Sayonara, K-beauty? Brace yourself for a J-beauty revival

Board the Shinkansen trend train and ride out the ongoing resurgence in Japanese beauty.


Nifty news alert, Nippon-ophiles: Pundits are predicting a tsunami of tinctures from the Land of the Rising Sun to cascade over our counters in the coming months and beyond. 

But why – and why now? Industry insiders have ID’ed a flurry of factors for this forthcoming phenomenon, but of particular relevance is the revitalisation of Japan’s erstwhile enfeebled economy, says Victoria Buchanan, strategic researcher at The Future Laboratory. As Shiseido president and CEO Masahiko Uotani notes in nudging up his net profit forecast for 2017, this is “the first time in many, many years that Japanese production of cosmetic products is booming”.

With a robust yen comes well, a yen for reasserting their rightful reign in the beauty sphere, so expect Japanese cosmetic companies to introduce ingredients influenced by the island nation’s philosophical precepts like shibui, seijaku and kanso.  

Of course, it can be all too tempting for tone-deaf neighbours across the pond to plonk all Asian affiliations under one unfiltered umbrella, but enthusiasts are emphatic about demarcating the differences between J-beauty brands and their Seoul sisters. 

For one, the former focuses on harnessing heritage for holistic health, explains Kelvin Tay, Shiseido Singapore’s training manager, whereas their churn-and-burn compatriots tend to be trend-driven and blithefully blasé about forging fealty among their fans. Or as Tay puts it, “our repeat customers return to us because we transform our intangible values into tangible results”. 

 “Tokyo’s eminence as the eastern epicentre of edginess is an asset for creativity.”

Miso hungry

Case in point: Shiseido’s washoku-inspired Waso skincare line. The cuisine-centric larder comes loaded with the power of provincial plants like shine-squelching loquat leaf and moisturising mushrooms. 

This “farm-to-table” ethos is echoed in its Essential Energy range of regenerative creams that capitalise on a healing hoard of herbs, with the tubs themselves shaped to sit squarely in your palms like traditional tea bowls.

Which leads us to the savvy strategy at hand: Food-based formulas that appeal to our association of a clean diet with a clear complexion. “Chowing down on tofu and other soy-based dishes can balance hormonal skin by virtue of their rich isoflavone content,” advises Yuta Sato, global makeup artist for Three Cosmetics. This emphasis on “edible” elixirs syncs up seamlessly with the millennial-led emphasis on mindfulness and subsuming self-care into everyday etiquette. 

Quality quotient

Don’t denigrate the abiding allure of a “made in Japan” label, either. The efficacy and excellence of their homegrown haul are equally esteemed by obāsans and ojousans alike, affirms Yumiko Murata, beauty director at ELLE Japan. 

This patriotic pride is perhaps best exemplified by the extraordinary exactitude with which a Shu Uemura Petal 55 foundation brush is fashioned – precisely 189,000 bristles are incorporated into each instrument, says Singapore brand manager Teo Shi Hui. The artisanal approach is augmented by industrial innovations. To wit, its celebrated cleansing oil is composed of a carefully calibrated mix of molecular masses, with each disposing of dirt corresponding to a specific size.  

The folks at fellow J-beauty behemoths concur as much on their perpetual pursuit of perfection, with Heng Juit Wen, assistant marketing manager of Clé de Peau Beauté Singapore, revealing that the reformulation of a single serum can take many years to finesse for scientists squirrelled away in its R&D headquarters. “The performance of our products must marry textures tweaked for sensorial satisfaction,” adds Heng. “We want our fans to have the very best of both worlds”. 

Exhibit ichiban: Its Firming Serum Supreme, a potent potion that boasts science just short of sorcery. Cutting-edge compounds promise to plump up a deflated dermis and “speak” to skin on the cellular level to recharge and reboot your fatigued face. 

“Enter the elephant in the tatami room: With J-beauty jumping to the fore, is the K-boom about to go bust?”

Geisha glow

That’s not to say it’s all tech and no thrills. Tokyo’s eminence as the eastern epicentre of edginess is an asset for creativity in colour cosmetics, with Teo of Shu Uemura Singapore stressing that the brand is big on fostering fearlessness and derring-do in the deployment of makeup. 

You’ll see this spirit of individuality and irreverence in the dizzying duality of the Japanese preference for a punchy pout and earthy eyeshadow, with the latter rendered in soothing shades of slate and sage, says Sato of Three Cosmetics. This plays up the pleasingly intoxicating contrast between one’s low-key lids and the loudness of your lippie – like bright blossoms amidst a mossy meadow.  

Meanwhile, scene-stealing skin is still in, with brightening boosters and plumping primers being perennial sell-outs on shelves, observes Murata of ELLE Japan. These intriguing invigorators come in cool consistencies – think tightening treatments with film-forming polymers – that are a stellar showcase of how “Japanese beauty brands are reinventing traditional skincare formats [that] emphasise hydration”, notes Alison Gaither, beauty analyst at market research firm Mintel. 

Moisturisation is mandatory for a mochi-soft mien, maintains Sato, who says that patting in a pinch under makeup functions like a filler in ironing out fine lines, allowing pigments to latch on and last longer. If your fingertips feel damp when tapped against your skin, give the moisturiser another minute, then test and test again. The takeaway? Like most things in Japan, embarking on an endeavour with equanimity is essential for equilibrium.

East is best

Unsurprisingly, U.S. and European executives are enthralled by the prospect of profiteering from the singular success of J-beauty, with June Jensen, director of UK beauty at market research company The NPD Group, positing that our present preoccupation with K-beauty is poised to pivot “to the rest of Asia, and in particular to the beauty rituals of the Japanese”. 

Signs abound that augur well for the ascent of the Empire of the Sun in the West. Gaijins will be glad to know that Kosé-owned luxury line Decorté now decks the shelves of Selfridges stores in London, with the brand banking on the appeal of its ambassador Kate Moss, of all people. As  Masanori Kobayashi, managing director of Decorté pointedly puts it, “[Moss] can get any brand she wants, so for her to support Decorté is a great pleasure”. 

Not to be surpassed in sheer superstar wattage, SK-II’s pulling power comes courtesy of patronage from the peerless Cate Blanchett, arguably the greatest actress of her generation. (This beauty ed is a Blanchett buff of the highest order, so no pretense of objectivity here.) 

Fad or fixture?

Celebrity cachet aside, nimble newcomers like Three Cosmetics are also perfectly positioned to tap into today’s clamour for clean cosmetics. Its ambrosias are amplified by an austere aesthetic that’s a radically refreshing change from the cloying cutesiness and snazzy showiness of some K-beauty baubles.  

Enter the elephant in the tatami room: With J-beauty jumping to the fore, is the K-boom about to go bust? 

The numbers say nay. We’re still seeing a surge in sales of Korean knick-knacks souped up with snail slime, plant-based placenta and starfish (yes, really), with global growth pegged at a prolific 66 percent increase in 2017, says Larissa Jensen, executive director and beauty industry analyst at The NPD Group. The far-reaching traction of trends like translucent “glass skin” on social media also signal a sustained appetite for aping the archetypal ideals of the K-community. 

The “skin-tertainment” superiority of salves from Seoul must surely be the source of their persistent popularity. The Koreans are consummate crackerjacks at fusing form, function and fun into cosmetic curios that are like catnip for our selfie-snapping cohort. Their addictive array of bubble masks, which froth up into a full face of foam in seconds, are excellent examples of moments of magic practically begging to be preserved for posterity on your Insta-feed. 

But here’s a hunch. All signs suggest we’re ready for a return to subtle sophistication and seriousness in skincare – which isn’t to say we can’t have our bingsu and botamochi and eat ‘em both, too. 

Therein lies the crux of the matter, really. The beauty of well, beauty is that it isn’t a zero-sum game. No one’s stopping you from assembling a dream team of cosmopolitan creams: A French foundation here, a Japanese jelly cleanser there, a Korean keratin mask – and maybe, just maybe, a serum from a Singaporean startup. S-beauty, coming up next?

Maiko manual

A bento box of beauty buzzwords to brandish as cocktail conversation-starters. 

Kanso (かんそ, 簡素): A sublime state of stripped-down simplicity. 
Shibui (渋い, 渋味): Refinement rooted in restraint, with an insistence on imperfection as being the paradoxical pinnacle of perfection. 
Seijaku (せいじゃく, 静寂): Acquiring spiritual sustenance by steeping oneself in stillness and solitude. 
Wabi-sabi (わびさび, 侘寂): An appreciation of the inherent impermanence of beauty, and the subsequent savouring of the elegance in ephemerality.

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