Teeth color as a cultural form

Masahiko Fukagawa Fukagawa Dental Office

Key words: culture, whitening, ohaguro, representation, identity


1. Introduction

In Japan it has been recognized by several studies of teeth color that teeth color reflects cultural belief and practices. Mitumasa Hara studied the custom of black teeth with regard to adornment of the body in his work, A study of ‘ohaguro’. However, very few attempts have been made to support the idea that teeth color is part of culture.
Graeme Turner states that “culture, as a site where meaning is generated and experienced, becomes a determining, productive field through which social realities are constructed, experienced and interpreted” (p.14). Historically, in Japan, there was a custom of dyeing white teeth black, which is called ‘ohaguro’. The custom of black teeth disappeared with the influx of foreign culture in the Meiji Era. These days, there is a tendency not only to restore the discolored teeth to their natural color, but also to make them even whiter. This ‘whitening’ is in fashion now.
Color in fashion changes as time passes. It has sometimes been influenced by the culture of other countries. In order to have a deeper understanding of the cultural specifics of representation, which is the practice of making meaning by using signs and language, and their meanings with regard to the color of teeth, it is necessary to look back on the changes of conceptions of color. This paper will discuss teeth color as a cultural form in relation to the following topics:culture, identity globalization and regulation. I would like to explore applications of these topics to the particular cultural acts: ‘ohaguro’ (black teeth) and teeth whitening.

2. What is culture?

Over time, the concept of culture has changed. According to Raymond Williams, the word’s original meaning was “the idea of the tending or cultivation of crops and animals” (Williams, p.87). During the Enlightenment Period both of the words culture and civilization were used to describe the process of human development. The adding of civilization was because the upper class societies through they were more civilized than the rude lower class.
During the nineteenth century the idea of culture further changed. Under the influence of the Romantic movement, the concept of culture changed from the idea of ‘civilization’ to ways of life of particular groups, peoples, nations or periods. In the late nineteenth century ‘culture’ mainly referred to refinement associated with the arts, philosophy and learning. The word is still used in this sense today when ‘culture’ is used to refer to ‘high arts’. This is different from the ‘popular' or ‘mass’ culture (Du Gay, p.11).
In the twentieth century, the idea of culture changed to the concept called ‘signification’. The meaning of culture shifted from ‘what is culture?’ to ‘How does culture work?’.
According to Williams, culture is the general and universal processes of human development “culture is a description of a particular way of life which expresses certain meanings and values not only in art and learning but also in institutions and ordinary behavior” (Giles, p.19). Studying culture, if we follow this definition, is to describe a lifestyle which is not exclusive but ordinary. Its objects of analysis are orders in people’s ways of life in which they produce meanings by symbolic operations.Williams’ definition emphasizes the relation of culture to meaning. Williams calls this the social definition of culture, “culture is closely connected with the role of ‘meaning’ in society” (Du Gay, p.11).
That is to say, social practice is organized through meaning.
‘Things’ do not have meaning until they are placed into society. These days the concept of culture has expanded to include everything for example politics, economy, and society. It has changed from a singular meaning to a plural one.

3. Teeth color as a cultural form

Human beings have a capacity to think of something which is not present at the moment. This is made possible by a representation of that thing, which is constructed through the process of representing that thing in the mind.
Below is an advertising photograph. (Fig. 1) All the models are smiling. What do you think this advertisement is for? Although there are several possible answers, the answer is that this is an Internet advertisement for teeth whitening by a British dental clinic.

Fig.1 (http://www.smilebeautiful.co.uk/)

The cultural text of whitening is put into the minds of people unconsciously through advertisements.
What has to be noticed is that all the models’ teeth are white. What do their white teeth represent? The objects of analysis in cultural studies are regularities in people’s ways of life in which they produce meanings by symbolic operations. Williams emphasizes the relation of culture to meaning. Williams states “culture is closely connected with the role of ‘meaning’ in society” (Du Gay, p.11). Social practices are organized through meanings. Meanings are not just ‘sent’ by producers and ‘received’ by consumers; rather, meanings are actively made in consumption, through the use to which people put these products in their everyday lives. Things do not have meaning until they are represented by social practices.

The first point that I should discuss is the representation of teeth. I will now elaborate on the concepts of sign a little further in relation to advertisements. The practices of advertising show the processes of signification clearly. It follows from what has been said thus far that advertising could also be said to work by fitting a signifier to a signified, “both cooperating with and intervening in the semiotic process. Advertisers typically deploy a signifier, already conventionally related to a mental concept they wish to attach to their product as a means of providing their product with that meaning” (Turner, p.20).

The advertisement of whitening aims to translate the meaning through using the code system. Most modern people would prefer to have dazzling white teeth like those of young models seen on magazine covers, television and movie screens. Consumers see models on the screens and think, “I want to be like them”. Consumers, unconsciously, try to identify themselves with young models in advertisements by making their teeth white. Since the female models who appear in the advertisement already have ‘images’, such as purity, health, beauty, and youth, in the code system, they can be used for the advertisement of whitening. Thus, if they did not have such an image, the relation between their faces and whitening is meaningless. In the code system it is the image of her face (perfectly beautiful), not their actual face, that is important.

4. The aesthetic sense of teeth color: historical background

Color has become a symbolic expression in a society. Even the way we ‘see’ the world is “determined by the cultural conventions through which we conceptualize the image we receive” (Turner, p.13) Colors have been conceptualized with the history of human development and used symbolically in society. A Symbol is a concrete material thing which stands for an abstract entity. For example, a dove is often used as a symbol of peace. This link is constructed through the process of symbolization, which connects an abstract entity with a material thing which is in some way thought to be related to the symbolized. Note that the relation between the two are not necessarily that in terms of meaning; an associative relation is enough. The symbolization of colors also has a meaning in a color of human teeth.
The symbolism of colors also holds true for the color of teeth. Historically, in Japan, the aesthetic sense of teeth has changed from ‘black’ to its opposite, ‘white’. The color of teeth reflects the social conceptions of beauty, social status and age.Connotations of a color depend on aesthetic senses, nature, and the social situation. The aesthetic sense of color in Japan has been influenced by Buddhism, thoughts from ancient times, and the Yin, Yang and five elements combination theory. (Nagasaki, p.220) According to Nagasaki, the aesthetic sense of color started from one person’s simple impressions when they saw natural phenomena and human beings represented their impressions about such natural phenomena using color. (p.34)

1) ‘Ohaguro’ as culture

The Japanese word ‘kuro’ is connected with night; ‘kuro’ expresses darkness after the sun sets. In ancient times, night was considered the time when evil spirits being rampant. Black was ill-omened and hated as a color which means to be wrong. However, in the Buddhist faith, black is the ‘unchanging’ color which cannot be dyed with another. It was believed to represent ‘robustness’ and ‘dignity’ from its visual weightiness, and thus the high ranking Samurais were fond of using it

Representation of things is different from culture to culture, even from period to period in a particular culture. The impression that the color of teeth gives changes in each era depending on its customs and areas of living. I will devote some space to the discussion of the fashion of ‘ohaguro’ (black teeth), because it may be helpful to consider some important factors of culture.
According to Hara, black teeth were an aesthetic symbol from ancient times in Japan. (Hara, p.190) In the Heian Era (794-1192), ‘ohaguro’ became popular among males, especially court nobles and commanders. (Hara, p.131) The custom of ‘ohaguro’, among samurais, was a proof of loyalty, that a samurai does not serve two masters within a lifetime. It was believed to represent ‘robustness’ and ‘dignity’ from its visual weightiness, and thus the high ranking Samurais were fond of using it. In the case of men, the custom is said to have ended around the Muromati Era (1558-1572). (Nagasaki, p.234)
Then, the practice came to be followed only by young women, who first blackened their teeth as a way of enhancing their appearance when they were ready to find a husband. As a result, the custom of ‘ohaguro’ spread all over the country especially during the Edo Era (1603-1867). From this time, ‘ohaguro’ became the symbol of married women. It was thought that black teeth made a woman look beautiful. (Hara, p.190)

2) Darkness and black

In Junichiro Tanizaki’s ‘Ineiraisan’, one of whose themes is the traditional Japanese aesthetic sense, the reason why a married woman wears ‘ohaguro’ is to emphasize ‘oshiroi’ (white powder). During the Edo Era, women of the middle class lived in a dark house. Only candles lit up the rooms. The room was dark, a woman’s kimono was also dark, as well as her teeth. And women applied ‘oshiroi’ to their faces in order not to show their expression. (pp.46-48) It is thought that ‘ohaguro’ is effective in making an expressionless face. The black of ‘ohaguro’ was in sharp contrast with the face white with ‘oshiroi’ and had the effect of emphasizing it. We see from Fig.2 that the doll shows the results of a women’s face after makeup has been applied. By shaving her eyebrows and dyeing the teeth black, the changes of feeling do not appear in her expression. Thus expression is extinguished. That is, one may say that ‘ohaguro’ is the culture which hides expression.
, which was thought to be one of the elements of a beauty.
‘Ohaguro’ came to distinctly represent age, occupation, and marital status. This meant that a woman became obedient as a subordinate to her husband because black cannot be dyed with other colors. It is clear that black has a deep connection with the idea of fidelity. (Hara, pp.97-98)
Fig.2 ‘ohaguro’

3)  ‘Whitening’ as culture

The Japanese word ‘shiro’ comes from the state in which the form of a thing is clearly seen when the day breaks. Thus, ‘shiro’ is related to a sunrise. White is the color which represents purity and innocence. Therefore, it is thought to be a sacred color. In the Era of Empress Suiko (554-628) a white flag was used on the battle field as a sign of surrender. This is a representation of ‘the clean heart’.
The word ‘white’ is related to the sun. The Latin word ‘candidus’ meaning white comes from Sanskrit ‘candro’ which means light and English white is also related to light.

In Japanese, there is an expression that emphasizes white teeth in a face: ‘Meibo Koshi’ in English this means ‘Bright eyes and pearly teeth’, which comes from the poetry of Tu Fu. He was one of the most famous poets in the Tang Era in China. He expressed beauty as the phrase in his poetry. This phrase describes the beauty Yang-Kuei-fei, one of the most famous beauties of China. It means that she has beautiful eyes and beautiful teeth.

According to John Tomlinson, “culture can be understood as the order of life in which human beings construct meaning through practices of symbolic representation” (p.41). Teeth whitening is a cultural act because it has been constituted by society through a range of meanings and practices. It is culture because we have constituted it as a meaningful object and it connects with social practices which are specific to our culture or way of life. It is also cultural because it is associated with certain kind of people like young women.

At first, dentists, as the producer, originally advertised teeth whitening as treatment for the purpose of lightening discolorations of enamel and dentin. However, young women, who are the consumer, gave whitening a different meaning. They desired to make their teeth white to give the impressions of purity, health, beauty, and youth. White is the color which represents purity and innocence. (Nagasaki, p.223) Teeth whitening is the easiest method to satisfy the desire to obtain a beautiful smile. The act of making teeth white is to fill one of the eternal desires of the human being to have a good looking face. At the moment white teeth is the fashion for people who want to look beautiful so many practices have been created and commercialized. Whitening as culture has turned into something that is bought and sold. Therefore, one may say that whitening is a part of culture that shows ones expression clearly.

5. Identity

1) The advertisement of whitening using the code system

According to Judy Giles and Tim Middleton, “Identities and differences can shift over time and in changing circumstances and places” (p.54). Our identity often changes as our surroundings change. Identity is the self-definition, ‘Who am I?’, and is proof of the self existence of a person. The identity of a person is essentially ‘what is inside’, identity is determined by many outside influences and by others. These influences include language, meaning, and relationship with others.

One of the most important functions of advertising is to establish an identity between the consumer and the product. An advertisement is reflects our lives and also helps us to live lives. Social practices are organized through meaning. Meanings are not just sent by producers and received by consumers; rather, meanings are actively made in consumption through the use to which people put these products in their everyday lives.
We are unconsciously influenced by advertisements, through things such as television and magazines.

“We signify ourselves through the signs available to us within our culture; we select and combine them in relation to the codes and conventions established within our culture, in order to delimit and determine the range of possible meanings they are likely to generate when read by others” (Turner, p.17).
Here, the idea of the sign may be useful. A sign can be a word, a color, a tooth, a face, a gesture. The sign has been divided into its constituent parts, the signifier and the signified. According to Williamson, “the Signifier is the material object, and the Signified is its meaning” (p.17). Turner also states that the signifier is “the physical form of the sign: the written word, the lines on the page that form the drawing, the photograph, the sound”. The signified is “the mental concept referred to by the signifier” (Turner, p.17). Let me remind you of the advertisement. The written message in the photograph is: ‘A brighter whiter smile.’ In the usual usage ‘bright’ and ‘white’ modifies ‘teeth’, not ‘smiles’, but in the context of this advertisement, what is most impressive to those who see it is the white and bright teeth in the smiling faces. This modification is appropriate even though it is not a common collocation. Teeth are an integral part of the faces in this context. Their teeth are the emphasized part; it is the face with the white teeth. “Language is the use of a set of signs or a signifying system to represent things and exchange meaning about them” (Du Gay, p.13). We live in a linguistic society in that our social relationships are often determined on the basis of language. This whitening advertisement is using the sign system. This appropriates a relationship that exists between the signifier (white teeth) and the signified (health, beauty and youth).
Aesthetic dentists, trying to sell the product (whitening), try to build an identity between the consumer and teeth whitening through advertisement. Through advertising whitening is represented as a device for purity, health, beauty, and young people. Thus whitening becomes a metaphor, a signifier, of ‘youth’.

2) Fashion and identity

White teeth may be thought of as a fashion in that it is a way someone choose to be a member of a group of those who are viewed as ‘healthy’ or ‘young’ in the present-day Japanese society.
According to Giles and Middleton “Social and material effects follow from the symbolic marking of one group as different from another” (Giles and Middleton, p.54). Giles and Middleton also describes that Identity is organized through classification systems that divide social relations into opposing groups, in that if you belong to one you cannot by definition belong to the other/s. Each person belongs to a specific culture, and that culture plays an important role in the formation of a person’s identity. A common identity is produced among those who have similar culture, and therefore a common identity forms a group, though there may be contradictions within identities both at the collective and the individual level.

In Japan, since the Meiji Era, fashions have derived from the desire to be like Westerners. Japanese people have continued to imitate Western culture. It is not too much to say that fashions in Japan have been aimed at Westernization since the Meiji Era. Consider the latest fashion of hair dyed brown in Japan. A study of 500 women aged 20 through 59, conducted by Tokyo Survey Research, Inc. in 2000, showed that 74.2 percent have their haired dyed. Japanese people’s hair color is black. However, the fashion in which young people dye their hair yellow or brown was produced because of yearning for a European’s blond hair. Moreover, it should be added that fashion also emphasize the distinction between themselves and those outside the group they belong to, thus strengthening the feeling of belonging among the members, which is conspicuously shown by adopting a particular fashion or style. Those who dye their hair yellow or brown do so because they want to show that they belong to the group marked by that style. The same can be safely said of white teeth, which did not become popular until the westernization of Japan started.

Culture plays a central role in shaping an individual’s identity. In other words, culture is the basis on which its members’ identity is built. Those who share an identity form a group, and its members draw a distinction between themselves and those who do not share their identity label. Thus, at the core of group identity is the notion of difference from others. In the case of fashions, an identity is based on identification with the leader of a group, which brings about the sense of belonging to, and therefore sharing the same fashion with the other members of that group. This sense makes them feel distinct from those who don’t belong to the group and therefore, in their eyes, who are not sophisticated in terms of fashion.

“Identity is clearly defined by ‘difference’ that is by what it is not”. (Woodward, p.2) Identities are frequently constructed in terms of oppositions. That is, identity depends more on what it is not than what it is. We can no more have a will or desire without relating to others than we can define our identity without contacts with others. People have the desire to be different from others: That is, they want to be conspicuous.
However, at the same time, people also have the desire to look similar to others. For example, in the case of fashion, there is a tendency to imitate the appearance of the man or woman who appears in the mass media, like a famous star. If the fashion leader’s way of dress and ornaments, makeup, and manners change, the public tries to imitate, so that it may not be separate. In the Meiji Era, the general public saw the aristocracy's trend, and gradually came to stop wearing ‘ohaguro’. This change will be discussed further below.

6. Globalization and Regulation

1) Globalization and identity crisis

To quote Anthony Giddens, “Globalization is the process in which human activities are integrated and being shared to the extent that the planet is becoming ‘one world’” (p.77). Globalization standardizes and homogenizes the local products and cultural forms. In the process of globalization, homogenization happens in the indigenous cultures of particular localities. Global economic integration breaks down borders between cultures and thus puts cultures in constant changes. Globalization permeates and changes local economies, cultures and orders, which are restored by local people to something different from what they used to be. Here lies the crisis of local identities vanishing.
Actually, Japan, which is outside the West, went on to adopt not only science and technology but literature, fine arts and ways of life as well in the Meiji era, thus losing some of its identities. The custom of ‘ohaguro’, which was one of the identities of the Japanese society then, became out of date as a result of the adoption of Western ways of life.

The culture of European nations entered Japan in the last stages of the Edo Era. In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Japan went through a profound change in terms of education, thought, and culture, for example the abolition of the topknot, the importation of western clothes, and educational system reform. In these circumstances, the influx of Western culture accelerated.
Cultural imperialism is understood as Western dominance, which is ‘Westernization’ of world culture. Western culture has a profound influence over other cultures through such evident cultural instances as teeth whitening. Uniform Westernization is progressing under the name of globalization. The Europeans considered that Japanese culture was inferior to theirs at the end of the 19th century. The Western’s dominant culture oppressed Eastern culture. The oppression produced an inferiority complex among Eastern people. Cultural imperialism is understood as the relationship between ‘the West and the Rest’. When the Europeans who is in core-states came into contact with Western culture, the Japanese were overwhelmed and fascinated by it, losing confidence in their own cultures. With the foundation of their identity shattered, they faced an identity crisis, which led to the worship of Western culture, which has continued up until now. ‘Ohaguro’ continued until the late 1800s. The idea that ‘ohaguro’ is not so civilized spread, and the custom is disappeared. That is, the idea that ‘ohaguro’ was outdated circulated among young women, and it was made stylish to have white teeth. Here one of the identities was lost.

There is a tendency for all countries to have the same ideas about fashion and beauty. Besides having a chewing function teeth are used for communication. Teeth have a very important role in giving the impressions of beauty and youth to others. In the west, smiling is used daily as a means of communication in the same way as the custom of kissing. I have discussed earlier that the custom of Japanese women has shifted from hiding their expression to showing their expression clearly. This change of the color conception symbolizes that. Women themselves have changed from a time when ‘moderation’ was a virtue and women were forced to be in the house during the daytime, to present day women who have marched out into society positively. Now the whitening culture is being introduced to Japan with the same values as in America “white teeth are beautiful”. This is an example of the Japanese ways of life being westernized.

2) Regulation and power

It was pointed out in the fifth chapter that the public tries to imitate the fashion leader’s way of manners change, so that it may not be separate. If the person does not follow a fashion when it becomes dominant in a society, the common reaction is to try to exclude him. Regulatory forces work against those who are left behind the fashion.
This is the kind of regulation which Michel Foucault demonstrates. Foucault offers an explanation of the concept of power. According to Foucault, “power is everywhere; not because it embraces everywhere, but because it comes from everywhere”. Foucault also states that power is not an institution but comes from below” (Foucault, p.476). He explains that individuals exert power on each other in their everyday lives. That is, power exists as a relationship between individuals. What he means by the term ‘power’ is that someone tries to control others’ courses of action and at the same time he refuses or chooses to be controlled by them.

Douglas argued that human societies require classification systems that symbolically mark the differences among categories in order to construct boundaries between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. (Du Gay, p.116) For example, it is ‘out of place’ for young people today in Japan, where brown hair is in fashion, to have black hair. The same thing may be said of whitening. Those who do not have white teeth are excluded as ‘out of place’, as Douglas says. Hall states that identities emerge within the play of specific modalities of power, and thus are the product of the marking of difference and exclusion. (Hall, p.4) People feel that they have to keep up with the fashion of white teeth so that they will be the same as their friends.

In the case of ‘ohaguro’, its ban was enforced on the aristocrats in the Meiji Era. (February 5, 1868) There were some who did not follow the regulation. They wanted to have their own identity. The tradition of ‘ohaguro’ which had continued for so long could not be easily abolished. It was not until the Empress Shouken appeared in public without ‘ohaguro’ and women followed suit that the custom died out. She succeeded in spreading the idea that ‘ohaguro’ is not so civilized, and the custom disappeared. That is, the idea that ‘ohaguro’ was outdated circulated among young women, and it became stylish to have white teeth. (Hara, pp.180-182)

7. Conclusion

This paper discussed teeth color as a cultural form in relation to the four topics: culture, identity, globalization and regulation. The color of the era is a mirror which reflects its culture. The color of teeth is ‘cultural’ because we have constituted it as a meaningful object, and it connects with social practices which are specific to our culture or way of life. From what has been discussed above, we can conclude that teeth color is a cultural form.

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