As a beauty editor, one of the most common questions I hear professionally — from brands, executives, consultants and pretty much anyone in the industry — is "what's the next Korea?" As in, which country is going to revolutionize the beauty world in the way that BB creams and sheet masks once did?
A few news stories have posited that the Japanese market, aka J-Beauty, is the heir to the K-Beauty throne. But experts who are fully immersed in the Japanese beauty scene take umbrage with that correlation. "In comparison to Korean beauty, which is known for its fun packaging and of-the-moment formulas and colors, J-Beauty is centered around quality manufacturing, understated opulence, and groundbreaking science and technology," explains Frances Grant, senior vice president of marketing for Shiseido Cosmetics America.
And unlike K-Beauty, which seemed to appear almost out of nowhere to many of those of us in the West, Japan has had a steady foothold in the US market for decades. Many popular beauty products — cleansing oils, color-correcting cosmetics, essences, fiber mascaras — can all be traced back to Japan.
Korean comparisons aside, there is clearly a renaissance of sorts happening around J-Beauty. Makeup artist Troy Surratt, who works with Japanese labs to create his Surratt beauty line, feels that part of this can be attributed to the current social and cultural climate. "While so many of the Korean products were whimsical and appealing in their cheekiness and playfulness, I think that globally we're taking on a more serious tone — people are looking for substance and integrity," he explains.
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"There are things from certain countries that are considered best in class: German cars, Italian shoes, French handbags, Swiss watches — and Japanese cosmetics," says Surratt. "I truly believe that Japanese skin care and cosmetics are the best, and that was my catalyst, my desire for making all my products there." In fact, it's so highly regarded that many pros travel to the country frequently to study the market. "Within the beauty industry, executives from the U.S. and Europe have always made a pilgrimage to Japan to see what's happening," says Vicky Tsai, founder of skin-care brand Tatcha. "The school of thought is that Japan is always one to three years ahead of the Western world in innovation in both color and skin care. It's a long-kept industry 'secret' that Japan is where to go for innovation."
Japanese beauty, especially skin care, has always been focused on time-honored methods and traditions. "In Japanese culture, the ritual of beauty is centuries old," says Surratt. "When we think about the art forms of Kabuki and the geisha, there's a long history of adornment and the ritual in both skin care and makeup application."
Brands like Tatcha look to that history to inform their modern products, using traditional indigenous ingredients like green tea, camellia oil and rice to create minimalist — but still sophisticated — formulas. "The formulas are very spare, and when you work with so few pieces, the quality and precision is paramount," says Tsai. "It's like sushi: Only a few ingredients can be really beautiful if done right."
But being steeped in tradition doesn't preclude J-Beauty from also being innovation-driven. On the contrary: Japanese brands are actually on the forefront of technological advances in the beauty space. Take, for instance, skin-care brand Adsorb. Previously only available in Japanese doctors' offices, the new-to-the-U.S. brand uses antibody technology to preserve ceramide production and slow down the aging process. Co-founder Genshi Shigekawa explains that the brand used some pretty advanced science to create the line, relying on research from a professor at the University of Kyoto.
Instead of taking antibodies from small animals like rabbits (which subsequently kills the poor creatures), they extract them from the yolk of an ostrich egg. According to Shigekawa, they can extract up to 800 antibodies from an egg, subsequently saving 800 bunnies. Not to mention that it also brings down the price. "We can lower the cost on antibodies — they are usually $3.4 million per gram, too expensive for skin-care products," he says. Which is why, he notes, they're usually reserved for medical labs and special treatments. "Through the ostrich egg extraction method, we can lower the price to around $3,000 per gram."
Shiseido, one of the best-known Japanese brands globally, also looks to other sciences to inform its products. "In 2018, the Essential Energy range was introduced, which features [technology] inspired by neuroscience to regenerate skin," Grant notes.
It's the combination of future-facing science and Japan's love of its cultural heritage, says Surratt, that makes the products best in class. "They have such a reverence for doing things the old-fashioned way, but they also have a philosophy that things can always be a little bit better," he notes. "They look to the future for inspiration that they want to progress and move forward."
Unlike Korea, where products can be churned out the minute a trend starts to take off, J-Beauty is much more interested in careful refinement and longevity. "Beauty is not thought of as expendable in Japan — everything is carefully contemplated to create products that are timeless, efficacious and luxurious," explains Grant. Adds Tsai, "While Japan is seen globally as a leader in innovation on both skin care and color, they are not trend-driven." She continues, "Japanese customers are very sophisticated — they study ingredients, understand how skin works, and ask a lot of questions. You don’t see trendy items work with a Japanese audience."
One of the things that most impressed Surratt about Japanese brands was their absolute integrity around product claims. "The Japanese are so honorable as a culture that if they are making a skin-care claim, they have the research to back it up," he says. "They would never make a claim that was dishonest or too lofty." This honesty is something we've just started to see take hold in West, albeit not quite to the same standard. Just look to brands like Beauty Pie and The Ordinary, which offer full transparency on pricing and products. 'We’re moving from fast fashion and fast beauty to integrity and substance," says Surratt.
It's also apparent that J-Beauty can serve as an entry point for many global consumers into the Asian beauty market. "While the J-Beauty movement is undoubtedly on the rise, Japan has always influenced the world globally in terms of beauty, fashion, architecture, food, art and beyond," says Grant. With the 2020 Olympics being held in Tokyo and Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo being honored at the Met, expect to see even more of a focus on all thing Japan. "It makes my heart sing when I hear that people are interested in a Japanese approach to beauty," effuses Tsai. "In my experience, it is such an evolved approach that is at once elegant and efficacious, and everyone deserves that."