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What makes a smile a good smile? Is it the color, size or shape of the teeth? What about their placement? How long should you spend taking care of your teeth each day? And what is yaeba?
As it turns out, what’s considered a nice set of teeth varies from culture to culture, which means oral hygiene standards also differ. How does Japan compare to western countries?
First of all, straight teeth are not a must-have for Japanese people. In Japan, the term “yaeba,” which translates to “multi layered” or “double tooth,” is a way of describing the appearance of the two canine teeth when they’re pushed forward due to overcrowding of the molars. Less polite western terms for yaeba are “fangs” or “snaggletooth,” since straight teeth are highly sought after. In Sweden, for example, when a child reaches the age of 12 or 13, their dentist will decide whether or not they need braces, which are provided free of charge to about 30 percent of children, to make sure their “adult” teeth are perfectly aligned.
A second popular western trend is having very white teeth. This is especially prominent in the United States where everyone from starlets to the President have a set of straight, white teeth. In Japan, this trend is becoming more widely noticed, with whitening toothpastes available in stores. But you won’t see many people walking around with fluorescent white chompers. In fact, the trend used to be the exact opposite. Although outlawed in the Meiji era (1868-1913), the practice of “ohaguro,” or blackening the teeth, was quite popular up until the Taisho era (1912-1926). Thankfully, this look has fallen out of favor.
In Japan, strengthening the area around the mouth is common for aesthetic reasons as well. There are numerous contraptions available to exercise the muscles of the face for a smoother, more toned and youthful appearance that highlights a nice smile.
But these differences in aesthetic preferences in no way mean Japanese people don’t take care of their teeth. Children are taught how to brush their teeth properly (“hamigaki”) at a young age and are encouraged to do so multiple times a day, just like children in western countries. Most restaurants offer up toothpicks to help you clean your teeth after a meal, since particles left within the teeth can lead to cavities. Many people make sure to brush their teeth at work, promoting companies like Philips to create stylish portable toothbrush travel cases for the fashion conscious office workers.
Walking around Tokyo, you’ll encounter many dentist’s offices providing all the necessary services. When it comes oral care products, you can find similar items in Japanese stores as you would a western pharmacy or supermarket. Toothpaste, floss, picks and mouthwash are readily available from a variety of brands. Electric toothbrushes are also very popular in this gadget-loving country, ranging in prices and features to get teeth perfectly clean.
As for oral hygiene as a health issue, more attention is being paid to the connection between having a healthy mouth and a healthy body. With a large aging population in Japan, conditions like diabetes are becoming more prevalent, and oral health can be an indicator of someone’s overall wellness.
In just goes to show you, what’s appealing to the eye may differ, whether it be yaeba or ohaguro, but a desire for health is something we all share.