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Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009

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Beauty's more than skin deep

Chizu Saeki, Japan's foremost skincare guru, talks about her life and her passion for beauty


Staff writer

Skincare guru Chizu Saeki's expertise is such that her abilities have been compared to those of a fortuneteller. She can, for example, determine people's physical and mental health condition, the key experiences that have influenced them, and even their outlook on life, merely by running her fingers over their faces. Also, she has often surprised people by being able to tell them the types of skincare products they use — sometimes down to the brand.

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Style setting: Chizu Saeki pictured during her recent Japan Times interview at her central Tokyo salon. SATOKO KAWSAKI PHOTO

Now just 65 years young, Saeki attributes her deep understanding of skincare to a 30-year career in the beauty industry — including stints as a beauty consultant at French cosmetics-maker Guerlain and as an international training manager at Parfums Christian Dior. But she says that what has really shaped her fundamental values on beauty and skincare has been her eventful, turbulent life.

Growing up in a dysfunctional, fatherless family in a farming village in Koga, Shiga Prefecture, she spent most of her childhood in the care of her grandparents, who raised her with affection and taught her the importance of valuing nature. Then, while living with an aunt who ran a small restaurant in Osaka, she realized that women working in such a world could barely make a living. Instead, she found they often relied on male customers, married or not, for money — as she candidly recounts in detail in her 2007 memoir, "Hitori Namida no Hosoku Yume Oi no Hosoku (The Law of Crying Alone; The Law of Pursuing Dreams)."

To avoid falling into the same traps as her aunt, Saeki — who had already marveled at the beauty and poise of film star Audrey Hepburn — decided to acquire practical skills through which she could live independently well clear of that world inhabited by her aunt. To that end, she earned a beautician's license and began working at a top Tokyo beauty salon.

However, after she met Arinori, a planetarium-equipment engineer, Saeki retired temporarily to be with the man of her dreams, who was so unlike her dad or any of the gambling, boozing and whoring men she had grown sick of seeing at her aunt's place.

But then in 1984, 15 years after they married, the couple's happy life was shattered when Arinori was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Despite Saeki's devoted care, Arinori died and her life fell apart. Saeki says she spent the next year just bawling, refusing to eat and locking herself up in the couple's home in Osaka.

What shook her out of her slump, she says, was a friend who visited her and offered more than kind words — telling her how awful she looked and how that wouldn't save her husband's soul.

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Teen dreamer: Chizu Saeki at 16. when, she says, "I loved the sailor's outfit." CHIZU SAEKI

Shaken by this blunt dose of reality, Saeki says she determined there and then to get back on her feet. The first thing she did was try to restore her face. By this time, her skin had sagged and become wrinkled, and black bags had formed under her eyes. To address this, she used the skincare routines she'd taught others for years, and tried to keep her head full of beautiful feelings as well. Consequently, that became a turning point in her life, she says, noting that, along the way, she became convinced that skincare begins and ends with willpower.

Today, Japan's most renowned beauty adviser lives a busy and highly energetic life, lecturing around the country and appearing on television to give advice not only on skincare, but also on how to stay positive in times of adversity.

In addition, since her first book was published five years ago, Saeki has written more than 30 others covering skincare and self-help — and also her memoirs. All of them have been best-sellers. Most recently, in November, she published her first book in English, titled, "The Japanese Skincare Revolution," which is full of easy-to-do, hands-on advice about the techniques now dubbed "Saeki-style" routines.

Saeki — with her spotless, porcelain skin radiating beauty and health — recently sat down to share with JT readers her skincare passion, her views on Japanese women and much more. The interview took place at her aesthetic salon in Tokyo's glitzy Ginza district, where she also teaches Japan's future skincare leaders how to make women more beautiful — outside and in.

I understand that you first became interested in beauty because of Audrey Hepburn.

Yes. I decided to pursue kirei (beauty) when I was a first-year student at my junior high school and I saw a still photo of Audrey Hepburn playing Princess Ann (in the 1953 film "Roman Holiday," which was a huge hit in Japan). Up until then I was like a boy, running around and playing dodge-ball and softball under the scorching sun. When I saw that photo of her, I was shocked to realize that such an elegant and beautiful woman existed in the world. My mother had worked in the rice paddies, so she was tanned and had lots of blemishes and freckles on her face. I hated that about my mother. And also, I was pretty much raised by my grandparents, so I longed to be around ideal mothers. For instance, my first-grade teacher was such an attractive woman — her voice was so gentle, her demeanor so elegant, and she dressed smartly in suits.

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Was that when you were living in Koga with your grandparents?

Yes. I wished she had been my mother. And when I saw the picture of Audrey Hepburn, I stopped playing outdoors and switched to a table-tennis club. And I started watching movies. Back then only samurai movies came to my area, but I was very attracted to the ones featuring princesses. That's how I got interested in beautiful things. I was also influenced by my grandparents, who taught me how to respect others. They urged me to see, eat and listen to things that are good. My grandmother also taught me how to find beauty in things that are not new. If your clothes are old and have holes, they can still look neat if the holes are patched up. So she taught me how to be thankful for what I have and not to waste things.

So is it true to say that all that helped to shape who you are today?

Exactly. Plus, my grandfather was full of appreciation for nature. At the end of each day, he would thank his own hands for enabling him to do so much work, saying, "Thanks to you hands, we can eat well today." Then he would raise his feet and pray to them, saying, "Thank you for letting me travel on you so far today." He also dried wisteria branches and bamboo he'd gathered in the mountains and made baskets from them at night. He told me that we owe nature for our lives, that we get things from nature to live, and so we shouldn't waste them. He taught me to say itadakimasu (a phrase used to express gratitude before a meal, which literally means "I'm going to eat") with a true sense of understanding that you are indeed taking the lives of plants and animals for your own.

I didn't receive the love of my parents, but all that my grandparents taught me is such an important asset for me. My grandmother was also attentive about her appearance. While she did not wear makeup, she took care of her hair with tsubaki (camellia) oil extract and applied rice bran on her face every morning.

I understand that you were also influenced by the way the waitresses at your aunt's restaurant transformed themselves before starting work.

Yes. My aunt ran a Japanese restaurant in Sonezaki, Osaka, and I used to see those regular obasan (middle-aged women) washing in a public bathhouse, then wearing makeup and kimono and — surprise! — they transformed into different women! I marveled at them, thinking, "This is how you turn into a woman." Women can change so much through their hair and makeup, and with what they wear. That's how I became interested in the art of making people beautiful, and I decided to go to a beauty school.

I believe that when you were in high school you were interested in becoming a maiko (apprentice geisha). Why was that?

I just found them so pretty, with their white skin and lovely clothes. Maiko represent a woman's beauty at its peak, don't they? They are finished when they turn 18, but I thought they represented beauty and that's why I wanted to become one of them. It wasn't the job that attracted me. Another time, I found my physical education teacher so attractive that I wanted to become a PE teacher myself, too. (giggles)

So you were constantly attracted by the concept of beauty.

Yes, and I didn't have the slightest interest in love in real life.

Really?

Yes. Other girls my age fancied male teachers in school or were going out with so-and-so, but because I was a movie fanatic, I fell in love with men in the movies. I also loved the male roles (played by women) in the Takarazuka musical revue. It's all because of all the bad men I had seen at my aunt's bar-restaurant. I saw how men got drunk, smoked and behaved badly at these establishments. Plus, my father was one of those types who did all that nomu (drinking), utsu (gambling) and kau (buying women) stuff. So I thought all men were the same.

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