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Japan's Weird New Beauty Trend: Looking Sick, On Purpose

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Photo: Courtesy of RinRin Doll/Ellen Freeman.
It’s too early for seasonal allergies, so why are so many Japanese women walking around with red-rimmed eyes?

They’re wearing the Tokyo trend known as "me no shita chiiku," which means "undereye blush:" candy-colored blooms painted exaggeratedly high on the cheekbones and, as the name suggests, directly underneath the eyes. But, while coloring outside of the lines may be considered a beauty blunder stateside, the style is huge in Harajuku.
Rosy undereyes started popping up in Tokyo street snaps during the last few years and peaked in Japanese beauty forecasts last fall. Super-highly placed blush became the signature makeup look of It Girl Momoko Ogihara, creative director of the edgy-feminine line Murua, so much so that the style is also known as “Momoko blush.” The statement has since exploded into the mainstream and been embraced by Japan’s infamous myriad of fashion subcultures, whose aficionados have created spin-off interpretations of the whimsical style.

It’s fitting that the Japanese word for "fad" is the same as the word for "epidemic," because you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking that undereye blush can verge on making the wearer seem a touch under the weather. For some of its fans, this is part of the appeal: a niche trend known as "byojaku" (“sickly”) has spread through Japanese magazines and beauty blogs in the last year. Byojaku is characterized by pale skin, puffy undereye bags (yes, there are even tutorials for emulating that no-sleep sag), and reddish skin around the eyes. The result is a fragile, doll-like appearance that suggests you’re in need of looking after.

While the idea of making yourself look unwell on purpose might sound like an only-in-Japan phenomenon, consider the western makeup trends we've embraced, like the '90s “heroin-chic” aesthetic popularized by Kate Moss and the more recent “no-makeup makeup” look seen on runways and the red carpet.
Not all me no shita chiiku users want to appear like they’re fighting off a cold, though. In fact, Harajuku model RinRin Doll uses undereye blush to achieve the exact opposite effect. “Rather than a sick look, the blush brings a more youthful and innocent look to the face,” she says. It “makes you very much healthy and alive,” she says, because it simulates the full-of-life color you get from exercising — or being embarrassed.

In Japanese pop culture, RinRin notes, flushed cheeks are usually associated with young people because they’re more likely to play outside or make endearing mistakes. “The usual angled blush from under your cheekbone to the temples can contour your face to a more chiseled one, and make you look more mature,” she says. In contrast, she explains, the higher blush placement favored by Harajuku girls makes cheeks appear round and youthful. In her YouTube tutorials, RinRin uses a wash of baby pink for a sweet image, or coral for a freckled, sun-kissed face. She warns that bold hues, like the ones on display in Harajuku (where cheek tints include directional lavender and tangerine), require strong fashion statements to match.

MAC makeup artist Mariko Tagayashi told WGSN that the look gives off a kind impression, with the added benefit of covering dark circles. She also said that me no shita chiiku makes your peepers pop, and RinRin agrees that concentrating color near the eyes brings attention there. Japanese beauty blogs have termed the effect "uru-uru," an expression used to describe huge, round eyes that are almost brimming over with tears (what we might call puppy-dog eyes). Indeed, undereye blush has roots in Japanese history: For centuries, traditional geisha and kabuki makeup has employed a striking touch of vermilion to accent the eyes.
RinRin says that undereye blush is also inspired by a more modern facet of Japanese culture: anime. The cheeks of "kawaii" anime girls are often drawn using two shaded ovals right underneath the eyes — imagine an angelic, pink version of a football player’s face paint. To create an IRL version of this artistic technique, one Japanese beauty blog instructs readers to begin the oval of blush one finger-width below the eyes, with the inner edge starting at the center of the iris. Done right, the author says, the style suggests a smile even when you have a neutral expression.

The look isn't always super-innocent, though. RinRin notes that the method’s greater separation of color between the blush and the mouth also emphasizes the lips. In this way, even while eschewing the standard smoky eyes or dramatic pout we usually associate with sex appeal, the appearance of burning cheeks created by undereye blush can evoke an alluring, post-bedroom glow.
Whether you're going for demure or smoldering, RinRin insists this is a look anyone could pull off, with one caveat: Subtlety is key. Get too heavy-handed, and you’ll end up looking more like a cartoonishly sunburned, drunk tourist than a true Harajuku girl.
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