Tooth blackening: An ancient practice going back to the Heian period, i.e., 9th century, whereby women mainly stained their teeth black. The dye was made from a mixture of oxidized “…iron shavings melted in vinegar and powdered gallnuts.” During the Muromachi period (1336-1568) this practice gained popularity among the lower classes and “…was done from the age of puberty. In the Edo period (1603-1868), married women were required to dye their teeth black.”
(Quoted from: Dictionary of Japanese Culture by Setsuko Kojima and Gene A. Crane, p. 253.)
(Maiko Konomi with Ohaguro; Image from geisha-licious)
The powder was often applied using a split-bamboo toothbrush.
John Stevenson in Yoshitoshi’s Women: The Woodblock Print Series “Fuzoku Sanjuniso” (Avery Press, 1986, p. 34) notes: “Blackened teeth were considered beautiful, possibly because teeth were a visible part of the skeleton, which as a symbol of death was unclean. Though teeth-blackening was the special mark of married women, courtesans also used it as a sign of adulthood. It formed part of the ceremony held for the debut of a trainee courtesan when she became a shinzo at the age of about fourteen.”
In The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (pp. 203-4) Ivan Morris discusses several of standards used to judge beauty such as pale skin. The higher the rank the whiter the skin color had to be even if that meant applying layers of powder. “Heian women observed two customs that, attractive as they no doubt were to the gentlemen of the time, would hardly add to their appeal for Western men, or indeed for most modern Japanese. They plucked their eyebrows and then carefully painted in a curious blot-like set, either in the same place or about an inch above. They also went to the greatest trouble to blacken their teeth with a type of dye usually made by soaking iron and powdered gallnut in vinegar or tea. During later centuries this bizarre custom spread throughout the country and came to denote a woman’s married status; in Heian times it was restricted t the upper classes, but not to married women.”
Morris added a reference about the eccentric heroine of “The Lady Who Loved Insects”. She refused to shave her eyebrows or blacken her teeth and this disgusted both her attendants and a potential suitor. “‘Ugh!’ said one of her maids. ‘Those eyebrows of hers! Like hairy caterpillars, aren’t they. And her teeth! They look just like peeled caterpillars.’ A certain Captain of the Guards, who has been interested in the girl, is put off by her dark, thick eyebrows, which give her face an unpleasing boldness, and particularly by her unblackened teeth, which gleam horribly when she smiles.’” (p. 204)
In a footnote Morris notes that during the Han dynasty in China women plucked or shaved their eyebrows. However, tooth blackening appears to have been practiced only in Japan. Van Gulik argued that this fashion statement may have originated in the South Seas.
In a second footnote Morris states: “In the Tokugawa period, courtesans, who were know as ‘brides of the night’, also blackened their teeth.”
In the Safflower chapter of The Tale of Genji the prince has returned to “His young Murasaki…. In deference to her grandmother’s old-fashioned manners her teeth hand not yet received any blacking, but he had had her made up, and the sharp line of her [applied] eyebrows was very attractive.”
(Quote from: The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Royall Tyler, Viking Press, 2001, vol. 1, p. 130.)
The mixture used for tooth blackening was referred to as hagurome (歯黒め or はぐろめ).
In Act 2: Scene 3 of the Tokaido Yotsuy kaidan Oiwa looks in the mirror and sees the results of the poison which her husband has given her. Despite her horrific disfigurement she prepares to go out. “Bring me my tooth blackening” she demands. Takuetsu, a masseur in the employ of her husband, argues against this: “But you are still sick and weak. You’ve just given birth. It’s not safe for you to go out.” She insists. Then it is noted that “She rinses her mouth, wipes her teeth dry, and then sits down in the center of the room. She rinses her mouth, wipes her teeth dry, and then applies the blackening…. She messily covers the corners of her mouth, which makes it look as though her mouth is monstrously wide.”
(Source and quotes from: Traditional Japanese Theater: An Anthology of Plays, edited by Karen Brazell, translation and commentary by Mark Oshima, Columbia University Press, 1998, p. 477.)
Staining the teeth is not unique to the Japanese. In The Kama Sutra of Vatsayayana by Sir Richard Burton women are praised for having good teeth capable of being stained - a positive cosmetic feature. Tattooing is also mentioned.
In A Brief History of the Smile by Angus Trumble (published by Basic Books in 2004, pp. 63-5) notes that the Achual tribe of the Amazon basin still practice tooth staining their teeth. About the Japanese practice Trumble says: “According to one school of thought, ohaguro originated in the Buddhist idea that white teeth reveal the animal nature of men and women and that the civilized person should conceal them, if by no other means than beneath a coating of black dye.” Or, the author speculates, that the samurai class had their wives and daughters stain their teeth black to make them less desirable for rape or abduction. Trumble adds “That many sources agree that the practice was also thought to protect against tooth decay…” “Well before the twelfth century, tooth-blackening marked a girl’s coming of age. So did okimayu [置眉 or おきまゆ], the practice of shaving off her eyebrows and substituting painted ones…” Even some early noblemen and samurai began blackening their teeth. “One warrior, upon removing the helmet of a slain nobleman, found his ooponent to be a boy of sixteen, his face powdered, his teeth elegantly blackened.” Later it was only women, again, who stained their teeth intentionally. By the 18th century it was almost universal. By the 19th it came to be used only by married women.
Basil Hall Chamberlain gives a recipe for tooth blackening in his Things Japanese (pp. 63-64) quotes A. B. Mitford from his Tales of Old Japan who in turn was quoting an Edo druggist: “Take three pints of water, and, having warmed it, add half a teacup full of wine [i.e., sake]. Put into this mixture a quantity of red-hot iron; allow it to stand for five or six days, when there will be a scum on top of the mixture, which then should be poured into a small teacup and placed near a fire. When it is warm, powdered gall-nuts and iron filings should be added to it, and the whole should be warmed again. The liquid is then painted on to the teeth by means of a soft feather brush, with more powdered gall-nuts and iron, and after several applications, the desired colour will be obtained.”
Wang Bao (王褒), a 1st century B.C. Chinese author, “… writes that there are countries whose people braid their hair, scar their faces, [and] blacken their teeth…” Wang was not writing about the Japanese, but about others from extreme southern China and from Southeast Asia. It is known that tooth blackening was a common cultural practice among many different groups and was even common on certain Pacific islands. This proves how old tooth blackening is. Perhaps the Japanese were also aware of such practices.
(Quote from: Tattoo in Early China, by Carrie Reed, Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 120, No. 3, Jul. - Sep. 2000, p. 363.)