Trends become trends when they do for a reason. Women in the 20s, desperate to break free from repressive norms, turned to pants for the first time. Astrology and unicorns blew up around the 2016 election as a form of escapism. And this year, Japanese beauty is set to infiltrate the U.S. market right on schedule with American women beginning to prioritize safety, efficacy, and simplicity over 10-step routines and millennial pink everything.
If trends are born out of a cultural attitude and feeling at a given time, then to understand why so many experts are predicting J-Beauty as the next industry phenomenon in the U.S., in 2018, you have to understand how it came to be over there.
Florence Bernardin, founder of Information et Inspiration, a leading expert agency on Asian beauty with no brand affiliations, notes that the Japanese cosmetics industry is one of the oldest and most traditional in the world; most agree that it officially dates back to 1872 when Shiseido opened in Tokyo's Ginza district as the first Western-style pharmacy backed by Eastern philosophy, selling soda, ice cream, medicines, and toothpaste before launching Eudermine in 1897. The red skin-softening lotion in the beautiful glass bottle was based on research by Dr. Nagayoshi Nagai of Tokyo Imperial University, and it signaled the beginning of what the country's beauty industry has become known for: melding science and quality ingredients with harmony and tradition.
You won't see gimmicky face masks, aggressive peels, unnecessary packaging, and animal byproducts in the J-Beauty routine.
According to Vicky Tsai, founder and CEO of Tatcha, "Japanese culture has a beautiful way of maintaining the wisdom of the past, and perfecting it over generations. Their formulas are based on ingredients that have been beloved for centuries, but paired with advanced extraction techniques and delivery systems." She points to the philosophy of kaizen, or the idea of continuous improvement: "Everything can always be better—more efficacy, cleaner ingredients, more beautiful textures."
It's why you won't see gimmicky face masks, aggressive peels, unnecessary packaging, and animal byproducts (like snail slime, for example) in the J-Beauty routine. The Japanese approach their skin in an entirely different way, because they think in terms of maintaining the harmony of all five senses.
According to Bernardin, the Japanese are more attuned to the five senses than most cultures. Simply step off the plane and it's obvious that they've mastered sight; that sense of restrained perfection and utility in their architecture and gardens translates to the simple yet elegant packaging of cosmetics and skin care. To the touch, these boxes and bottles often have a smooth, lacquered surface, with edges softened or rounded so as not to prick or cause any kind of discomfort.
Their sense of smell is unique in that it's been honed through centuries of analyzing scent through the mouth. In an incense tradition called kodo that has become a game of sorts, one swallows the scent, then describes the taste in terms of bitter, sour, spicy, savory, and so on. This heightened awareness of smell is why it's considered rude to disrupt the balance of flavors by wearing perfume to a sushi restaurant, and why Bernardin says the Japanese prefer their products be fragrance-free, or with delicate notes they can easily taste, like citrus or rose. And sound is never an afterthought, either, in product development. "Noise is a symbol of quality," says Bernardin, who points to the clicking sound a lipstick should make when you cap it, like Shiseido's Rouge Rouge does. "It means it's closed, it's not going to open and spill in your handbag — there's no risk."
Alone, these details may seem inconsequential, but together, they make beauty an emotional, almost sacred experience for Japanese women. One only needs to look to the centuries-old onsen ritual to know these are a people dedicated to wellness and self-care. "They always ask, how does the product act on me and make me feel?" says Bernardin. "It's not about following trends, it's about finding what suits you and never adding that which is not needed. Other countries are all about adding more and more and creating new steps, but Japan finds a unique sense of abundance in less."
"People here don't know who Dr. Pimple Popper or the Kardashians are."
Dr. Eiko Hattori
It's an idea at odds with the American tendency to bling out and supersize everything — but looking at the popularity of Marie Kondo, it's clearly something we want to move toward. The beauty industry is the natural next step. "People here don't know the Kardashians or want to look like celebrities in the States," says Tokyo dermatologist Dr. Eiko Hattori. "We aspire to have beautiful skin, but we don't like artifice or anything overly glamorous. We don't want a bigger bosom or extremely big eyes or plump, plump lips."
Kishiko Maeda, a prominent beauty writer in Tokyo, agrees: "People want what isn’t edited or artificially manipulated; they're looking for what is natural and real, and they're reading up on the products they buy, rather than going off the PR and marketing."
If the Japanese consumer seems light-years ahead in terms of maturity, well, that's because she is. The country's population isn't just rapidly aging, it's rapidly shrinking, too. According to the World Health Organization's 2017 report, Japan has the highest life expectancy of anywhere in the world, but at 1.46, it also has a fertility rate well below the 2.07 figure that's necessary to sustain the population. The National Institute of Population & Security Research predicts that more than 50% of women in Japan will be over 50 years old by 2019.
It's not a comforting stat if a world run by robots sounds terrifying to you, but it is very good news for the beauty sector, as this generation's total purchase will represent half of the market share in Japan. The International Trade Administration reports that the Japanese are already among the top consumers of cosmetics per capita; Euromonitor predicts population aging will only increase spending in the skin-care category, which Shiseido currently leads.
Needless to say, it's not an industry that gives much thought to the whims of millennials and what'll garner likes on social media. But could the U.S. be on the verge of adopting this mindset, too? Brands like Shiseido, Tatcha, DHC, and the newly-launched Adsorb Beauty are betting on it. "Consumers are becoming skeptical of narcissistic beauty, which is why J-Beauty is leading the charge within the market space. People see through the product packaging allure and are reading and researching their skin-care ingredients more than ever before. Seeking the latest in true innovation based on science and research is the new beauty movement, not the next bubbling face mask to tag and share on Instagram," says Adsorb founder Osamu Maeda.
Glitter peels and rainbow highlighters had their time — and it was fun! — but living in nostalgia for too long never does anyone good. Millennials won't always be millennials; "as they age, they are realizing the importance of consistent skin prep and are placing a higher emphasis on self-care than ever before," says Frances Grant, Senior VP of Marketing at Shiseido. In other words, they're looking for a backup plan, and if any nation is in a position to provide us with a blueprint to aging gracefully, it's probably the one where women live to be 117.
Travel and accommodations were provided by Shiseido for the purpose of writing this story.