A Japanese Toothbrush

Japanese Toothbrush

Here’s a Japanese toothbrush. They’re usually smaller than Western ones to make it easier maneuver inside your mouth. There are also wide brushes, I suppose for those with especially wide mouths, and Western style brushes. That’s what I use, the Western style, because that’s what I’m used to. A Japanese toothbrush though, can teach you a lot about Japanese culture. This toothbrush in the picture has a story. Let’s begin.


The first record of a toothbrush was in the writing of a Japanese Zen monk on a trip to China, who saw the Chinese using brushes made from hog hairs. It was just a minor incident in the records of one monk though, so it has more historical than practical value. Japanese cleaned their teeth with toothpicks. It’s still not uncommon for a Japanese man to politely cover his mouth while digging out what’s left of dinner with a toothpick after the meal.

Pre-toothbrush era

Japanese toothbrushes were “invented” after a British toothbrush was imported from India and the Japanese began making their own based on its model. Prior to that, women (and less often men) painted their teeth black. It’s called Ohaguro, and thought to have been a mark of maturity since only adults painted their teeth. They thought ebony suited the bones sticking out of your gums better than ivory. Purely a matter of taste, I suppose. Cosmetics aside, it also helped prevent tooth decay because the dye formed a seal over the teeth. The practice was banned in the Meiji era, mostly likely because it was associated with unmodernized Japan. It received a short revival in the ensuing Taisho period after the ban was lifted, but eventually fell out of practice.

Three Times A Day

I didn’t think much of it when my Japanese coworker started brushing his teeth at work, but when he started talking to me in our usual mix of Japanese and English while he did, I wondered if it was more Japanese culture than his personal grooming habit. It reminded me that my old coworker brushed at work too, though she was a bit more discreet about it. Anyway, many Japanese brush after every meal, even at work. The habit begins in school, where toothbrushing time can be mandatory. Since schools are doing an excellent job of embedding good oral hygiene in their students, younger Japanese usually have excellently maintained teeth. On a side note, almost no Japanese water is fluoridated and many Japanese toothpastes don’t contain fluoride.

Cosmetic Dental Carelessness

The Japanese care about oral hygiene, but not so much about cosmetic dentistry. Quite a few adult Japanese have misaligned teeth, which also become miscolored. It’s especially true for older Japanese. This though, maybe isn’t so much Japanese culture as it is American. For Americans like myself, the straight, electric white product of Hollywood’s best cosmetic dentists is part of a person’s attractiveness. Other parts of the world though, like Britain and Japan, prefer more natural smiles.

But some Japanese take it to the extreme. Yeaba, perhaps improperly translated as misaligned teeth, is seen by a minority of Japanese men as making a woman appear more youthful. Because weird Japan makes good news, it’s often treated as a mainstream trend. It is not a mainstream trend. Still, it’s created a market for fake tooth caps on girl’s canines to give them a “youthful” smile. And youthfulness is important because of Shojo manga.

A Cuter Take On Snaggletooths

Shojo manga is a type of manga that focuses on young girls. The word shojo, in a very academic sense, means a pubescent young woman who is not yet socially allowed to express any sexuality. The word is a fairly modern invention. The word shonen, now meaning young boys, used to describe both genders until the Meiji government propagandized the ideal of a shojo to legitimize its new public education system. The system trained boys to be workers and girls to be housewives. A shojo was something “between babies and adults,” whose only value was innocence. “Unused sexual resources” was a nice way one scholar put it. Early shojo manga, written by men, encouraged young girls not to pursue education, but purity–which, by the by, included reading more shojo manga.

That ideal permeated Japan, and while modern Shojo manga now depicts sexual exploration, the idea of the innocent, sexless Shojo remains a part of Japanese culture.  AKB48, Japan’s most popular idol group, are forced to maintain the shojo image by maintaining a “pure” image. (Despite the sexual outfits they wear.) But one of the formerly main members, Minami Minegishi, shaved her head and publicly apologized after being caught secretly leaving her boyfriend’s apartment in the early morning and was “demoted” to “research student” status. Though if you watch the video, keep in mind that most people thought shaving her head was going just as overboard as you probably do.

That said, going overboard was a good move on her part. When a Japanese celebrity is “disgraced” for whatever reason, they usually just dissapear completely from the spotlight. They are even cut out of old TV clips by stations. Going overboard was all that allowed her to keep her job, something almost impossible for disgraced celebrities.

The snaggletooth, and sorry to go on such a long tangent, looks youthful because it looks like baby teeth. It makes a girl look like a cute, young shojo. Though I wonder if it will still be appealing once they turn fifty. I’ll have to ask around.

From A Japanese Toothbrush

I think Japanese would agree with Americans that the toothbrush is the “one item you couldn’t live without.” The role of cosmetic dentistry too, is gaining importance. I know a woman in her forties with braces. Maybe Hollywood’s smile is rubbing off on Japan like it is the rest of the world. Anyway, stay tuned. There’s more Japanese culture from common things to come.

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2 Comments on “A Japanese Toothbrush”

  1. Kainoa
    February 21, 2014 at 4:48 am #

    Believe it or not, I always think about dental hygiene in other countries, so thanks for the insightful post. Snaggleteeth(?) have always fascinating to me, particularly in Asian countries, since they’re “cosmetic”. I just thought it was due to genetic overcrowding of the palate and lack of access to orthodontics, but maintaining it to appear youthful is an interesting point. It’s so nice to learn about standards of beauty in other countries.

  2. lmjapan
    February 22, 2014 at 5:35 am #

    A bunch of people I’ve met from Japan have so many extra teeth in their mouth. I really don’t get it because none of the Japanese-Americans I know have this problem and it’s not because they went to a dentist to get the extra ones yanked.

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