Midori Snow, RDH
"Long time ago, married Japanese women dyed their teeth black. Its called ohaguro." "Oh! Black? Umm..." Many Americans are surprised every time I say it. Then they start looking at me as if I were joking. Their eyes express suspicion. My mother used to have the same eyes when she heard about manicures. She said, "Western women paint their nails red? It`s a strange custom."
Why did samurai`s wives dye their teeth black? I guessed at the reasons. First, teeth get darker when they became old. So the black dye would cover their "dirty" teeth. Or, a woman with ohaguro obviously means a married woman; therefore, men did not approach her, steering everyone clear of adultery, etc.
I have never read a book about ohaguro, but now I am very interested in it. I open up the Japanese dictionary.
"They burned iron dust and mixed it into strong tea, added kayu (rice soup which was like oatmeal), sake, and ame (sweet candy) which became black and it smelled bad. They are used for dyeing materials for silk and cotton; also, it is used for black ink.
"Around AD 1000, at 8 to 9 years old, high society princesses had ohaguro for the ceremony through which they became mature women. Then men started using it. Around AD 1400, 12- to 13-year-old boys used ohaguro, which meant they became mature men. In AD 1700, 17- to 18-year-old women that were ready to be married used ohaguro. A woman who was in the lower level of society used ohaguro when she was engaged. People who lived in Okinawa did not have this custom. After AD 1900, ohaguro was prohibited by law."
If a pretty woman smiled with black teeth, most American men felt strange and might run away. But black was better than red or gold. If they were red teeth, it would be a ghost. If they were gold teeth, it looked like oni (Japanese monster).
When I was a dental hygiene student, I took a class called Dental Materials. Our professor, Dr. English, was a calm, gentle, kind, and very handsome middle-aged man. If he wore a hat and had an umbrella, he looked like an English gentleman. All of the students liked and respected him.
On Halloween, many students wore costumes and came to the class. In Japan, nobody will come to the office with such costumes. But Americans like to enjoy their lives.
"What kind of costume will Dr. English wear today?" I was wondered. Then he came into the classroom. "He did not put on any costume. He is an English gentleman, so he did not care for a Halloween costume," I thought. Then he smiled to the class.
"Oh!" We were all shocked. Then we burst out laughing. One tooth was black. He must have made one black crown and put on his tooth. Because of the black tooth, his face changed from handsome to Dracula. He taught us how a tooth affected his appearance.
Many American movie stars and singers take very good care of their teeth. Julia Roberts, who acted in "Pretty Woman," has very beautiful teeth. But if she had one black tooth, she would not be a Opretty womanO anymore. Teeth influence our appearance very much.
Many Japanese are not aware of oral hygiene. Japanese dentists have excellent skills for making crowns and bridges (my crown was made by a Japanese dentist 25 years ago and still is in good shape). But not too many Japanese dentists recommend cleaning teeth for their patients. Clean, hard, serious worker, yamatonadeshiko (delicate, but spiritually strong woman) are the Japanese?s ideal image ? except for teeth. Many Japanese?s teeth are still like ohaguro even though they don?t dye their teeth anymore. When I was in Japan, I did not even know that I had to go to the dentist for cleaning teeth. Many Japanese still think that fixing teeth is the dentist?s only job. I hope Japanese dentists will educate their patients and they will change their image to, OIncluding teeth, Japanese are clean.O It has always been my wish.
Midori Snow is a pen name for a dental hygienist currently residing in Virginia Beach, Va.