Japanese facing up to changing times

By Michiko Yamada, Mainichi Shimbun, Wednesday 14 July 1999

Perhaps it's not surprising, considering the nation's rapid development over the past 100 years, but Japan is showing a different face to the world than it was at the start of the 20th Century—literally.

Experts suggest that the average Japanese face has undergone fundamental changes this century as the nation metamorphosed from being a basically feudal society into a modern, industrial state.

They argue that the dumpy, frumpy and grumpy faces of yesteryear have given way to mugs that're thinner, kinder and gentler.

Putting it nicely, I suppose you could say the average face of a politician in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) was ‘spirited.’ If you want to be nasty, you could say it was ‘stern,’ says Hiroshi Harashima, a Tokyo University professor and director at the Japan Academy of Facial Studies.

Harashima creates computer images that compare the average face now with that of 100 years ago.

(The Meiji Era face) has a harshness that looks like it's preparing to deal with troubled times, says Harashima.

I suppose that a current politician could be referred to as being ‘a decent sort of guy,’ or, if you want to put it badly, ‘spoiled.’

When it came to the face of the average celebrity, Harashima says the generic puss of a Meiji Era superstar was likely to be largely expressionless, oval-shaped and slant-eyed. A modern celebrity, Harashima says, probably has a rounder face with larger eyes, but otherwise no outstanding facial features.

The average face of both a politician or celebrity nowadays is likely to be one that other people would warm to quickly, the professor says.

Facial changes are mostly the result of chewing, according to Kazuro Hanihara, a Tokyo University emeritus professor. Hanihara is renowned for his theory that the Japanese are comprised of two races—those descending from people in the Jomon Period (ca 10,000 BC to ca 300BC) who had always lived in Japan, and the others preceded by people from the Yayoi Era (ca 300 BC to ca 300), who were migrants from the Chinese mainland.

People nowadays are less likely to be buck-toothed, Hanihara says. Noses are thinner and straighter. Chins have also become sharper.

Hanihara says it was his studies of bodies found in the Kanto region dating back to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) that showed people now are less likely to be buck-toothed.

Growth cells in bones are stimulated when the muscles surrounding them are used and placed under stress, Hanihara says. If food becomes softer, as it has in Japan, (facial) bones don't develop properly.

Shigeru Saito, a former Kanagawa Dental College professor, agrees with Hanihara that chewing plays an important role in shaping people's faces.

Chewing doesn't only change the bone structure, it also stimulates the brain's nerve cells and is of extreme importance, Saito says.

Hanihara, though, says he doesn't exactly like all the changes he's seeing.

Modern faces may make some people happy because they're shaped more like a Westerner's. But they're more likely to cause teeth to grow crooked and, from the point of view of health, that isn't a development you can really welcome, he says. The drastic changes that have arisen in people's faces since the Meiji Era have destroyed the harmony between people's bodies and their civilization.

It seems much of the changes that have arisen in Japanese faces can be attributed to the massive spurt in average growth among the populace this century. Ministry of Education figures show that the average 20-year-old male in 1900 was 160.9 centimeters, but by 1997 that had risen to 170.7 centimeters. Women's average growth was even faster, skyrocketing from 147.9 centimeters to 159 centimeters over the same period.

Kumi Ashizawa, a professor at Otsuma Women's University, says that growth has given Japan a new face.

As far as average height increases go, Japan is in line with all other advanced, industrialized nations. But Japan's case has been particularly notable since the end of World War II, she says.

But unlike weight, which can have unlimited increases, genes regulate how tall people can become. During the war, growth was limited, but with the improvement of people's diets in the postwar era, growth has spurted astoundingly.

People's bodies grow faster than their heads. Therefore, as Japanese have become taller, their faces have changed, too. And even though many people apparently say that increases in average growth are likely to become smaller, there's no doubt that the nation is presenting a different face to the world than the one it was showing at the dawn of the century.