It cracks me up when I see an actor or celebrity who has gotten themselves fixed up with a giant set of horse teeth in order to have “perfect” teeth.” Do they really not notice how their mouth gapes open? How ridiculous their fake teeth look? I guess not. In North America, we’re obsessed with white, straight teeth. We’ll wrap our teeth in wires, coat them in plastic, and bleach the life out of them in order to look “beautiful.” But again, standards of beauty aren’t the same around the world. Japan has a history of very different ideas of what beautiful teeth look like, and the practices of Ohaguro and Yaeba demonstrate just how opposite these ideas can be from one culture to another.
Ohaguro was practiced mainly by both married women and geishas before the Merji era (1868 – 1912), when it was outlawed so that Japan could assimilate better with the western world. It involved painting one’s teeth with a black dye made of kanemizu, iron filings dissolved in vinegar, and then mixed with vegetable dyes to achieve a pure black. Women would paint their teeth every few days to make sure they stayed pitch black, resulting in black teeth that were not only considered beautiful, but also healthy, since the dye was seen as a preventative measure against cavities and gum disease. Today it is still practices in areas of Southeast Asia.
Yaeba is a modern-day cosmetic dental practice, where young women and some young men have artificial snaggle-teeth glued on to their existing teeth, just like in the west people have giant horse dentures glued on to their teeth. These snaggle teeth – the horror of western orthodontists, and generally seen as a sign of poverty here in the west – are said to impart a youthful and approachable look to the woman. The theory is that men are less intimidated by a woman with wonky teeth – she must be insecure or something, so that means less likely to challenge their puny manhood. The look stems from the snaggly teeth of celebrities like Kirsten Dunst, who has unwittingly spawned a culture of snaggles in Japan.