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Traditional Cosmetics Made of Flowers Created by Only Two Remaining Artisans Seven Tools for Beauty: Episode 4 – Lip Color

Published : February 18, 2017
Production area : Tokyo
Editor :
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Hi, this is Kanako from the Sunchi editorial desk. “Longing for beauty” has been the obsession of women throughout time to include such historical figures as Princess Cleopatra and Princess Yang Kwei Fei. I personally remember when I was a child wanting for a dressing table full of cosmetics inside.

In this series, I have selected seven cosmetics to talk about along with their historical origins and how they have been supporting women’s beauty. Today I would like to talk about lipstick as our fourth installment in the series.

Have you heard that there is a plant-derived lipstick color in Japan? It is a traditional cosmetic made from safflower in Yamagata and surprisingly the color changes depending on whom it is used by.

I visited the Isehan-Honten Museum of Beni in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo. The museum is run by Isehan-Honten, the only remaining company in Japan that has been producing the Japanese lip color since the Edo period (1603-1868). The museum collects and displays tools for producing Beni and old makeup set-ups (how beautiful they are!), and it also has a museum shop and small workshop where visitors can actually try Beni!


Isehan-Honten was established in the Nihonbashi area of Tokyo in 1825 at the height of the merchant Bunka era. The makeup at the time consisted of only three colors: white, black, and red. Each color has its own unique name: white is Oshiroi for foundation, black is Mayuzumi for eyebrow liner, and red is Beni for lip color. People called the shops dealing with Beni “Beniya,” literally “a shop of Beni.” The number of Beni shops first began to increase in Osaka and Kyoto, the centers of culture and economy back then, and later gradually expanded to Edo, what is currently Tokyo. One such shop in Edo was Isehan-Honten which was established by Mr. Hanemon by buying stocks of Isehan. Mr. Hanemon was originally from Kawagoe and served in government for over 20 years prior to starting the company.

Beni is made from Beni-mochi, a flat, solid material made from safflowers produced all over Japan. Among the various types of safflowers, Mogami-Benibana has been highly acclaimed since the Edo period. Mogami-Benibana can be seen in the film “Only Yesterday” by Studio Ghibli, too. Isehan-Honten uses only Mogami-Benibana for their products to produce the best quality.

According to Ms. Abe who showed us around the museum, safflowers grow well in places with large temperature differences in the morning and evening. Thus, the climate in Yamagata prefecture is perfect for safflowers cultivation, and thanks to its historical distribution channel by means of the Mogamigawa River, safflower products were able to be deliver to distant Osaka and Kyoto. These aspects greatly contributed to the birth of the best brand of safflower products, which has more red pigment than other brands.

It is actually quite hard to extract red pigment from safflower. Ninety nine percent of the pigment of the flower is yellow and only 1% is red. Yellow pigment is water soluble so the first process in making Beni is washing yellow pigment away to isolate the red pigment.

Local Workers Pick Safflowers to Make Beni-mochi


On the eleventh day after the summer solstice, safflowers start blooming. The best time to pick the flowers is when the bottom third under the flower starts becoming reddish. But it’s tricky since each single flower has its own pace of growth. Safflowers are picked only in the early morning when the thorns are softer with the morning dew. In order to not pick the calyx of the flowers, picking is done by hand even today.

Picked petals are delicately washed in the shade to take the yellow pigment out in the morning, afternoon, and night to prepare petals to be fermented. This process makes the red pigment in petals brighter. After proper fermentation, petals are pounded in a mortar and shaped into a rice cracker shape. After drying out in the sunlight, they finally become Beni-mochi. The main character in the film “Only Yesterday” can be seen making Beni-mochi. I was reminded of the film a lot during the interview.


When I opened the glass container full of Beni-mochi, its unique and fragrant scent filled the air. Once Beni-mochi are delivered to Isehan-Honten, the final process of extracting the red pigment starts at the Beniya.


The Work of Beniya: How They Extract the Red Pigment from Beni-mochi.

I was impressed when I learned how they extract the red pigment. It’s like a science experiment but using common items. It’s easy to remove yellow pigment since it can be washed away with water but red pigment is not that easily removed. They use Ubai and lye, alkaline water from soaked ash. They use lye as a solution to soak the safflower in to remove the red pigment, so the water becomes a red liquid. Then they soak a hemp braid called “Zoku” in the red liquid. Strangely enough, the hemp can only absorb the red pigment from the liquid. When they then squeeze out the hemp, they get a bright red liquid.


Then they add Ubai into the concentrated red liquid. Ubai is a smoked young plum and is acidic. This creates a chemical reaction that crystalizes the red pigment in the liquid.

After that they filter out the extra moisture from the liquid carefully and then finally Beni is born.

Beni, still muddy after careful filtering.

Beni, still muddy after careful filtering.

Longing for the Beauty of Iridescent Colors


Beni shops used to sell small cups and plates colored with Beni on the inside. The picture above shows Arita-yaki porcelain colored with Beni. In the 17th century, Arita-yaki porcelain was mainly produced for export and only later marketed for the domestic market. It soon became common just like other red porcelains.


The price of Beni used to vary depending on its quality. If we calculate the price of a small vessel of Beni into a current monetary value as an example, a good quality one was around 60,000 or 70,000JPY and a cheap one was only around 300JPY. Better ones had unique nicknames like “Komachi-Beni,” which was taken from a word, and “Onono-Komachi,” which is the name of a historical female poet known for her beauty.

If we look at old Bijinga, a portrait of a beautiful woman, we can find many images showing women just applying lipstick to their lips. It is even sexier when an image shows the lipstick being applied without a brush but instead using a finger. Actually in Japan the ring finger used to be called the lipstick finger as it was often used for this purpose. When a woman would run out of Beni, she would go to a Beni shop with a vessel and ask the shop staff to refill it with Beni by the color of the inside of her vessel. Just like a picture from the well–known “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,” a series by the great painter Hiroshige Utagawa, Beni shops used red dyed cloth as their shop signs.

For makeup, there has always been trends by age. In the past, it was fashionable to color lips repeatedly with luxury Beni to make them an iridescent color called “Sasa-beni.” The iridescent color has a unique beautiful green color as if it has gold inside. Magically the higher the purity of Beni, the more beautiful the iridescent color it produced. You can see this in the pictures below. When Beni is painted on a small vessel, it appears red, but as it dries out, it changes color. I was surprised to learn this and couldn’t understand why.


When this iridescent Beni color is touched by a wet brush, it changes into bright red. This is the best moment when using Beni.


It is still unknown why Beni looks iridescent. But one thing is certain, good quality Beni can be determined when Beni turns iridescent by over coating. When you want to make your lips Sasa-beni, you will need to use more than a third of a vessel of Beni. So Sasa-beni was a symbol of a high social standing for high-class prostitutes known as Tayu as well as Kabuki actors showing off how much luxury makeup they use. From our modern sense of beauty, it sounds weird if your lip color is green, but it was fashionable for those who were not able to afford to apply Beni in a Sasa-beni way. Women of normal standing had to color their lips with black ink as an undercoat and put a top coat of Beni over that to imitate the expensive Sasa-beni iridescent color. I can really sympathize with women’s efforts to be fashionable.

I was totally in love with the magic of Beni after walking around the museum. I had already wanted to try Beni for myself but my modern colored lipstick is more handy and easier to apply. At the end, I asked Ms. Abe if she had any recommendations on how to adopt Beni into modern life.

A Day for Beni

Ms. Abe said “one of the best charms of Beni is that its color can vary depending on who uses it. As a person familiarizes themselves with its color and texture against their skin tone, Beni can appear differently for each person. Thus, it can be used by anyone, even those unsure what color is suitable for them. Also, it would make a good start for young ladies who are just about to start using makeup since Beni can be charming for anyone.”

You can see how it actually works at the museum. When I tested it, the color became more pinkish than red. But it can be orange or bright red depending on the person.

A testing zone at the museum.

A testing zone at the museum.

“Western derived lip colors contain other ingredients like oil but Japanese Beni consists merely of natural red pigment, so it is an entirely natural cosmetic. In fact, we have customers who seek non-additive cosmetics and happily use Beni.”

She added that it would be good to use a lip cream to coat Beni if you are concerned about drying lips and mentioned other aspect of Beni aside from its use as makeup.

“Red color in Japan used to be used on talisman for formal events and turning points in life. In Japan when we have something to celebrate, we normally cook Sekihan, red rice. For Japanese traditional weddings, the inside of a bride’s hood is red. For those who turn 60 years old, we normally present a red sleeveless kimono jacket. Many people select red colored presents for women who reach a turning point in life like marriage, childbirth, and their 60th birthday.”

I remembered my friend who was about to have a wedding. Beni would be a good gift for her.

Ms. Abe continued, “In past there were limited numbers of cosmetics, so women utilized them for many things. For Beni, they use it not only for their lips but also for cheeks by diluting it, for eye makeup, and for nails (making a pattern or dyeing with Beni), too. Since the color of Beni is different for each person, they were able to enjoy their own creativity.”

“Demand of Beni unfortunately greatly decreased after the westernization of Japan when chemical colors were imported. That resulted in Beni shops disappearing. After World War II, there were still a few shops in Kyoto, but we have become the only remaining shop in Japan. Sadly, famers who plant safflower are also decreasing, so our situation has been more severe. But that is why we established this museum with a mission as the last Beni shop to tell people how charming and rich its color is.”

Now there are only two artisans involved in making Beni. Recipes have only been inherited from other artisans, so even in the company they are kept secret.

I got to learn how deep and rich Japanese Beni is through this interview. The more I learn, the more fascinating it is and the more it makes me want to use it. In my past article, I introduced Kumano-fude brushes and I personally bought a lip brush for myself. This will be a perfect partner for Beni. At the museum, I bought a small vessel of Beni named Temari. I hope this will be a good start for me to becoming a life-long user.


<In cooperation with:>
Isehan-Honten Museum of Beni

Writer: Kanako Ojima
Photographer (only partial): Ryoichi Sotoyama
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