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Saturday, Feb. 2, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The changing Japanese face and the eye of the beholder


"The camera doesn't lie," says my friend, a professional photographer with long years in Japan.

Sure it does, I think. So do mirrors. So does the human eye. So does any conveyance that blends image with emotion. Beauty is up to the beholder, and the beholder sees and feels what he or she wishes, and not what is there.

Still, he insists . . .

"The Japanese face has changed. It's not the same as when I first arrived. It's not as fun to photograph, either."

The basic parts, of course, remain the same. It's the composition, he says, that is different.

The classic Japanese face boasts high cheekbones, a rounded nose, feline eyes and thick brows in an overall full-moon cast, this all framed with tar-black hair. The presentation is best photographed straight on.

But through the years here, he claims, the Japanese profile has improved.

While the attractive cheekbones remain, the full moon of the face has somewhat waned. Modern faces are leaner, with chins more pronounced. Noses haven't sharpened, yet they tend to be more delicate. Eyes, as a whole, seem wider. Girls then pluck their brows, and both sexes dye their hair.

"At times," he says, "the face can almost appear Western. I didn't use to feel that way. But the Japanese face today doesn't have the appeal of yesteryear. At least not to me."

I argue back that such changes are more than skin deep. And they do not involve the Japanese face at all. They involve him. They involve us. They involve anyone who has settled in Japan for their work and life.

As to whether the Japanese face has really changed — who knows?

I imagine improved diet has had an impact. The average Japanese is taller, heavier, stronger than 50 years ago. Whether the food be fortified milk or milk chocolate — that is, whether it be gem or junk — there is more food volume than ever. Changes in the body naturally affect the face. We are, after all, what we eat.

I imagine fashion is a factor as well. Hair, eyes, mouth — our faces are our foremost fashion statement. For the past half-century or more, that statement has been heavily influenced by the West. In that time, Japan has scrambled from one trend to another, from Audrey to The Beatles to Beckham. When Hollywood winks, Japan reels in response. Isn't it reasonable that faces too have taken on a Western shine, not unlike donning brand-named masks?

In fact, I sense just the desire to look more Western can mold some people, right to their flesh and bones. Genetics are one thing, but the human heart gives another powerful push as to how we appear, both to ourselves and to others.

Yet I tell my friend that it's not so much the Japanese profile that has changed as our perceptions.

We all hold in our memories images of the Japan we knew when we first touched shore. Those memories die hard, especially if they were positive. They rest in our subconscious like photos in a treasured album, and we may view each subsequent experience through the imperfect shutter of those days. Times change. We change. Perhaps we brush newer images away as somehow flawed or debased, when they are really neither. Then was then, now is now. It's unfair to superimpose either image upon the other.

In the meantime, we age. Our struggles with the other culture cease to be adventurous. What was cute and curious becomes old and weary. Living here loses its novelty. The larger change has thus come from within, though it may hang heavy on our faces.

"Sometimes, I'd like to get clean out of here," he says. "Not to visit some other country, but to live there. I'd like to wake up to a different sky, trod down different streets, breathe different air. It's not that I dislike Japan; it's just that I'd like to see different faces."

So would I, I tell him. It's that squirt of wanderlust that first watered our interest in the world, still flowing like a fountain somewhere inside.

"I don't know why I don't do it," he says. "I have the money. But the years speed by and still I stay."

Perhaps his is the angst of the aging expat. Japan is home and Japan will never be home. In between those sentiments is where many of us live, clinging to the memories of fresher days and wondering what to do next.

"The Japanese face has changed," he repeats. "And so has the eye of the beholder."

A snapshot of the moment shows him depressed. But cameras do lie, and tomorrow's shot will be different.

And I predict he stays. Once it is in your blood, Japan is hard to leave. Let's face it.



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