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poster for Ugetsu
A poster for the 1953 film Ugetsu. The woman in the foreground has hikimayu.

Hikimayu (引眉) was the practice of removing the natural eyebrows and painting smudge-like eyebrows on the forehead in pre-modern Japan.

Hiki means "pull" and mayu means "eyebrows". Aristocratic women used to pluck or shave their eyebrows and paint new ones using a powdered ink called haizumi, which was made of soot from sesame or rape-seed oils.[1]


Hikimayu first appeared in the eighth century, when the Japanese court adopted Chinese customs and styles.[2] Japanese noblewomen started painting their faces with a white powder called oshiroi. One putative reason for hikimayu is that removing the natural eyebrows made it easier to put on the oshiroi. At this time the eyebrows were painted in arc shapes,[2] as in China. Women also started painting their teeth black, which is known as ohaguro.

Japanese culture began to flourish in its own right during the Heian period, from 794 CE. At the imperial court the arts reached a pinnacle of refinement. Women started wearing extremely elaborate costumes, painting their faces more thickly, and painting eyebrows as ovals or smudges on their foreheads. One possibility is that when they started letting their hair hang down on each side, it was felt that the forehead became too prominent; painting the eyebrows as ovals halfway up the forehead was supposed to redress the balance of the face.

The Heian period ended in 1185. In its later years, even men painted their faces white, blackened their teeth, and did hikimayu.[2] As a fashion for women, hikimayu lasted for many centuries. In the noh drama, which started in the 14th century, the masks for the roles of young women usually have eyebrows in this style.

In the Edo period, from the 17th century, hikimayu and ohaguro were only done by married women.[3] In the latter half of the 19th century, the Japanese government ended its policy of isolationism and started to adopt Western culture. Eyebrows painted on the forehead and black teeth were no longer appropriate for modern society, and in 1870 hikimayu and ohaguro were banned.[3] Nowadays they are only used in historical drama such as noh, and occasionally in local festivals.

In literature[edit]

Hikimayu is mentioned in both of the great literary classics of the Heian period, The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book. The passage from The Tale of Genji, near the end of the sixth chapter, concerns a girl aged about ten who is living in the palace of the Emperor Nijo. The translation by Edward Seidensticker is as follows.

Because of her grandmother's conservative preferences, her teeth had not yet been blackened or her eyebrows plucked. Genji had put one of the women to blackening her eyebrows, which drew fresh, graceful arcs.[4]

The translation by Royall Tyler is:

In deference to her grandmother's old-fashioned manners her teeth had not yet received any blacking, but he had had her made up, and the sharp line of her eyebrows was very attractive.[5]

In Meredith McKinney's translation of the Pillow Book, section 80 reads:

Things that create the appearance of deep emotion – The sound of your voice when you're constantly blowing your runny nose as you talk. Plucking your eyebrows.[6]

In cinema[edit]

Hikimayu can be seen in Rashomon, Ugetsu, and Ran. In the first two films the actress is Machiko Kyo. In Rashomon, which is set in the Heian period, she plays a samurai's wife . Ugetsu, also known as Ugetsu Monogatari, is set in the Sengoku (civil war) period of 1493–1573. In this she plays an enchantress or ghost. In Ran, which is based on King Lear, hikimayu can be seen on Mieko Harada as Lady Kaede.


  1. ^ Cosmetics in the Heian period. Archived copy of defunct webpage; accessed in April 2011
  2. ^ a b c Kokushi Daijiten. Yoshikawa, 1985.
  3. ^ a b Cyclopedia of Japanese History / Nihonshi Daijiten. Heibonsha, 1993.
  4. ^ Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji. Translation by Edward Seidensticker. Knopf, 1978.
  5. ^ Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji. Translation by Royall Tyler. Penguin, 2002.
  6. ^ Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book. Translation by Meredith McKinney. Penguin, 2007.