Becoming Japanese… with Surgery

I’ve mentioned many times that I believe no matter how long you’ve been in Japan, how much Japanese you know, how many Japanese friends you have… you will never be considered a Japanese unless you were born in Japan to an ethically Japanese family. That’s the cold hard truth.

However, after discussing websites with a friend in Austin recently, she reminded me of an old episode of Nip/Tuck that I happened to see back in my TV-watching days. In it, an interracial couple – Asian girl, Caucasian man – seeks the help of plastic surgeons for the man to look "more Asian" so that his girlfriend’s parents will accept him into their family. Sadly, I found this to be a very practical solution to acceptance in Asian countries – only by looking the part will one truly be at ease in the crowd.

Faces change, Sean. And asses and thighs, but people? Do you think that guy’s gonna be any more Japanese because we make him look Asian? We are who we are.

Nip/Tuck episode "Kurt Dempsey"

So that got me thinking – has anyone in the real world ever actually tried this? There have been Hollywood actresses and many superficial people who have had their eyes surgically altered to look more Japanese in nothing more than a vain attempt to gain more sexual appeal (yeah… and it worked), but has there ever been a foreign resident of Japan who tried to have his appearance altered purely to gain acceptance into Japanese society? Certainly, it would be difficult for a Caucasian to completely eliminate all signs of his heritage, but impossible? Perhaps not… I had to find out.

First, we need to consider the standards of cross-cultural beauty. Many Japanese women admire western models for traits genetically denied them: blonde hair, fuller lips, bigger eyes, larger breasts, a more pronounced figure. This is one reason why we see so many Hollywood actresses and models in Japanese cosmetic departments rather than native ones; this is slowly changing, but by and large, it’s blonde hair, blue eyes all the way. By the same token, many western women look to Asian women for exactly what they lack: slanted eyes, slimmer figure, different facial features. If only there were a happy medium, but I guess the grass is always greener.

As a result, many Japanese women have plastic surgery to look "less Asian". Even children, who may be lacking a full understanding of their Asian heritage, are exposed to the idea of changing their features at a young age

It’s hardly the first time we’ve heard of people trying to change their race through surgery or makeup, a process known unofficially as racial transformation. Sean Connery’s character in You Only Live Twice was surgically altered to look like a Japanese:

Courtesy of Mutant Frog

The odd trend I seemed to notice was that a surprising majority of racial surgery cases involved non-Caucasians; there are plenty of Caucasians going under the knife, but most of them simply accentuate their own features rather than altering them to look "black", "Asian", etc.

You may hear Shoyu-gao(Soy Sauce face)or Sauce-gao (Worcester Sauce face) when you talk about the various shapes of faces. Shoyu gao means an Asian looking face, and Sauce-gao means a Western looking face. If you raise the outside corners of your eyes, you’ll have a Shoyu face. More than 90% of Japanese are Shoyu gao. Everybody can tell Ichiro (Seattle Mariners star baseball player) is 100% Asian. He is a Shoyu gao. On the other hand, Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) is Japanese but doesn’t look Japanese. He is a Sauce gao. Many Japanese people dream about being a Sauce-gao and having a western face. Some young Japanese ladies use glue in an attempt to have doubling eyes, and put long eyelashes on there eyes to make their eyes look bigger. Some even try a little nip and tuck with plastic surgery. These stupid tear-provoking efforts sound stupid, but it reveals the Japanese complex for Western people.


If a foreigner were to attempt to get plastic surgery to look Japanese, I can imagine three possible outcomes:

  • Let’s imagine what would happen if you went half the effort; that is, you get plastic surgery to look Japanese, but the result is that you seem to be someone of mixed heritage. In that respect, the surgery was essentially worthless; "half"’s (half-Japanese, half-foreigner) in Japan are somewhat common, but still treated differently

  • You get the surgery, but it’s extremely obvious you’re a westerner in disguise, someone who tried to have plastic surgery done to merely fit in. In the Nip/Tuck episode, this has a favorable result: the man is found out, but his actions impress the girlfriend’s parents so much they agree to the marriage. I believe this would be the same in Japan, if you didn’t mind being a freak; Japanese would see that you went through so much effort to integrate into Japanese culture, but they would still recognize you as a foreigner. As a result, little is gained beyond the initial surprise and compliments.

  • The surgery is a complete success, and you look 100% Japanese. I don’t know if this has been the case for anyone.

If you have any information on someone Japanese who has tried to look Caucasian or a foreign resident of Japan, who has tried to look Japanese, please leave me a comment. It would definitely pique my interest.


Nip Tuck: China’s Changing Face

Growing Up Different but Never Alienated

Plastic Surgery as Racial Surgery

Racial Transformation