Japanese beauty is back in the limelight after years in K-beauty’s shadows, but how far can the two be compared, and what do Japanese women’s beauty routines actually look like?

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Some of your favourite beauty products probably hail from Japan: from soft as silk, calligraphy style makeup brushes  to the original red lip (geishas wore crushed safflower petals) and the still widely used rice powder as makeup setter and mattifier, the Japanese beauty pedigree harks back to the sixth century. Declaring it a ‘big thing’ for 2018 seems a little reductive, considering, but given the recent kitsch K-beauty hype , industry experts and retailers have declared a return to the more refined, minimalist and manageable approach that characterises Japanese beauty. It’s not all rice and roses either: Japan remains a tech hub according to BeautyMart’s Anna-Marie Solowij :

“So much of what is exciting in K-beauty originally came from Japan. With South Korea investing in beauty research and development, K-beauty stole the limelight. Now, Japan is taking it back.”

Japanese beauty manages to marry the old and new with aplomb: from centuries old geisha rituals to today’s font of innovation (beauty buyers estimate that it’s around three years ahead of the West in terms of R&D), but given the proliferation of sheet masks  and the like that hit our shelves from the East, here’s a rudimentary guide to the defining differences between K and J beauty, how a Japanese makeup artists sees the J-beauty landscape and the brands, products and textures to watch.

J-beauty in brief

It’s slower

As its heritage would indicate, Japanese beauty culture and expertise goes way back, so while it’s not charging ahead in the way that Korean beauty might be (K-beauty R&D is said to be seven years ahead of Western competitors), tech is considered and there’s far less bandwagoning in terms of showy face masks, skincare for social media’s sake (we’re looking at you glass skin ) and makeup trends such as gradiated lips . Basically, it’s the sensible, sophisticated older sister to K-beauty’s more frenzied, peppy energy and transient tastes.

Skincare routines are simpler

There are no ten-step nightly facial marathons here, and face masks are a weekly luxury rather than a daily staple. Skincare regimes are closer to the Western ‘cleanse, tone and moisturise’ formulae (cheers for that Clinique), with an additional hydrating step (you’ll notice that moisture is queen in the Japanese scene), often taking the form of an ‘essence’ .

But bathing is a different matter…

Whether you’re taking a trip to the communal onsen or bathing at home (known as furo), a long hot soak is a Japanese right of passage, as author of Japonisme  Erin Niimi Longhurst explains:

“My grandfather would take around three baths a day, especially in the summer, when he’d pop back from the office around lunchtime for a quick soak. Japanese baths tend to be extremely deep, meaning that you can get in right up to your shoulders- and most come equipped with a button that lets you reheat the bathwater, so you can easily spend hours in the tub letting your fingertips get all prune like.

“The onsen experience in particular is all about scent- whether it’s the smell of the sulphur or of hot, clean towels, fresh laundry or soap, it’s very much an activity that engages your sense of smell.

“Either way, bathing is not just about a quick rinse. Taking care of your whole self is essential in maintaining balance and contentment. Rituals around bathing play their part- they provide time in the day when you can focus on yourself and clear your mind and body. Again, it’s an activity that the Japanese take slowly and spend quality time on.”

Oils are kind of a big deal

Whether it’s luxe botanical oil infused makeup or more a more functional  Muji cleansing oil , unctuous and dewy is the way forward. Cleansing oils  in particular were popularised by Japan, with Shu Uemura’s cleansing oil beloved by makeup artists everywhere and one of the first entry points to oil cleansing to the gloop-phobic Western market. Shu has now sadly left our shores (although the brand’s oil infused haircare  is thankfully still available), but the legacy of the cleansing oil has remained.

Textures are light

Milks, gels, emulsions and tonics are all bathroom cabinet watchwords, mainly due to their ease of absorption and propensity for layering (more on that later). Basically, the Japanese skincare regime creates a juicy moisture sandwich- think veils of hydration and protection rather than the one thicker coat of cream. A bit like Uniqlo’s heat techs and light down jackets, but for your skin.

It looks to nature

Alongside the cutting edge science coming out of the Shiseido labs (the newest Essential Energy  range is “powered by neuroscience”), staple makeup and skincare ingredients stay local- from Japanese citrus fruit yuzu  in  Shiro Yuzu Lip Balm , £22, to jabara fruit in Beauty Pie’s new Japanfusion™  skincare range and the tofu in Shiseido’s teen targeted Waso  skincare line, homegrown ingredients range from the probiotic to the antioxidant-rich, so why look elsewhere? You’ll find free-radical fighting green tea extract and skin barrier boosting rice squalene aplenty too.

It’s pricey

Compared to K-beauty’s pocket money prices, J-beauty will set you back a bit (see Suqqu, Decorté and SK-II for starters). Then again, there’s generally not a gimmick in sight, and the more avant-garde Japanese innovations tend to stick around- see colour correcting primers and lengthening fibre mascara ( Fairydrops Quattro Mascara , £18.50, is well on its way to cult status). On the whole, you get what you pay for.

A Japanese makeup artist’s beauty regime

Celebrity makeup artist Shinobu Abe  recently gave us some real talk about the fundamentals of Japanese beauty- much of her routine conforms to the above, but, according to Abe, alongside the good, there’s also the ugly…

“I’d say that instead of spending huge amounts on one pot of face cream, we concentrate more on layering our skincare. We keep it sensible and simple.

“It’s true that having a bath is a huge thing in Japan too. When you’re in the tub, you’re automatically steaming your face. Then, personally, I follow this up with exfoliation. After a bath, it’s customary to have a cold shower (if you’re brave enough). This helps to minimise pores, which is generally a big focus in Japan too.

“In terms of tools and makeup prep, almost every woman in Japan owns a heated eyelash curler, which aren’t so popular in the West. They’ve been around for years, but I’m noticing that more and more Japanese have these in their kits. There’s one you can get that rotates, which I love.

“When I’m in the UK I miss Japanese chemists the most. Boots just isn’t the same. You can pick up all sorts of brilliant skincare that actually works- I stock up on lifting face masks (you can really see a difference), warming eye patches, my favourite feet ‘peeling’ sheets and a brightening ‘fatigue’ fighting feet sheet.

“It has to be said that there are also downsides to Japanese beauty culture. It’s not a utopia. Skin whitening remains one of the most prolific trends in Japan, and I’d put it back to the labour era- before Coco Chanel went on the beach and made tans cool! Obviously you’ve got to protect your skin from the sun, but there’s a huge preoccupation with looking as white as possible that I don’t think is healthy. A lot of foundations come out grey as people are so afraid of anything with a yellow tone. If I were a beauty ambassador in Japan, I would try to ban the sale and use of white foundations. Extreme I know, but it doesn’t look natural and I don’t agree with it.

“There’s also a focus on changing the natural shape of the eye- not to Korean extreme where surgery and ops are so common, but I know many Japanese women who use glue eye strips to make their eyes look more deep set. I could do without that trend too.”

J-beauty brands to bookmark

We’ve covered a few above- see below for the full Japanese beauty booty…


Japan’s bestselling makeup range, with Kate Moss as the face. In short no small fry.  Read my review of some of the latest launches into Selfridges in the UK , but as a summary it’s expensive, but probably justifiably so given the Nobel prize winning scientists behind many of the formulations.

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This one needs no introduction. With continual scientific breakthroughs in skincare, plus a ‘fun’ new Waso millennial inspired range that mainlines on jelly textures  and quick, multipurpose products, this is a Japanese giant that keeps on growing.

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With Cate Blanchett as long-standing spokeswoman and makeup artist Mary Greenwell  a fan, SK-II isn’t always the easiest to get hold of in the UK (or the cheapest), but many swear by the brand’s hero fermented sake extract, known as Pitera™, for its smoothing and brightening capacities.

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Yes, the functional, affordable homewares shop. The skincare offering is equally pared back, but bang in line with what’s big in Japan, from moisturising toners to milky textures.

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Another affordable Japanese skincare range, DHC is finding real ground in the UK thanks to its nifty masks and makeup removers and beauty troubleshooters- from eyelash growth tonics to the makeup melting Deep Cleansing Oil , £24 for 200ml.

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Serum-infused base, inky liquid liners and the best makeup brushes on the planet  characterise this high-end makeup brand. The foundation colour range leaves much to be desired (a commonality across Asia in general), but otherwise this is beautiful stuff.

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You can filter this Japanese skincare and makeup brand’s wares by exotic ingredient (Butterbur Acne Care Cream anyone?) or aroma (peonies go down well with the Japanese crowd), and, unsurprisingly, the brand’s philosophy is to nurture the best natural ingredients and bring them to market in as simple and minimalist a manner as possible. Makeup wise, expect a lot of pastels, translucent textures and silky highlighters.

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The bestselling Japanese mascara brand to know. Brushes look decidedly funky, but the curved, bobbled wands lift lashes from the root, with fluttery fibres for length, a wax base and film-forming polymers to hold curl, plus a plant oil and hydrolyzed collagen conditioning complex to keep lashes healthy.

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A French brand that draws on the Japanese art of the haiku with ceremonial tea, incense and flower inspired perfumery and traditional painting and illustration. Fragrance doesn’t get more evocative and deep and meaningful than this. Unsurprisingly a splurge, but everything from bottle to box to poetics is built to last.

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Japanfusion™ by Beauty Pie

It’s no surprise that the beauty business model pioneers behind  Beauty Pie  (sign up and you’ll pay factory prices, while every customer gets a full breakdown of exactly where their money is spent) are looking to J-beauty for inspo. Japanfusion™ goes big on moisture, barrier repair and layering textures to bouncy effect, from a serum-facial oil hybrid to an essence-style fluid hydrator that enhances the penetration of the skincare you apply and helps to protect from the damaging consequences of pollution. Given that Tokyo is the most populated city in the world, multi-pronged daily defense from the elements/ the impact of other humans is clearly a must.

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8 K-beauty makeup trends to have on your radar

Follow Anna on Instagram  @annyhunter  and Shinobu  @shinobuabemua