Japan's Face Fetish : A Museum Spotlights the New National Obsession

Article excerpt

With a click of the mouse, Misa Kondo gives herself bigger eyes. Click, click. Now she has a smaller nose. The 11-year-old stands back and admires her new image on the computer screen inside Tokyo's National Science Museum. "I could look this cute with only a few changes!" she exclaims. Misa's 9-year-old sister, Kimiko, leans over the monitor, waiting impatiently for her turn. Their mom, Hiroko, glances nervously at the long line of people behind them, worried that her daughters are monopolizing the virtual cosmetic-surgery booth. "This is the first time my children did not get bored within 10 minutes at the science museum," she says.

The display holding them in thrall is the centerpiece of the most talked- about show in town: the "Grand Face Exhibition." Since it opened in late July, the show has attracted more than 120,000 visitors with its colorful and interactive exhibits on the human face. In addition to creating their ideal look, visitors can study facial musculature, see life and death masks of famous leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte, learn how Japanese faces have evolved over the centuries and even get a few makeup tips.

The show's popularity taps into a growing Japanese obsession with facial expressiveness. Talking about faces, especially among men, used to be taboo in Japan. "What counts is the mind, not the face," goes an old saying. But recently facial studies have been the subject of dozens of new books, TV shows and magazine articles. The world's only Academy of Facial Studies was founded in Japan four years ago, and now boasts more than 700 active members, including dentists, psychologists, anthropologists, computer scientists and makeup artists. "Japanese now think that a face is an important communications tool they have traditionally not been trained to use," says Hiroshi Harashima, a University of Tokyo professor and director of the academy.

Indeed, the image of the poker-faced Japanese stoic is as outdated as the all-mighty Japanese economy. …