The Japanese Fragrance Conundrum : Top Selling Perfumes

I’ve never seen such well-dressed, beautifully groomed women as in Tokyo. At Harajuku or Ginza, two high-glamour areas with distinctly different vibes, you will see one impeccably coiffed beauty after another tottering in her impossibly high heels, looking as if she’s ready for a magazine cover.  Beauty is big business in Japan, where the sales of cosmetics make this country the world’s second largest market after the US. You can find entire magazines devoted to nothing but color cosmetics, with the kind of attention to detail that is downright astounding. I flip open the makeup magazine, Biteki, to find technical illustrations, sophisticated instructions and comparison charts on topics as straightforward as the application of lipstick or as complex as anti-aging skincare.

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By comparison, perfume is not represented nearly as well . Walking through the glittering halls of the Mitsukoshi or Takashimaya department stores, you won’t find the endless expanse of fragrance bars that you would see at Neiman Marcus or even Macy’s. This is not to say that there isn’t an interesting selection of both prestige and niche lines in Japan. They are available, along with detailed technical explanations on how your fragrance was made and how you are supposed to enjoy it. Have you ever received a brochure describing how to apply fragrance from your local perfume store? At Mitsukoshi, that’s exactly what would wind up in your bag, along with an exquisitely wrapped bottle.

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At first, the lack of interest in perfume might seem surprising considering that the Japanese have a highly sophisticated tradition of incense, along with its unique scent appreciation ritual of kōdō (incense ceremony). One explanation I’ve heard is that applying perfumes directly on skin runs counter to the purity stipulations of Shinto,  the indigenous faith of the Japanese people. Perfuming the air or the clothes is a more acceptable way of scenting oneself.

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Nevertheless, step inside Shibuya 109, a trendy department store catering to teenagers (but incredibly fascinating to us, older folks), and you will faint from the pervasive scent filling each floor of this shopping mecca. I don’t even know how to properly describe it because I haven’t smelled anything similar in the US or Europe. It’s a smell of plasticky vanilla, baby powder and neon pink roses that made my head spin. Perhaps it was also the loud music and the flamboyant outfits worn by Shibuya’s sales staff.

Somewhere between absolute purity and Shibuya’s madness lies the list of Japan’s top sellers. Looking at the selection, you aren’t likely to be impressed. On the one hand, the choices reflect a preferences for fresh florals that dry down to a clean base of woods or amber.  On the other, there is a strong showing for established brands. Nevertheless, as you compare it to the other best-seller lists I’ve published, you will see several distinctive trends. So what do Tokyo’s beauties favor?

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The list below is based on my calculations of department store sales data for 2012. The results are not ranked, and given the perfume shopping habits of the Japanese, it’s hard to say what people buy because they genuinely love the smell or because of the brand and image.

Top 20 Best Selling Perfumes In France 2012

Top Selling Perfumes USA : Popular Fragrances Spring 2012

Top Selling Feminine Fragrances 2011 USA

Top Selling Feminine Fragrances for 2010 USA

Top Selling Feminine Fragrances for 2010 France

Top Selling Masculine Fragrances 2010 USA

Lanvin  Éclat d’Arpège

Ever since its launch in 2002,  Éclat d’Arpège has proven to be a success in the Asian market, and Japanese consumers never fail to rank it highly. It’s also mentioned as one of the best selling fragrances at most department stores. On the face of it, it’s just a simple, crisp peony, but it has some nice accents of osmanthus and amber. If you were to pick a fragrance that smells just pretty and wouldn’t offend those around you with a strong sillage, this is it.

Chloé (2008)

Relaunched in 2008, Chloé is a lychee accented rose that somehow became successful enough to spawn a little family of similar fragrances. It dries down to a clean musky-woody drydown.

Chanel Coco Mademoiselle

The wafts of Coco Mademoiselle that you might encounter in the subway in New York or Paris won’t delight (or drive you crazy) on Tokyo’s underground. Even so, Coco Mademoiselle Eau de Toilette (a much fresher, brighter version than the more commonly available Eau de Parfum) is one of the top sellers in Japan.

Guerlain La Petite Robe Noire

The advertising for this Guerlain’s success is everywhere!

Lancôme Miracle

Like Chloé, this is another lychee spiked rose that has been around since 2000. In Europe, it’s somewhat of a sleeper, but in Japan, Miracle still holds sway with its clean ambery drydown.

Jo Malone Blackberry & Bay

This new launch has been really well-received, and the sales data are quite impressive for this new comer. I liked Blackberry & Bay for its adult take on berries, without the dreaded cloying sweetness.

Jimmy Choo Eau de Toilette

The original Eau de Parfum version of Jimmy Choo was a woody oriental, with a gourmand patchouli-caramel accord, but the Eau de Toilette is a crisp fruity rose. Do you begin to see a pattern here?

Givenchy Dahlia Noir

The Eau de Parfum is a sweet floral with a rich woody backdrop, but guess which one is more favored in Japan? Yes, that’s right, the sparkling Eau de Toilette, which places its accent on a dewy rose and peach combo.

Chanel No 5

The Icon.

Courrèges Blanc de Courrèges

I admit, I’m cheating by including this perfume, because it’s hardly a top seller. But Japanese magazine editors have been praising it for its elegance and beauty, and I have to agree. At the same time, it’s far from a bland fragrance, and it proves that one can do “clean and alluring.” A graceful iris-patchouli vignette from a mod French fashion house.

As a little bonus, here are a few snapshots from my favorite Japanese magazines, Biteki, Maquia and AneCan and their detailed (and sometimes quirky) makeup and fashion tutorials!

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The history of Chanel No5, including a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the commercial with Brad Pitt.

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Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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113 Comments

  • Jamie: Thank you for this interesting post! Not long ago I watched a documentary about Shibuya and its street fashion. Did you see the girls with fake tans and white hair? January 23, 2013 at 8:41am Reply

    • Yuki: They are gone! The yamanba trend disappeared already. January 23, 2013 at 9:50am Reply

      • Victoria: I really wished I visited Tokyo when it was still the rage! January 23, 2013 at 10:45am Reply

    • Victoria: As Yuki mentioned below, that trend has passed already. The street fashion is still interesting in Shibuya, but there is nothing particularly extreme. January 23, 2013 at 10:44am Reply

  • Jillie: Really interesting to read this about Japan, Victoria. And I like the snapshots of the magazines – I really want to be a cat! January 23, 2013 at 8:47am Reply

    • Victoria: And it gives the best kitten eyeliner tutorial too! January 23, 2013 at 10:45am Reply

  • Elizabeth: Those magazines look great. I love that No. 5 spread! And “How to be a cat?” made me smile. My fiance speaks Japanese, as he studied in Japan for nearly five years. Maybe I could get him to translate these for me. Also: I suddenly want to try Eclat d’Arpege. January 23, 2013 at 8:50am Reply

    • Victoria: I love Japanese magazines, and I recently discovered a Japanese bookstore in Brussels that sells them. The skincare and makeup advice in the Japanese magazines put the western publications to shame, but then again, Japanese love detailed information. Can you imagine charts and graphs in Teen Vogue? I can’t, yet in Japanese teen magazines that’s exactly what you find. January 23, 2013 at 10:47am Reply

  • Bela: If it’s true that Japanese people don’t sweat the way we do (partly because we are great meat eaters and theyr’re not), then it could be that they never had to perfume their bodies to conceal bad odours the way we needed to in olden days – before the invention of deodorants/antiperspirants. Hence no perfume-making/using tradition.

    As for Japanese women’s tastes, it seems to me they (the women) are still encouraged to behave like little girls (I’ve met several Japanese women, who never stopped giggling and making little coy movements with their hands when talking). The Hello Kitty craze is testimony to that, isn’t it? So I’m not surprised they like ‘pink-smelling’ perfumes. January 23, 2013 at 8:52am Reply

    • Victoria: The diet, the lack of body odor in general, the tradition of daily bathing–all of that plays into it, I completely agree. Your second point is spot on too. January 23, 2013 at 10:50am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: I once had a Japanese tenant and she told me that Japanese women have fear to look old: youth is everything there, you are old with 18 ! I saw many of those magazines at the time, all in Japanese— can you read that, Victoria? January 23, 2013 at 11:40am Reply

        • Victoria: I minored in Japanese at the university, so while my skills have degraded, I still can read passably well, especially on certain topics.

          The youth obsession is unfortunately just as pervasive in Japan as everywhere else. January 23, 2013 at 11:50am Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: youth obsession is everwhere, that is true, but my Japanese tenant (she studied in Amsterdam) said that it
            was in Japan stronger than in Europe.She was Japanese, but that does not mean that she was right. January 23, 2013 at 12:21pm Reply

            • Cornelia Blimber: I say, how couragious to study Japanese! Already the alphabeth is scaring to me. January 23, 2013 at 12:23pm Reply

              • Victoria: I really enjoyed learning it, and I regret not doing more to keep my skills at the same level as what they were when I graduated. But at least, I read my magazines, and that’s some practice. January 23, 2013 at 2:17pm Reply

            • Victoria: I’m sure she’s right. Judging based on the Japanese magazines, it’s definitely a major concern. January 23, 2013 at 2:17pm Reply

  • Barbara: Cool! I don’t know what I love more: the kimono wearing ladies tapping away on their cell phones or that How to Be a Cat scan. Is it an explanation of a makeup look? January 23, 2013 at 9:00am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes! I’ve never seen more cat photos in a fashion/beauty magazine than in the Japanese ones. January 23, 2013 at 10:52am Reply

  • maja: And yet somehow I would love to smell plasticky vanilla and roses in a Japanese store for girls How pink was it?:)
    Visiting Japan must be a dream travel… January 23, 2013 at 9:15am Reply

    • Victoria: I really regret not picking one up, mostly because the scent is so odd. I doubt I could wear it, but it was certainly evocative. Anyway, imagine any of the big department store launches you’ve smelled recently and then imagine them smelling as if they were made to scent Barbie dolls, rather than real women! January 23, 2013 at 10:54am Reply

  • nastja: Thanks for this post, a fascinating question of how culture shapes perfume tastes… My Japanese friend says perfume is not supposed to smell too raunchy or overtly sexual on a woman, or at least that’s the assumption. So the taste is more for elegant, subtle, “pure” kinds of perfumes in Japan. It makes sense to me that how a woman is supposed to smell is tied to ideas about sexuality and gender expression and the public presence a woman is supposed to have. This made me think about how my tastes in perfume are also very cultural. Growing up with buxom, fur-clad, and opulently-perfumed female relatives in the good old Russian Jewish tradition, I am drawn to those kinds of rich smells (I guess I could’ve just as well been repulsed:)) January 23, 2013 at 9:41am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s an interesting observation, Nastja. In general, the look for a Japanese woman (save for the extreme youth culture movements) is elegant, understated, subtle. Despite the extraordinary variety of cosmetics or makeup magazines, the colors and looks are quite similar to each other. I’ve never seen a bigger variation of pink and brown eyeshadows (favorite Japanese colors based on my observations) than in Japan. Actually, one of the reasons I started reading Japanese magazines in the first place is because I love this kind of subtle, polished look and I wanted to know how to do it.

      The fragrance is an extension of it. The idea of a perfume that announces your presence is an anathema in a culture that values discretion and subtlety. January 23, 2013 at 10:58am Reply

      • maja: “The idea of a perfume that announces your presence is an anathema in a culture that values discretion and subtlety.”

        I think this is the point. January 23, 2013 at 5:00pm Reply

        • Victoria: And when you’re stuck in a crowded subway car, it’s really a blessing not to be assaulted by overly strong scents! January 23, 2013 at 5:21pm Reply

          • nastja: this reminds me of the blurb that goes along with L’Eau d’Issey about how the smell of water was considered the perfect pitch for this quintessentially Japanese essence and how Issey Miyake commissioned it. The smell of water. I love that. And wish more people could smell like that on the 8:30 train… January 23, 2013 at 8:21pm Reply

            • Victoria: I do too! The smell of metro here in Brussels can be really unpleasant–a mixture of burnt rubber, sour metal and the general human smell. And I thought that the NYC subway was bad. January 24, 2013 at 7:27am Reply

  • bloody frida: I didn’t know about Shinto/purity. Thank you as I went and did a little research on that. January 23, 2013 at 9:42am Reply

    • Victoria: Isnt’t it fascinating! January 23, 2013 at 10:58am Reply

  • Wordbird: How interesting! Thank you Victoria for this – like Bloody Frida, I didn’t know about Shinto and purity.
    I think it’s fascinating how the differences in cultures are expressed in how people want to smell. And following on from what Bela said our dietary differences, also the Japanese have always had a tradition of bathing and using bath houses to ensure their bodies are clean, whereas western Europeans (us Brits, certainly) lost that tradition and it’s only in the 20th century that cleanliness once again became a priority.
    Perhaps the recent development of showering as a daily ritual (as opposed to weekly or twice-weekly bathing, as was the norm when I was a child) explains the shift in western perfumery towards more and more ‘clean’ scents. I know lots of young women are horrified by my powerhouse scents like Opium. January 23, 2013 at 10:12am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad that you liked it. Japanese culture is extraordinarily complex, and I feel that I just had a brief glimpse. It’s tempting to explore it further. January 23, 2013 at 11:00am Reply

  • Villette: You mention Courreges Blanc de Courreges. Perhaps this might amuse you. I was in Selfridge’s in London a few days ago, and having heard they have the relaunched Courreges scents exclusively (for the moment), I looked for the counter that would have the testers. When I couldn’t find any Courreges in the vast hall, I asked at the Information desk. The 20-something information man looked blank. So did the 20-something woman next to him. He started a search in the computer. ‘How do you spell that, Kor — ‘ I stopped him: ‘Courreges.’ He went on typing, saying it outloud: ‘Courgettes.’ I backed away and kept on looking. No one at any of the counters had ever heard of the designer, much less the scent, which made me feel like I had arrived from a time-machine: like Norma Desmond, I can remember when Courreges was big. I finally found it, sitting on a counter at which even the sales person didn’t recognise the name. After all that adventure, alas, the scent of Blanc de Courreges did not interest me… January 23, 2013 at 10:17am Reply

    • Victoria: Courgettes! Thank you for making me laugh out loud.

      Blanc de Courreges isn’t a particularly dramatic or innovative fragrance, but it’s well-crafted. For those who like the idea of a clean, subtle perfume, it’s probably one of the better options. Interesting enough, it was created by a perfumer who lived in Japan as a child. January 23, 2013 at 11:01am Reply

  • sylvie: I wonder why none of Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcons scents make the list of best sellers in Japan? I imagined them, particularly Kyoto, as having a Japanese sensibility. Could that just be marketing to a Western market? January 23, 2013 at 11:07am Reply

    • Victoria: Whenever my Japanese friends smell Kyoto on me, they find it rather odd. It’s an environmental scent for them, not something they would put on their skin. And the rest of Comme des Garcons fragrances are quite aggressive and sharp. The one Japanese fragrance that might do ok in Japan is Issey Miyake. January 23, 2013 at 11:11am Reply

  • irem: Your observations on Japan and perfume are very intriguing. I remember reading somewhere that the Japanese do not test fragrances while the top and middle notes are there. That instead of freshly spraying a blotter they rely on the drydown on pre-sprayed blotters. Unfortunately I do not remember where I have read this thing and whether it is true. Did you observe anything similar? Doesn’t it go against the grain that nowadays fragrance buying decisions are mostly made within the first ten minutes of spraying, and most money goes into the top notes leaving us with all these sparkly on the top and and bland downwards stuff. Or aren’t we told so. Although I seriously wonder who decides for a fragrance in 10 minutes, I have to wear it for days to commit to a full bottle.
    Thanks for a great article! January 23, 2013 at 11:12am Reply

    • Victoria: The blotters are usually available already pre-sprayed, and yes, there is no cloud of perfume near the fragrance counters. I don’t know if Japanese are more averse to the top notes than the shopper in Europe or the States, but it’s an interesting question. Something to research! January 23, 2013 at 11:31am Reply

  • george: Very interesting!

    I prophecise that in a marketing meeting somewhere soon, someone will have read this and be saying “We really want the Japanese market on this one so we gotta stick a bitta berry in it, or what them Japanese fruits called, yeah lychees, we want some of that in it, too.’ January 23, 2013 at 11:15am Reply

    • Victoria: They do that already! The Japanese (and Asian) fragrance market in general may not rival that of the US or France, but it’s important enough that the “clean” type of fragrance invades the counter space even here. Fragrance companies don’t want to create big launches just for a specific market, they want to win them all, and as a result they aim for the middle ground. January 23, 2013 at 11:29am Reply

  • nikki: Great article, Victoria! When I studied at an international school, it was the Japanese who impressed me the most of all Asian cultures I came in contact with. I find their philosophy of personal integrity and honor and regard for beauty and classical music very endearing. I am not surprised at the perfume choices…very understated. Shiseido is still one of my favorite make up companies, so is Gardenia Passion by Annick Goutal which was inspired by her walk through a Japanese Gardenia garden. Love the cat eyeliner spread, maybe something for another article? January 23, 2013 at 11:16am Reply

    • Victoria: The makeup topic warranties several articles in itself, but it would probably be boring to the perfume crowd that visits here. :)

      I would say that the biggest highlight of Japan for me are the people. The exquisite grace and politeness that I’ve experienced there in the most mundane situations cannot be matched by anything I’ve encountered before. January 23, 2013 at 11:35am Reply

  • irem: Couldn’t resist a second comment: Where would you place Feminite du Bois (FdB) in the Japanese perfume scene? I am almost certain that no one in Japan would wear it. But yet, when I first encountered FdB I badly wanted it for its Japanese aesthetic. I cannot pinpoint what made it exotique to me, maybe the bottle, the ads, or solely that Shiseido is a Japanese company. But maybe the austerity of the fragrance mirroring a Japanese temple, an archer or Ikebana. Do you find FdB (at least the original version) has any Japanese in it?
    I know that I am asking a “so what?” type of question, but I am still wondering.
    Thanks! January 23, 2013 at 11:24am Reply

    • Victoria: What an interesting question! I wonder what others think, but for me, Feminite du Bois has a Japanese aesthetic because it’s abstract, unexpected and slightly mysterious. It doesn’t reveal everything at once, and you experience the perfume in layers. The scent itself though is probably more Moroccan than Japanese–the sweet amber, resinous wood, etc. But when you put the two together–the scent and the concept, it’s more than the sum of its parts. Then again, one of the best Japanese qualities is to synthesize and create something completely different. January 23, 2013 at 11:40am Reply

    • Bela: If I may… Shiseido may have commercialised it, but FdB was/is still a Serge Lutens perfume, so, imo, no more Japanese than any of the other SLs on sale at the Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido. January 23, 2013 at 11:48am Reply

      • Victoria: On the other hand, Serge Lutens is strongly influenced by the Japanese aesthetic. But of course, in terms of scents themselves, they are uniquely Lutens. January 23, 2013 at 11:54am Reply

        • Bela: He is, but only visually (the make-up, ads. etc. he designed for Shiseido all those years ago), though, and not consistently (the first floor at the Salons is very Japanese looking, but not the actual boutique, and his house in Morocco is not Japanese-influenced at all). January 23, 2013 at 2:11pm Reply

          • Victoria: My friend from Tokyo sent me a gorgeous spread from a magazine featuring his house in Morocco. It’s so beautiful, and the gardens are beyond words. It really looks like a fairy tale place. January 23, 2013 at 3:00pm Reply

            • irem: Victoria, Bella, Thank you for your answers. Never been to the Salons, still dreaming of the day. Sigh! January 24, 2013 at 10:07am Reply

  • rhodesianridgeback: Well, Tokyo! I watch videos from the area on Youtube, a daily walk through Japanese Gardens and Parks with a Corgi that are wonderful. This is Sirowan’s channel with his dog Goro. (One only sees the dog) I visit the literature I have read in the past. And, to intrude on someones space in anyway is painful to both parties. So a scent is only for those who are allowed to come close. Anything else must allow the full scent of the natural flowers in the ground and in the tea bowl. January 23, 2013 at 11:52am Reply

    • Lys: Agree, my impression is that the Japanese attitude toward perfume has a lot to do with the desire not to intrude on others’ space. January 23, 2013 at 12:15pm Reply

    • Victoria: The fascinating thing about Japan are the numerous layers: the exuberant teen culture of Shibuya, the somewhat rundown beauty of Mukojima, the glitter of Ginza. I saw Sirowan’s channel too.

      I agree with your point about the intrusion of scent. That’s a very important consideration. January 23, 2013 at 2:14pm Reply

  • Lys: Just a side note that the La Petite Robe Noire sold in Japan (and China, Singapore, etc.) is an EDT with a different set of notes, related but fresher, more green and with white amber in the base (better matching the fragrance preferences you outline!). As someone with an interest in both Guerlain and Japan, I can’t wait for the EDT to make its way to the US this Spring. January 23, 2013 at 12:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s more fruity floral than gourmand like the EDP, with lots of green apple, pear, peach notes. The finish is crisp, clean, dry, rather than sticky sweet. If you like fruity florals, it’s a nice option. I believe that it’s launching in France around this time, and in March or April in the US. January 23, 2013 at 2:16pm Reply

      • Lys: Thanks, that’s great to know. It sounds less expected than the LPRN that got a mainstream release last year. January 23, 2013 at 7:31pm Reply

        • Victoria: I would love to hear what you think when you finally try it. I didn’t find it that unexpected, but I much preferred it to the EdP. January 24, 2013 at 7:28am Reply

  • Laura: I remember sitting opposite one Japanese woman and her luggage on the way to the airport. It was summer and she was wearing a simple white tank top, black slacks and flip flops. No jewellery, no makeup, and no fragrance. She oozed class though, she looked like a perfectly healthy and ageless human being. I was in awe of her, wondering what lifestyle she led to look like that.

    But then many Asian women seem to want to copy our haircolors, our makeup and our fragrances. Why? Their own suit them beautifully. I would give up fragrance and makeup for the rest of my life if I looked that perfect. January 23, 2013 at 12:26pm Reply

    • Az: I can’t speak for Japan, but having grown up in Singapore, I’d agree that there is a tendency to aspire to the blond (cue hair dye), blue eyed (coloured contacts) and pale skin. I would say in part, the allure of the other. The other bit is sort of reverse racism – the idea of the superiority of ‘whites’, whether a colonial hangup or sth else, i don’t know! And then there is the fact that in the mass media, it is largely that ideal that is represented. Sorry for a rather long explaination! :) January 23, 2013 at 12:50pm Reply

      • Laura: Thanks Az! I don’t know about colonial hangup, the gorgeous Korean ladies in the Gangnam style video are also chemically blond … and so are some of the tourists. Blond or mahogany, and if possible curly too… January 23, 2013 at 2:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: There are lots of Eastern European models too. I have a Russian friend who worked as a model, and some of her most interesting work was done in Japan. She had just the kind of look that is popular there.

      As for the popularity of pale skin, it’s such a complex topic. The obsession with white skin goes back centuries. You might find this article interesting:
      http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/china-and-its-neighbors/091123/asia-white-skin-treatments-risks
      The main topic is about the risks of skin whitening treatments, but it also explores why the white ideal is so coveted. January 23, 2013 at 2:29pm Reply

    • Natasha: Being an asian myself, I would disagree that dying our hair is something we do to emulate westerners. Why do we dye our hair? Its because its simply boring to have black hair. When everyone around you has black hair and brown eyes, what can you do to stand out from the crowd? Its our way of expressing individuality. When there are safe ways to change a feature of yourself you do not like or just want to change, why not?

      Makeup wise asian trends and western trends are really different. Japanese makeup focuses on subtlety, soft colours, an au naturel look. While western makeup has so much more bolder looks like bright eyeshadow and bold lips. Look at the difference between colour products offered by MAC cosmetics and a japanese brand like Kanebo.

      If asian women wanted to copy western women, we would get tans like how western celebrities like to do. But we don’t. In Asia, our notion of beauty is to have fair skin like snow. We even have skincare and makeup dedicated to making our skin fairer. January 23, 2013 at 3:20pm Reply

      • yin: i agree. while there’s no denying that the global ‘standard’ of beauty is a western one, and certain ideas of what constitutes beauty in asian societies reflect that, there are many beauty ideals that have been traditional in asian cultures long before any western influence came into play. and i find it offensive that caucasians think we asians want to emulate their look when, e.g., white skin has always been coveted. as for dying our hair – it’s fun, so why not? i doubt caucasians who dye their hair black are told they’re ‘trying to look asian’… agreed about makeup trends too. asian makeup trends are completely different from the bold striking colours that are more characteristic of a western aesthetic. January 23, 2013 at 4:21pm Reply

        • Victoria: I was mulling over this as I was replying to other comments, and I also think that the issue is more complex than simply wanting to look “western.” The beauty ideals in Asia are definitely shaped by much more than this. Even the yamanba look that Jamie mentioned earlier in this thread was not based on the desire to appear “western”, but to present a counter-image to the established ideal types–tanned skin in place of porcelain white, white lipstick in place of the traditional red, etc.

          But as a side point, I do wish that more Japanese brands used Asian models to represent them. For instance, when browsing the new spring colors from Lunasol, Cosme Decorte, Addiction, RMK, Cle de Peau, I see only the Caucasian models in all of the ads. January 23, 2013 at 7:16pm Reply

          • Natasha: I have noticed that department store brands like Lunasol and such have used caucasian models more compared to drugstore bands like KATE, Canmake and Dollywink. Maybe it is due to target audiences? I’ve noticed western women are more familiar with brands like Lunasol, RMK, and Shu Uemura compared to KATE and other drugstore brands.

            Or maybe they are using Caucasian models to give out a high end feel that suits their department store brand status? As an Asian, I see many Asian brands from makeup brands to even electronical appliances using Caucasian models to advertise their products so that people would perceive their products as having more quality and international recognition. January 24, 2013 at 4:06am Reply

            • Victoria: I doubt that it has to do with their target audience, because Lunasol, Cosme Decorte, Addiction and the likes are not even distributed outside of Asia. For instance, Shiseido, a brand with global presences, often uses Asian models and fully explores its Japanese origins. January 24, 2013 at 7:04am Reply

          • az: I hope I did not give the impression that ALL Asian people who dye their hair blond do so to look ‘white’.
            As Victoria says, the issue is more complex than that. All I am saying is there is in general a tendency to hold to a blond- any colour other than brown/black eyed as an ideal where I grew up (in Singapore and in my Malay community). Yes, there are people who colour their hair blond to stand out – but I know there are people who do it to look white. Likewise the contact lenses. For that matter though, why blond when you can go red, green or pink? (I like pink myself, lol.)

            I agree though that the pale skin ideal in some cultures predates western influence ( I really dislike the west/east dichotomy, to be honest, but let’s go with it for now). It does not mean however at some point the two have not conflated.

            However, in Malay, we have ‘hitam manis’ (lit. sweet black) meaning, a pretty girl who is dark skinned with ‘rambut ikal mayang’ (thick, wavy hair) as an ideal. Traditional Malay beauty was definitely not blond, pale skinned and blue/green eyed. January 24, 2013 at 3:19pm Reply

            • az: *thick, wavy, dark hair* January 24, 2013 at 3:21pm Reply

            • Victoria: No worries, Az, I don’t think that anyone took your comment to mean that, but I find your further explanations fascinating. Thank you! For instance, as far as fair skin goes, I have much more experience with how it’s perceived in the Indian culture. Fairy & Lovely is one of the skincare brands popular there, and I remember that a famous beauty Aishwarya Rai gained some bonus points by refusing to be their spokesperson. A traditional Indian beauty was also not blue-eyed and stick thin, but today the Bollywood actresses aspire to that ideal. (And as a side point, Rai once again bucked the trend by gaining some weight after she had her daughter and refusing to shed it within weeks. She said that she wanted to enjoy motherhood and worry about her looks later. I find that quite refreshing.) January 24, 2013 at 3:29pm Reply

              • Az: Thanks, victoria. Being married to a half-indian, I can tell you that bias is alive in the diaspora as well. Didn’t know that about Rai, but she earned some brownie points with me! Almost makes up for her one dimensional acting roles (my opinion, of course. *ducks*) She is one georgeous lady.

                It is interesting to see how film editing has made actors who in Bollywood films ten years ago were darker skinned seem so pale these days. Pity that – compare for example, srk in kuch kuch hota hai vs kal ho naa ho. At least i *hope* it is post production ops.

                Fascinating discussion, and i loved the article (as alwaya). Sorry it got sorta sidetracked. January 24, 2013 at 4:34pm Reply

                • Victoria: I agree that her roles hardly reveal any depth or complexity, but what an eye candy Bollywood movies are! I love watching them when I want an escape from routine. I even confess to owning DVD compilations of Bollywood song-and-dance videos. One is called “A Date With Shahrukh Khan.” :) January 24, 2013 at 4:56pm Reply

                  • Az: Nothing wrong with a bit of fluff – don’t know why masala movies are derogatory, ha ha. I confess to watching dil bole hadippa purely for the songs and the gorgeous shahid kapoor. A date with shahrukh khan is a date I am willing to go on! Ha ha. That one was good – srk does good pop stuff in general anyway :) January 24, 2013 at 5:15pm Reply

                    • Victoria: Exactly, some escapist fun! :) January 24, 2013 at 10:31pm

  • Laura: My favorite Japanese fragrances used to be Le Feu D’Isseyi (the original one in the fiery orange flacon) and the original Shisedo Zen, with its light bamboo serenity. L’Eau par Kenzo has been a longtime favorite but I don’t perceive it as Japanese. Kenzo had a spa range called Kenzoki, which I like. The other brands one finds in Sephora are too light for me.

    Feminite du Bois was a bit sad for me, I much prefer its younger happier version Dolce Vita January 23, 2013 at 12:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t remember if I mentioned it to you already, but have you tried Serge Lutens Bois et Fruits? It’s another take on the Dolce Vita/Feminite du Bois idea. January 23, 2013 at 2:30pm Reply

      • Laura: No you haven’t, but I know it. Boise Fruite was proudly presented to me one day by a myopic teenage neighbour who speaks neither French nor English very well. Her mom travels to Paris occasionally and always picks up two SL flacons, one for herself and one for her daughter.

        That one time I’ve tried it, Boise Fruite developed horribly, acrid and matronly and a complete disappointment. So it’s a no for this one I’m afraid. My neighbour ended up not liking it either, which is a good thing considering she kept pronouncing its name as “Boys Fluid”… LOL I’ll stick to Cuir Mauresque, Muscs Koublai Khan and Sarrasins … but thanks for suggesting it. January 24, 2013 at 4:36pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you for a laugh, Laura! Boys Fluid sounds like a name for an Axe body spray. :) January 24, 2013 at 4:49pm Reply

  • fleurdelys: I love the scarf-tying tutorial! Definitely going to print it out for future reference. January 23, 2013 at 12:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: I loved that tutorial too. I’ve been wearing my scarf in the #2 and #3 styles ever since I spotted the spread in the magazine. January 23, 2013 at 2:32pm Reply

  • Clothilde: I’ve been studying in Japan for six months, and I had a better feedback from my native friends when sporting Yves Saint-Laurent Babydoll than Guerlain Shalimar L’Initial. I actually bought my 30ml Babydoll bottle in a bookshop (!) near Ueno park for a surprisingly low price, and the lady working at Yves Saint-Laurent corner in Osaka airport duty free shops told me it had been sold better in Japan than in Europe.

    And indeed, I remember having been surrounded by this overly sweet powdery smell in so many shops! Although I was studying in a smaller town, I remember a shop called Lis Liza where that scent was overwhelming – a whole bunch of clean roses, and also that baby powder you mentionned. They were selling the perfume under another random French name (something like Chambre à coucher) but I reckon it was just a room fragrance – or maybe was I fooled by the name? I eventually regret not having purchased a bottle back then, because I cannot find anything about it on the Internet.

    Anyway, thank you for this article! It reminded me so many olfactive memories from my time there – both good and bad! January 23, 2013 at 3:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t remember off the top of my head the French sounding names of some boutiques inside Shibuya, but a few of them were really fun! Really, I’m tempted to ask one of my friend to find that crazy baby power-rose perfume at Shibuya 109. I bet that being overwhelmed by its fumes was the only reason why I bought a skirt made by a brand called “Pinky Girls”! :)

      I’m glad that you’ve enjoyed the post. January 23, 2013 at 5:20pm Reply

  • yin: this is a really interesting post, thank you! though i must say that i like the magazine scans more than any of the perfumes on this list… i haven’t bought a j-fashion mag in a while. January 23, 2013 at 4:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: I started buying Japanese beauty magazines years ago, because I loved both the kind of subtle look that these days goes under the name of “le no makeup look” in the French magazines. The skincare advice is also fantastic. These days I can’t imagine skipping my lotion mask and a 2-min face massage in the morning. January 23, 2013 at 5:08pm Reply

      • solanace: 2 min face massage? Is it fragrant enough for a post? Would love to learn it! January 24, 2013 at 6:34am Reply

        • Victoria: I can write something about it. It’s hard to explain without the photos though. Or maybe I will do some scans from the magazines. They often have these massages in pretty much every issue. January 24, 2013 at 7:07am Reply

          • solanace: A good daily facial massage is something many of us would like to learn about, I bet, but taking pictures must be almost impossible! Had not thought of that… January 24, 2013 at 12:39pm Reply

            • Victoria: It might be easier to do a video! But anyway, I will try to write something up. I’ve started doing it about half a year ago, and I just love the way my skin behaves now. Anyway, you might also be interested in a book by Chizu Saeki called “The Japanese Skincare Revolution.” The title is somewhat dramatic, but the book is full of excellent advice. Chizu Saeki is a famous persona on the Japanese TV (she is an aesthetician), and her lotion mask method is now even recommended by the skincare brands themselves. January 24, 2013 at 3:08pm Reply

              • Az: Adding to request for facial massage article or vid. :) January 24, 2013 at 4:44pm Reply

                • Victoria: Ok, let me see what I can do! :) January 24, 2013 at 4:50pm Reply

  • Sofia: Tokyo is one of those places I haven’t gone to yet but would love to visit. Some friends of mine that recently went there also observed that the women there put so much effort effort and glamour in their appearance. Here in Barcelona I’ve recently observes a lot of Japanese woman as tourists that look so amazing. The choice of perfumes is interesting. It’s lovely to see a list of best sellers that contains unexpected things that we are unaccostomed to see in Europe (or the States). January 23, 2013 at 5:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think that it’s fascinating to compare, and while there are some overlaps, there are distinctive, uniquely Japanese trends in perfume. One of the reason why the brands develop fresh eau de toilette variations (Coco Mademoiselle, La Petite Robe Noire) is to capture the Asian market. January 23, 2013 at 5:25pm Reply

  • Jordan River: Very interesting, especially the Shinto information. January 23, 2013 at 9:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: Shinto has such a complex set of beliefs, although on the surface it appears quite straightforward. I guess, the same could be said about many aspects of Japanese culture. January 24, 2013 at 7:25am Reply

  • behemot: Wonderful post and the comments are so informative! Thank you, Victoria and the commenters. January 23, 2013 at 9:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: The comments were so interesting, I agree. I so enjoyed reading this thread. January 24, 2013 at 7:25am Reply

  • kuri: It is so interesting what sells here!

    On the one hand, Le Labo and Montale are available here, and the old Shiseido fragrances are quite interesting, but on the other hand, we get every flanker of Incanto that has ever been made.

    That said, the habit of scenting oneself is growing more popular, to judge by the recent popularity of hair fragrances and more and more lines of inexpensive solid fragrances. It will be interesting to see how consumer trends evolve over time.

    Victoria, I had no idea that you understood Japanese. You never fail to amaze me with your many talents! January 23, 2013 at 9:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: You know, I really regret not taking some classes to keep up my Japanese. It makes me sad, because when I got my degree, I was fluent. Kanji is so easy to forget if you don’t practice characters, and since the only things I read in Japanese these days are beauty magazines and cookbooks, my kanji knowledge is limited to those topics. But thank you for your kind words.

      Incanto flankers are made almost exclusively for the Japanese market! They are sold elsewhere, but the idea is to appeal to the Asian consumers. I’m not sure why Incanto exactly is such a beloved perfume, because it smells like pretty much every other fruity floral. I also just smelled the new Jill Stuart Eau de White Floral, and it’s quite awful. On the other hand, the makeup line is very nice. January 24, 2013 at 7:24am Reply

  • mucuna: I visit Japan every year to buy wagashi and Tokyo and Kyoto are very different in terms of people wearing perfume and scent.
    In Tokyo, the best available niche perfume is at Shinjuku’s Isetan. It is on the floor that called the perfume parlour. They have most of the niche brands but God, when I approached it was so high pressure, 9 staff to 1 customer, me.
    It was nothing intimate, all displayed for everyone to see. Elegant Japanese ladies walking around with the most expensive handbags, and many many staff smiling…
    I found it really hard to shop there.
    On the other hand, Kyoto is much different, I shop for incense pouch made into beautiful silk kimono flowers to put together with my kimono at an artist atelier. A traditional wooden house in a residential area. I was invited to sit down with the chief kimono pattern designer who made the pouches and he told me about the little stories, I showed him the perfume, I usually wear and he selected the incense to put in the pouch flower I selected. A lot of thank you and personal greetings etc. It is like visiting a friend’s house.
    Generally, I think Japanese in Japan do not want perfume directly on the body. When I wore a necklace with a glass bottle with perfume inside, it got a lot of attention from women, they really love the idea. January 24, 2013 at 2:27am Reply

    • Victoria: Your necklace sounds very interesting! I also love that idea.
      And your incense pouch shopping experience must have been wonderful. I had a similar serene and calm encounter at an incense shop in Tokyo, and it was one of the highlights from my trip. If you don’t mind sharing, I would love to know the name of that store when you bought the pouches. January 24, 2013 at 7:16am Reply

      • mucuna: The name of the shop is called Yurino Incense Pouch at 604-8277 Kyoto this is the link:
        http://mucunabotanicalgarden.blogspot.ca/2012/05/to-celebrate-iris.html
        I only have the kanji address in the picture. The shop is not easy to find, just like any traditional house in that area of Kyoto, but the designer is very nice person and all the pouches are very pretty. January 24, 2013 at 10:32am Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you! The pattern in your picture looks so pretty. I’ve saved it to my “travel” folder, and I hope that someday I will visit it (fingers crossed). January 24, 2013 at 10:47am Reply

  • solanace: That was interesting! My husband is a Brazilian-Japanese, third generation. The funny thing is, I’ve been giving my sister in law a few samples (luring her into the rabbit hole, the poor thing, I know…), and what are her favorites scents so far? L’Ombre dans l’Eau and Thé pour un été! Spot on, isn’t it? It never ceases to fascinate me how these bits of Japanese culture emerge when you least expect them! Must look for these mags. Lovely photos as usual, V! January 24, 2013 at 6:22am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you!
      I received lots of compliments on Iris Silver Mist from my Japanese friends, and especially when it’s worn lightly, it has a subtle, but distinctive presence. Your sister in law’s preferences are definitely very much in that vein–crisp, clean, sparkling. January 24, 2013 at 7:10am Reply

      • solanace: I will get her a sample of ISM, haven’t got her any Lutens so far. January 24, 2013 at 12:41pm Reply

        • Victoria: She’s lucky to have such a wonderful guide to perfumery! She may also like Eau de Camille by Annick Goutal. It’s so delicate and refined. January 24, 2013 at 3:10pm Reply

  • FearsMice: Victoria, I’m delighted (but not surprised) to learn that you can read Japanese and love Japanese beauty mags.

    I have to laugh (ruefully) at my cultural mistakes: back when I lived in Japan during my 20s, I wore Ysatis (a power-hitter for sure!). Then again, the first time I smelled the original Poison was on a Japanese friend — so one shouldn’t generalize too much about the Japanese love of subtlety!… January 24, 2013 at 7:33am Reply

    • Victoria: I had a friend who lived in Japan for years, and he always joked that after his first year living there, he felt that he could write a book about Japanese culture; after 10 years–one essay, and now, after more than 30 years–two sentences. There are so many layers to it, and as you say, generalizations are hard to apply. January 24, 2013 at 7:42am Reply

  • Merlin: Its hard to say anything about a culture without it being a crass generalisation! And still, I will now proceed:) I was at a market last year and happened to stop at a little oriental store where everything just seemed beautifully made. More than the goods, however, I was totally enchanted by the lady working there. The only word that can come to mind is ‘grace’. The manners are so perfect and so genuine at the same time – and it is this which amazed me. Despite the intricate hand movement, and slight and subtle bows there seemed not a smidgeon of artificiality. In fact, I was so surprised I even mentioned something about courtesy and she told me she was Japanese… January 24, 2013 at 11:25am Reply

    • Victoria: Bowing gracefully is an art in itself. In Japan, like for most things, there are certain certain rules applied to bowing, how deep you bow and how long you hold the bow, etc. But yes, the courtesy and politeness overall are quite impressive. January 24, 2013 at 12:16pm Reply

  • Merlin: By the way, Victoria, its nice to know that that delicate and perfect face in the picture, the gorgeously sleek hair, and perfect poise do not come out of nowhere!
    Still I’m the kind of blunderbust that keeps most of her lipstick on her two front teeth – so I wouldn’t even TRY achieving any level of polish myself January 24, 2013 at 11:30am Reply

    • Victoria: I live in a fantasy that one day I will be like my mom–always perfectly put together and elegant without looking like she’s trying too hard. Most of the time, I don’t even come close, but it’s fun to try. When I write, I tend to bite my lower lip, so yes, my own lipstick doesn’t stay in the right place for long. :) January 24, 2013 at 12:19pm Reply

  • Mel: so glad no 5 is on the list :) January 31, 2013 at 10:08am Reply

  • george: You might find this interesting, and it might have bearing on the choice of perfume too.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/sifting-the-evidence/2013/feb/14/wasting-money-deodorant-ears February 14, 2013 at 9:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Interesting article! Thank you, George. February 14, 2013 at 10:33am Reply

  • Rita Sanyal: Call me boring, I always associate FLOWER by Kenzo with the delicate Japanese women; the powdery note certainly complements the porecelin complextion of Japanenese women along with the exotic kimonos. September 12, 2013 at 1:58pm Reply

    • Victoria: Not boring at all! Kenzo scents from that era had a very delicate aesthetic. September 13, 2013 at 6:09pm Reply

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