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Smile traditions from around the globe: Japanese Ohaguro

By – Bad Breath Expert
Posted: December 29, 2014
SUMMARY: Want black teeth? In early Asian cultures, black teeth were in vogue.

While some Americans would die for whiter teeth, cultures in Japan and other parts of Asia used to dye for blackened teeth.

Ying to the yang. Night and day. Whatever you want to call it, certain traditions mark a completely different norm than what most people are used to. For our second installment of "Smile traditions from around the globe," we'll explore the Japanese teeth-blackening custom of Ohaguro. 

Where black teeth were beautiful
For centuries, women (and some men) in Japan practiced the tradition of Ohaguro€‹ - a process that required dyeing their teeth black. Black teeth signified wealth and sexual maturity, and in certain Asian cultures, undergoing the ritual indicated a girl was ready for marriage. To color one's pearly whites, it was common to drink an iron-based black dye tempered with cinnamon and other aromatic spices to attain the lacquered allure.

The custom was in vogue starting around 920 A.D, although its origin is not clear, according to "Around the World Dentistry" by Henry Lovejoy Ambler. During Medieval times, the tradition was prevalent among the samurai and courtiers, as well as the warriors of the Taira clan.

However, the Japanese government launched an initiative to modernize the formerly secluded island nation in the late 19th century, thus banning Ohaguro in 1870. Only three years later, the empress of Japan solidified the law by appearing in public with white teeth - a shocking beauty statement. Today the practice is seen only among the elderly in rural areas. 

Fought tooth decay?
The look was not merely aesthetic. The ingredients used in the dye actually fought tooth decay. A 2006 study published in the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that the soot made from three types of plant extracts used by Kamu women in Vietnam and Laos inhibited mutans streptococci, which is the leading cause of cavities. Mutans streptococci is a type of harmful bacteria that erodes dental enamel when combined with carbohydrates from food, leading to halitosis, decay and other oral health problems. 

Three plants were commonly used: Dracontomelon dao nuts (DD nuts), Cratoxylum formosum (CF) wood or Croton cascarilloides (CC) wood. After the nuts and wood were burned, the soot was collected and applied to entire rows of teeth. 

Though darkened teeth are generally a sign of poor dental health in the U.S., they meant quite the opposite in earlier Asian societies.