【Japanese Beauty Vol.3】200 Years of History - ISEHAN ”Komachi Beni”

Did you know Isehan, the manufacturer of Japanese drugstore cosmetics such as “Kiss Me” and “Heroine Make” has been continuing their business from the Edo period? They are also the only manufacturer producing “Beni”, a traditional Japanese makeup. Japanese Beauty Vol. 3 will delve in on “Beni and the history of lipstick in Japan” through 200 years of Isehan and the “self-service cosmetics market”.

Traditional Makeup ”Komachi Beni”

Tip the brush in Beni, brushed on porcelain for a stroke of red in a pool of iridescent green. The magical process is breathtaking as the iridescent green transforms into scarlet. Beni, brushed in this domed container (Beni-choko) is the origin of makeup in Japan and only Isehan still inherits the beautiful artwork.

“Beni” means red in Japanese and is a Japanese traditional lip color that has fascinated Japanese women over centuries. “The history of 'Beni' stretches beyond over 3 centuries. Beni imported from the mainland became popular between the aristocrasy from the Heian period.” (Isehan Honten Hon Beni Department PR・Emiko Abe)

The production of Beni was centered mainly in Kyoto and Osaka, but around the Edo period, the Beni shops stared to open in Edo and “Isehan” was one of the manufacturers.

(“Compendium of Present Beauties” Dance Master by Kunisada Kochoro National Diet Library)

Most Japanese women would imagine a lipstick or lip color from “Beni”, but back then, they were a “multi-color” product. Women would use Beni as eyeliner or as blush to add color to their cheeks (they were also used to color nails and draw patterns with, similarly to nail polish).

“Around the Bunka Bunsei period (1804~1829), ‘Sasa Beni’ became popular between Kabuki actors and courtesans. They would layer multiple coats of Beni on their bottom lip until the Beni turned a rich iridescent green for the 'Sasa' color which means bamboo in Japanese.” (Abe)

(“Twelve Views of Modern Beauties: Tegowaso (Woman of Unyielding Appearance)” by Keisai Eisen Isehan Honten Museum of Beni ©Ryoichi Toyama)

Beni with an iridescent green shade were extremely expensive and would cost one “ryo” of gold (worth around 60,000 ~ 70,000 yen now).

“Only a handful of women that were wives of Daimyo (feudal lords) and Tayu (courtesans) of Yoshiwara wore makeup daily. But after the blossoming of the Bunka Bunsei period, wearing Beni became the norm for the masses.”(Abe) Beni shops would carry iridescent green “Komachi Beni” and also would have a cheaper option for the masses to easily purchase (similar to drugstore cosmetics now).

(Isehan Honten Hon Beni Department PR・Emiko Abe)

Isehan was established in Bunsei 8 (1825). It all began when founder, Han-Emon Sawada opened a shop in Kobunachou, Nihonbashi. At the time, Nihonbashi was the center of commerce, and all capital stores were concentrated in the area. “Beni sold in Edo was mainly manufactured from Kyoto. After trial and error of development, founder Han-Emon developed a beautiful Beni with an iridescent green color. Komachi Beni was a huge hit and quickly became popular in Edo.” (Abe)

(The appearance of Isehan during the Meiji period “Tokyo Shoko Hakurane” National Diet Library)

The second following founder Sadashichi Sawada was the master of Beni and improved the quality of the iridescent green colored Beni. Third founder, Han-Emon Sawada expanded their business, dealing with products other than Beni cosmetics such as food coloring, paint and toothpaste. Isehan’s business continued to thrive and was honorable in the Meiji period after the Beni shop became the purveyor of the Imperial Household Department. After the hectic era of the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Pacific War, Isehan preserved their business.

“Sasa Beni”was a popular trend between fashion leaders of the time, such as Kabuki actors and Tayu of Yoshiwara. But in order to achieve the look, valuable iridescent green Beni was needed to be layered multiple times and town girls could not afford to copy this. But they always wanted to copy trendy makeup. So, they would use black ink for the bottom lip and layered cheap Beni on top to imitate “Sasa Beni”.

(Showa 6 <1931> Isehan Honten)

From the Meiji period to the start of the Showa period, Beni was still main stream between Japanese women in terms of lip makeup. In Meiji 41 (1908), lipsticks were imported from the West and in Taisho 6 (1917) the first lipstick in Japan was introduced.

“Women began to use lipsticks instead of Beni brushed in Beni-choko. Isehan was selling ‘Tsuyacho-bobeni’ wrapped in paper from the Taisho period to the beginning of the Showa period.” (Abe) Style of lip makeup also changed from applying Beni within the lip line to applying lipstick covering the entire lip.

(Tsuyacho-bobeni ©Ryoichi Toyama)

Around the beginning of the Showa period, Isehan began to develop products for China and Manchuria. “Kiss Me was born in Showa 8. At the time, this was a very challenging brand name. Once the Pacific War began, obtaining ingredients for cosmetics became difficult.” (Abe)

As the war proceeded, not even oil or the bottles for packaging could be obtained, and manufacture was scarce. Furthermore, in Showa 20 (1945), the Great Tokyo Air Raid did serious damage to Ishihara-cho, Honjo, and all but one shed of Isehan were left in the fire.

(Advertisement for Kiss Me Special Lipstick Showa 24 (1949) From 2nd Edition of Volume 6 Back Cover “NEW MOVIES”)

“After the war ended, sixth founder Kamenosuke Sawada started producing lipstick using the leftover celluloid and oil from the burnt ruins of the shed. Made in a pot and charcoal grill, the simple lipstick was wrapped in paper and twisted at both ends.” (Abe)

With scarce resources after the war, obtaining ingredients were extremely difficult, and there were incidents Isehan was cheated with oil thinned in water. But Kamenosuke knew when times changed in the future, low quality products would be ignored and was devoted for a higher quality. This devotion to “high quality” is still the core of Isehan's produce.

While Japan as a country was restoring itself after the war, sixth founder Kamenosuke immediately started inspecting markets overseas. Kamenosuke observed a rich line up of cosmetics in the supermarkets of America and focuses on marketing for women to “freely choose cosmetics by themselves”. In Showa 38 (1963), cosmetics were still sold over the counter with counseling. He featured a system to sell packed perfume on a hook for customers to freely purchase. In Showa 41 (1966), the first “Perfect Self Package System” (PSP system) was implemented for the first time in the Japanese industry.

(Reprinted from Initial PSP Display Showa 41 <1966> Isehan Honten Museum of Beni Corporate History “Love Cosmetics! ~message from KISS ME~”)

“The PSP sytem was to wrap the product with a clear plastic cover and line on hooks in stores for customers to freely pick up any interesting product with ease; a system similar to current drugstores.”(Abe)

After the implementation of the PSP system, the “self-service industry” rapidly expanded.

After the war, Isehan's first hit product was the “Kiss Me Special Lipstick”. Combined with Lanolin used for treating the mucous membrane at the otolaryngologist, the catch copy, “nutrients for the lips”captured the hearts of women especially due to the fact resources and foods were scarce during the time. Afterwards, long lasting lipstick “Proof Lipstick”, “Super Lipstick”was released, and in Showa 45 (1970), the “Kiss Me Shine Lip” was released.

(Kiss Me Shine Lip Series <Initial Design> ©Ryoichi Toyama)

“Kiss Me Shine Lip” was the first “gloss” lipstick in Japan. The wet like texture became popular as a long seller. “Especially in Showa 53 (1978), 'Shine Wine' was a tremendous hit, and sold 15 million in a year for the whole series.” (Abe) 15 million bottles a year means about 1.25 million bottles sold a month…! This could be a Guinness World Record as the most sold lipstick in the world.

Starting with Kiss Me and Heroine Make, Isehan currently manages 20 brands, as one of the leading manufacturers of the Japanese cosmetics industry. “While maintaining the high quality, we deliver products with a cheaper price range. This is from Isehan's strong will for more women to use ‘higher quality’ products.” (Abe)

While selling high quality drugstore cosmetics, Isehan is still producing “Beni” exactly the same process as the Edo period. Isehan's “Komachi Beni”uses the safflowers of Yamagata, famous for its safflowers. Chapter 3 and 4 will unveil the traditional process of Beni that has been passed down generations for 200 years.

We visited Shirataka, Southern Yamagata to meet Masaaki Konno, vice president of The Association of Safflower production in Yamagata prefecture and his safflower field. He commits to preserving the harvesting and traditional processing of safflowers.

Safflowers are said to “open a single flower 11 days after the Summer Solstice and the whole field blossoms from the next day”. When the first flower opens, all the other flowers blossom at once and the field transforms into a bright yellow by the beginning of July.

We pick the flowers by hand, early in the morning before the sun rises. This is because when the sun rises, the flowers that were damp from morning dew dries up and becomes textured. We woke up at 4:30 AM and made our way to the safflower field!

We wear leather gloves and long sleeves into the field because safflowers have thorns. High quality red pigments cannot be extracted when the flower just opened or when it's already too red. One by one, we pick the safflowers that are faintly red at the roots.

Just after a few minutes of picking, the gloves are yellow! Years ago, workers would pick the flowers by bare hand. Their hands would be stained yellow from the safflowers and stained red from the blood caused by the sharp thorns. What a terribly demanding process.

There are six hectares of safflower fields in all of Shirataka. They can only be picked between two to three weeks out of the entire year, and since this is all done by hand, the whole town helps out. After working intensively for two hours, we were able to harvest two kg of safflowers!

The picked safflowers are dried and processed into “Beni mochi”.

First we take the petals and submerge them in well water, carefully removing any leaves or bugs. We call this “araburi”. The first process washes out the yellow pigments that make up 99% of the safflowers.

We wash the safflowers with well water after picking out the impurities. We call this process “nakaburi”. By scarring the surface of the flower, we promote the oxidation. We use well water because tap water would lean towards alkali.

The flowers felt so soft and fluffy! While we worked, the green note of flowers filled up the air. Also the oil in the flower petals were moisturizing for our hands. After this nakaburi process, we finish up and wait until the oxidation and fermentation process.

We use cold water to wash the flowers and flip the petals three times a day; morning, noon and at night. After three to five days….The beautiful red color appears! The top left bucket in the picture is the first day, the bottom right buckets are the safflowers after oxidation and fermentation. The yellow safflowers only contain 1% of the red pigment and this is how they are extracted.

After oxidizing and fermenting, we use a usu and kine for a “mochi” shape (electric mochi machines are used now). The picture is the usu and kine now preserved at the Konno house. You can see it is stained red with the safflower.

(©Ryoichi Toyama)
Now we spread the “Beni mochi” by flattening it and flip the sides to completely dry under the sun. During the most thriving Edo period, people in the area nearby would help out for this process.

The picture on top is the finished “Beni mochi”. Each piece has around 300 safflowers and this “Beni mochi” are so dense with red pigments, they were sold at high rates during the Edo period.

We were surprised the harvesting and processing of the safflowers have not changed from 200 years ago (the only changes were that the bamboo boxes changed to plastic, and the usu and kine are now electric!)

The completed Beni mochi will now transform into a beautiful Beni with the hands of Beni artisans.

Safflowers originated in Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. Through the Silk Road, it traveled to Japan and China. In ancient Egypt, the cloth used to wrap mummies was dyed with the yellow pigments of safflowers. This is because safflowers also act as a bug repellant and antiseptic. In the Yamagata prefecture, baby clothes were also dyed with the yellow pigments from the safflower.

(Isehan Honten Beni Artisan Muneomi Sasaki)

By the hands of artisans, the Beni mochi is changed into cosmetics, food coloring and paint. “The manufacturing process of Beni from Beni mochi has been a disclosed, top secret for generations. To avoid leaking information to outsiders, we didn’t write down anything and the tradition has been passed down from person to person. The Isehan’s original process has also been passed down to each head of the Sawada family.” (Abe)

During the Showa period, 6th founder Kamenosuke Sawada researched the processing for other Beni shops but could not find a single document and even Kyoto’s most prestigious Beni shops did not have any information. “Kamenosuke strongly felt the processing of Beni had to be passed down before the tradition died out and decided to educate artisans on the traditional processing of Beni.” (Abe)

Currently there are two artisans at Isehan with the traditional craftsmanship. Muneomi Sasaki is one of them.

“Making Beni is demanding for intuition. The only way to achieve the craftsmanship of Beni is to memorize the skills by personal experience and to rely on your senses. From the temperature, dosage, timing to add alkali and acid to the Beni liquid; you need to learn all this by hand.” (Sasaki) From extracting Beni, all processes are done by hand. The dried Beni mochi is submerged in water, alkali and acid are added, then the Beni liquid is extracted. Then “zoku”, a bundle of hemp is dipped in to extract the “red pigment”.

(©Ryoichi Toyama)

“The most nerving moment is when I let the ‘zoku’ absorb the red pigment. Each Beni mochi is different depending on the Beni farm and I have to concentrate, relying on intuition and my senses.” (Sasaki) During the interview, Sasaki repeatedly mentioned “intuition” and how his “hands remember”. His hands and fingers were stained red with Beni.

After pouring the Beni liquid in a pot, excess water is removed and the finishing product is Beni in a clay texture. The final step is to brush the Beni in the beni-choko. “We brush the Beni just once in a circle motion and remove any air bubbles with a bamboo stick.” (Sasaki) With a swift hand, the Beni is brushed evenly. It shines red at first, and then dries down to a mysterious iridescent green.

From time to time, Sasaki brushes Beni for potters. We asked him if he gets nervous and he replied, “Of course, single pieces make me nervous. But what I’m most nervous about is whether the iridescent green is pigmented enough. Every time the color turns out right, I’m relieved. This is my happiest moment during work.” Each Komachi Beni from Isehan are carefully crafted by devoted artisans.

While training Beni artisans in the company, Isehan is also actively supporting young traditional artisans in Japan. At the Museum of Beni, Isehan held an exhibition and brushed Beni on a Meijimari artwork in 2011, and a Kutaniyaki artwork in 2013. In 2016, Isehan featured a young artisan of Aritayaki. Fumie Tanaka expresses a world of Arita patterns (Image Left). Seiichi Kawasaki inscribed translucent flowers and animals (Image Right).

(©Ryoichi Toyama)

In 2005, they opened “Isehan Honten History of Beni Museum” along the Kotto Street in Omotesando. The following year, it was renamed as “Isehan Honten Museum of Beni”. The permanent exhibitions display the traditional craftsmanship of Beni and cosmetics owned by Isehan. During planned exhibitions, tradition back from Edo and modern cosmetics are compared. It is now popular as a location to actually try out the “Komachi Beni” and to experience the culture of Japanese cosmetics

(©Ryoichi Toyama)

Isehan was established during the Edo period and has been in the center of Japan’s cosmetic scene. They are welcoming their 200th anniversary in 8 years and as a cosmetic company to represent tradition and evolving time, they will surely be the pioneer of a new era.

【Emiko Abe】
In charge of Isehan Honten Hon Beni Devision Sales Management. After working at a museum in universitiy, Abe became a staff in 2014 at “Isehan Honten Museum of Beni”. Has been working on PR from 2016 to spread the beauty and tradition of the timeless “Beni”.

【Muneomi Sasaki】
Production Department of Isehan Honten. After joining Isehan Honten in 2009, Sasaki began to devote as a Beni artisan. Using his talents and hunger for improvement, he has inherited the traditional process of Beni and is training day by day for crafting a higher quality of Beni.

*Isehan., LTD. and Isehan Honten., LTD. is under the Isehan Group. Isehan takes part in the “cosmetics business” and Isehan Honten takes part in the “Beni business”.

Photograph/Daichi Saito
Interview・Text/Namiko Uno

※Our pages are translations of articles published on Japan's @cosme. All products introduced in the articles are sold in Japan.