The truth about teeth in Japan

Oral hygiene in Japan is very important and there is a huge market for all things dental. Models and popstars appear as the spokespeople for dental clinics and products and there are all sorts of toys for children that are designed to help them properly clean their teeth. In fact, if you go to a store you'll find what seems like hundreds of different types or brands of toothpaste and dental hygiene products.

A geisha with 'ohaguro' blackened teeth

A modern geisha would not normally be seen with 'ohaguro' blackened teeth, but it is common in old woodblock prints.

A woodblock print showing ohaguro

An interesting trend that can be found in Japanese history is that of Ohaguro. Ohaguro is the art of dyeing your teeth black. It was mostly women that blackened their teeth as it was seen as a sign of beauty, but when Ohaguro first became fashionable there were also quite a few aristocratic men that chose to dye their teeth black as a sort of status symbol. People also thought that the dye would protect their teeth and keep them healthy. Although this trend happened in a few other countries during this time, it's mostly recognised as a Japanese tradition up to the end of the 19th century.

In Japanese culture there is a certain fascination with teeth and the way that they look. The combination of the appreciation of hygiene and the pursuit of attractiveness might be at the root of this, but the only thing that can be said for sure is that oral hygiene is a big part of most modern Japanese people's lives. It's quite common in Japan for people to clean their teeth after lunch. In some offices in Japan you may often find a few people in the bathroom brushing away and in elementary schools students will all brush their teeth together after their lunch. Teachers will sing songs to the children to keep them focused and this time of the day can often be quite fun for the children as well as being beneficial to them. At home, parents and dentists will often use special puppets and toys to teach children how to brush their teeth. These toys have a set of teeth inside the mouth and often come with a toy toothbrush that adults can use as part of their demonstration. These toys aren't always pretty to look at – in fact, some of them can be pretty terrifying – but the additional effort that's put into teaching children to brush has certainly paid off. It seems that an estimated 50% of all Japanese adults brush their teeth after every meal.

Strangely enough, in Japan there are far more people using manual toothbrushes than electric toothbrushes. The manual toothbrushes you'll find in Japan will probably be quite different from the brushes you'll find in other countries. Japanese toothbrushes tend to be a lot smaller and the bristles are softer and much gentler on the gums and teeth. You'll also find expensive designer toothbrushes and high-tech manual brushes with all sorts of special features. Toothpaste and mouthwash are also quite different because Japanese brands often don't use fluoride in their products. In western countries, on the other hand, it's quite rare to find a dental product that doesn't contain fluoride.

Yaeba - Sugisaki Mika & Itano Tomomi

TV presenter and actress Sugisaki Mika (left). J-pop star Itano Tomomi (right)

While hygiene is considered important, on the aesthetic side there are some surprises. There is far less demand for cosmetic dentistry than in the US, for example. And when people do pay a dentist to alter their teeth, rather than a desire for a perfectly aligned smile it may be because they want yaeba, meaning "double teeth" or snaggletooth. This imperfect smile is considered by some to be beautiful, although it seems mainly linked to men favoring a more childlike or infantile look. The latest yaeba boom was sparked by the popularity of Itano Tomomi, a member of the J-pop girl group AKB48. There was even a J-pop group made up entirely of young women with yaeba. Not surprisingly, it was formed by the people behind a dental clinic that offers to give clients unlucky enough to have been born with straight teeth an artificial yaeba look.

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