Following up on a survey I found via What Japan Thinks related to Asian women’s attitudes to beauty, I found a larger survey conducted in 2004, The Real Truth About Beauty (.pdf file, 48 pages), that looked at perceptions of what beauty means among 10 countries, Japan being one of them (and the only Asian country represented). Both surveys were commisioned by Dove (Unilever), which has in the last couple of years built a successful ad and marketing campaign based on challenging received notions of beauty among women. While it’s easy to be cynical about a study commissioned by a for-profit company, the surveys make for fascinating reading, and for this reader, give valuable insights into how Japanese women perceive themselves, and also how they view the media environment in which they live.
You can read the survey for yourself, but some things that jumped out at me from the survey:
Perception of Weight vs. The Reality of Weight
In Japan, the reality is that only 23% of Japanese women are obese or overweight (the lowest of the 10 countries surveyed), yet 52% of Japanese women perceive their weight to be “too high.” This 29-percent spread was the highest. (Interestingly, while a large number of Japanese women perceive a problem that doesn’t exist, in both Portugal and Argentina, the spread went the other way. While the percentage of obese or overweight women stands at 60% for Portugal and 54% for Argentina, only 39% and 30%, respectively, of women in those countries see their weight as “too high.”)
Satisfaction with Beauty
Here again, Japanese women’s attitudes are vastly different than the other nine countries surveyed. Only 23% of Japanese women consider themselves either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” in response to the question, “How satisfied would you say you are with your own beauty?” The next lowest group was UK women, 61% of whom are either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their own beauty. (The highest percentages belonged to Argentina (86%) and Portugal (82%), perhaps not surprising given the attitudes to weight mentioned above). Japanese responses to related survey questions about satisfaction with “physical attractiveness” (23%) and “body weight and shape” (20%) yielded similar disparities.
Satisfaction with factors in one’s life: Romantic relationship
Only 16% of Japanese women are satisfied with romantic relationships, by far the lowest level of satisfaction among the 10 countries (next lowest was Canada, at 59%). This figure was so low that the survey puts forth a disclaimer that “this may be due to the fact that the Japanese translation for ‘romantic relationship’ used in the study has far more idealized connotations than in the English version and is thus perceived as harder to achieve by Japanese respondents.” The study does not mention what the “Japanese translation” was, and in any case the reasoning sounds somewhat specious to me. Any readers care to speculate on this? On the same “satisfaction with factors” index, Japanese women also had low satisfaction percentages for “professional success” (18%) and “financial success” (20%), both lowest among the 10 countries. In fact, the only categories that Japanese women didn’t score the lowest satisfaction levels in were “friends” (68% — Italy was lower) and “spirituality and religious faith” (36% — several countries were lower).
Perceptions about Physical Attractiveness/Beauty
Given the low sense of physical attractiveness and beauty among Japanese women — as mentioned, only 23% are satisfied with these aspects of themselves — you would think that Japanese women would feel a strong sense of pressure from society, media, their peers, etc., to be more beautiful, but in fact the survey reveals just the opposite. In regards to the statement, “Society expects women to enhance their physical attractiveness,” only 13% of Japanese women strongly agree. This “significantly less dissonance between society and self” among Japanese women (as noted by the survey authors) is further borne out by the fact that only 20% of Japanese women strongly agree with the statement, “The media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can’t ever achieve.” (The next lowest agreement percentage is Portugal’s 62%, 42 percentage points higher).
Perception of beauty
In terms of questions related to what “beauty” and “being beautiful” mean, Japanese women’s responses are also telling. In responding to five different statements meant to imply a broader sense of beauty — for example, “I feel most beautiful when I am happy and fulfilled in my life” or “I think that every woman has something about her that is beautiful” — Japanese women showed the least agreement among the 10 countries for each one. The lowest percentage of agreement (57%) was for the statement, “Beauty can be achieved through attitude, spirit and other attributes that have nothing to do with physical appearance.”
While one has to be cautious not to generalize too much, I think it’s fair to say that two points, not unrelated, ring out loud and clear from the survey: 1) a much higher percentage of Japanese women feel dissatisfied with their physical appearance than do women of other countries (or the nine other countries surveyed, I should say); and 2) a similarly high percentage of women don’t perceive society — and in particular, the media — to be a factor in determining standards of beauty. Which would beg the question, if not society and the media, where would Japanese women themselves pin responsibility for such low self-esteem. Are they in denial about the pressure society brings to bear in determining concepts of what and who is considered beautiful? Are traditional Japanese virtues of modesty and self-effacement at work here, or might we not ascribe these responses to what Ian Buruma called Japan’s “shrill sense of inferiority?” No answers here, just food for thought.
Unfortunately, the survey seems to want to imply that Japan’s responses somehow represent the “Asian” view, when of course there is bound to be disparity among the panoply of Asian women on the subject. Therefore, I recommend you also take a look at the results of a similar survey conducted among the women from 10 Asian countries. Of particular interest to this author were how similar South Korea and Japan were vis-a-vis the eight other Asian countries represented.
UPDATE: Jeff at conbinibento has posted a look at Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign here in Japan, and specifically one of their local advertising images, in comparison (or really, contrast) to the same type of ad that was used in the US. It’s as if Dove took a look at their survey results from Japan, and in particular those related to the media, and waved the white flag.