Hikari-beni (red pigment made from safflowers) (艶紅)

Hikari-beni, also referred to as tsuya-beni (which literally means "shiny red") is pigment made by separating the coloring matter of safflowers with plum vinegar. This is also called hon-beni (which literally means "true red"). This was formerly used as a red cosmetic for the lips, and high-quality ones are specially called 'kyo-beni' because they are refined in Kyoto.

Solution of the coloring matter separated from safflowers is sold in a white ceramic bowl with a lid which prevents the color of beni from being worn out, a sake cup (light cannot enter the cup as long as it is turned over), or a seashell, after being spread with a number of coats on such a container and dried up. High-quality beni is extremely expensive and it was said to be valued as the same amount of gold, as the familiar expression "one monme (3.75 grams) of gold, one monme of beni" described. It is also said that people sometimes brought empty containers to beni shops so beni was refilled when they wanted to buy it again.

The appearance of dried beni changes depending on the angle of light, because the purity of beni's red coloring matter is so high that it absorbs red light and it shines with green, which is the opposite color of red. It becomes red when it absorbs some water, but it eventually returns to the iridescent-like color when it is applied on the lips.

When using beni, people used a wet thin cosmetic lipbrush to mix it with water little by little and applied the dissolved beni to the lips, or they sometimes directly used their third fingers to apply beni to their lips. Therefore the third finger was sometimes called 'benisashi yubi' (which literally means "a finger to apply beni") in the past.

History of cosmetics and hikari-beni

In the Kofun (tumulus) period, beni had not been introduced into Japan yet and people used mineral pigments such as minium and cinnabar to decorate their bodies with red, and noble men mainly applied such pigments to their faces and bodies in order to enhance their vitality.

Once beni was brought to Japan from China, the court ladies' lips were made up in vivid beni, and people began to think of using beni as an important factor to a woman's grooming and appearance.

In the Heian court, painting over a face with white makeup powder became a popular makeup technique so that the face could attract attention even in a dim room. A woman put lip rouge just on the center of her lips so her mouth looked small and cute, and rouged her cheeks lightly. The custom of makeup also became popular among noblemen although their makeup was lighter than women's makeup, and some young samurai men in the Taira clan, whose behavior and culture became the court noble style, even changed their eyebrows to hikimayu (painted eyebrows) and powdered their faces lightly before going into a battle. This custom did not become outdated during the Samurai government in the Kamakura period; indeed, men's makeup was taken over by children in a traditional festival procession and high-class samurai in later times. Beni was used widely for clothing during this period, but it was hardly used for cosmetic purposes.

In the latter part of the Muromachi period, the makeup powder called 'beni oshiroi' (beni makeup powder), which is the face powder mixed with light-pinkish beni powder, became popular and the makeup style was changed to what gave women more lively impressions, reflecting the trend of those times. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period, some influential merchants took advantage of the confusion in the collapse of the class system and they began to increase their power, and ordinary women enjoyed makeup in their favorite styles around the Shokuho period (also known as the Azuchi-Momoyama period).

In the Edo period, women living in Edo longed for high-quality beni which was brought all the way from Kyoto. The makeup which needed plenty of beni attracted women, and yujo (prostitutes in the Edo period) who earned a great deal of money slightly applied beni to their fingernails and toenails (this method was called 'tsuma beni', which literally means "red nail") and their earlobes as well as their lips, in order to make themselves look more sexy. In the latter part of the Edo period, the makeup method in which women applied beni to their lower lips repeatedly to make the lips shine like gold-green was in fashion and this method was called 'sasa beni' (which literally means "bamboo leaf red"), but women except for popular yujo applied black ink under beni to save beni because this method required plenty of beni, which was very expensive.

Beni is currently used by maiko (apprentice geisha) and geigi (geisha) in Kyoto and tayu (geisha of the highest rank) in Shimabara (the geisha district in Kyoto), and is also used as dye.

Advantages and disadvantages

Beni is not harmful to health because it is a cosmetic made from pure natural ingredients. Safflowers are still used as food coloring as well.

Unlike chemical coloring matter used for prevailing lipsticks, beni does not hurt the skin when it is washed off.

Beni is very expensive because it takes a lot of time and care to produce it. High-quality beni has been expensive as the phrase "one monme of gold, one monme of beni" describes.

Since beni is made of water-soluble pigment, it easily loses the color and stays on dishes and so on.