beauty ideology” (p.
especially appreciated the interplay of the individual and the social.
Attention to personal beautification can be read as a space where
features of intense self-improvement (e.g. perseverance, struggle,
self-discipline, sacrifice, and hard work), all come into play. But
this same attention could be read as contributing to a less than
desired narcissistic self-centeredness. Instead Miller notes how the
beauty industry stresses appearance in such social domains as manners
and etiquette, thus maintaining norms for preferred interaction.
One of the most important and impressive points in Beauty Up
is Miller’s interpretation of what constitutes beauty in Japan. She
repeatedly warns us against ethnocentric assessments of exotic
practices as she cautions us to avoid interpretations based on “the
slavish emulation of the west” (p. 123). Miller frequently stresses an
anti-Western narcissism and adds: “I do not deny that the politics of
appearance in Japan is inextricably bound up in Euroamerican dominance.
New beauty conventions in Japan also involve aspects of intimacy,
appropriation, and reworking. Japanese exist in a Western-dominated
world order, but we are missing something if the only interpretation we
imagine is “wretched imitation” (p. 122). Miller recognizes a
recontextualization process based on the importance of recognizing
local uses, practices, and meanings in the face of global homogenizing
forces. When speaking of media socialization, Miller reminds us that
media influence may come less from Hollywood and more from Japanese
sources including film, television, magazine advertisements, and manga.
short, questions of outside influence and change regularly appear.
Avoiding any sense of condescension or pandering, Miller emphasizes how
“hybrid beauty reflects domestically creolized innovation” (p. 20).
Through processes of proactive selection and adaptation, ordinary
people demonstrate a capability for making choices, asserting their own
degrees of independence, individuality, and, in some cases, sexual
autonomy. Again, beauty trends in Japan express a separately developed
aesthetic and are not “failed versions” of Euroamerican styles” (p. 32).
of the speed with which the beauty industry may be changing, Miller
provides her readers with a solid set of principles for understanding
inevitable changes and for avoiding ethnocentric judgments. Miller
suggests many topics for additional study—of the fascinating interplay
of appearance, identity, and cultural values—all of which contribute to
a healthy revision of what deserves to be studied. Miller shows us how
studies of beauty find a place alongside more recognized topics in
Japanese visual culture such as woodblock prints, classic feature
films, and manga. She has written an academic beauty that deserves much
Chalfen is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Temple University and
currently, Senior Scientist at the Center on Media and Child Health,
Children’s Hospital Boston/Harvard Medical School. His research
combines interests in cultural anthropology and visual communication,
American Studies and for the past 10 years, Asian Studies,
specifically, the visual culture of modern Japan. He is also Book
Review Editor for Visual Studies.