During the first half of July each year, I frequently go to Iga Ueno in Mie to harvest safflower (benibana) that has been grown with care. Safflower is highly aromatic and from the Asteraceae family, but behind these beautiful flowers lay thorns, giving my hands and arms blisters after a full day of work. Also called the “Suetsumuhana,” the delicate process of picking each flower is an important practice for me during the summer, as my job is to create colors from these plants.
The harvested flowers are dried and stored, and their dye is made in the winter, giving them the name “red winter dye.” The flowers of the safflower plant are yellow, but they include a small amount of red pigment, so in the crisp winter air, and through a variety of processes, a pure vivid and flawless red color can be created.
Safflower was once used as the base for lipstick and is said to have originated in Egypt along the Nile River, with safflower and lipstick being excavated from Saqqara ruins from the late period of ancient Egypt. The plants were then brought to China via the Silk Road.
“Losing my Yanzhi Mountains, made my women colorless.” This lamentation was written by the king of Xiongnu, near Gansu province in modern-day China, during the 2nd century BC when their land was taken over by the Han. The women of Xiongnu had used locally blooming safflower for their makeup, but because their territory was overtaken, the king is grieving that they can no longer decorate their faces with this red color.
Safflower, at last, came to Japan, with a large amount of safflower pollen being excavated from Makimuku ruins thought to be from the time of Queen Himiko. This plant was used from even farther back than imagined to create makeup and was used by women as lipstick and blush.
Safflower was also used in Chinese herbal medicine. It improves circulation and can be counted on for its antibacterial properties and to remove wrinkles from the lips.
When “Shiseido Kyobeni” was released in 1976, the benizara dishes were made using traditional techniques with a focus on these properties and used carthamin extracted from safflower plants. After dipping a finger or brush in water and picking up some color, applying it to the lips creates a vibrant red color called “tsuya-beni.” The image of Sayoko Yamaguchi in the 1978 advertisement still feels fresh and alluring, even after almost 40 years later.
Modern-day lipsticks include many ingredients besides safflower, but women's desire to vividly paint their lips and charm with the beautiful color of their faces has not changed since ancient times.
This article is an excerpt from Shiseido’s corporate culture magazine Hanatsubaki.
> Read Hanatsubaki