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NOW READING K-Beauty versus J-Beauty: REALLY?!?
February 4, 2018

K-Beauty versus J-Beauty: REALLY?!?

Exoticization. Apples to oranges. Just plain alternative facts. We push back on some recent headlines that paint Korean beauty and Japanese beauty with some pretty broad and misleading strokes, pitting one against the other. Because really?!?



There have been a couple stories making the rounds recently that was overall pretty gross. It praised the “quiet seriousness” of Japanese beauty versus the “razzmatazz” of Korean beauty, accusing the latter of being all about the ‘gram and silly products in goofy jars. They painted Japanese beauty as being all about the “rituals” of beauty and elegance, saying Japan had an extensive history of traditions around beauty while Korean beauty was just buzzy junky trash. I was sitting here reading that and wondering what planet I was on. I had to go rush to my Sulwhasoo and make sure it still existed and wasn’t replaced without explanation with a jar full of glittery turds in a cat-shaped jar. Have the people pushing this “Korea so crazy, Japan is so delicate and committed to ancient beauty” never heard of hanbang and somehow overlooked Japan’s kawaii culture?


k-beauty versus j-beauty


Hanbang is literally traditional Korean herb-based medicines, and it’s ancient. Ancient, ancient. It can trace its roots back to China (as most things in the East do), but the isolated Korea put its own spin on things through the many thousands of years it developed. These medicines were used to treat all ailments and are still used to this day. I’ve personally seen hanbang medicine in action and used to treat my husband’s arthritis. Many of hanbang‘s star ingredients are also beneficial to our skin’s health. Heavy hitters like ginseng and camellia oil can be found in all manner of Asian skincare, both Korean and Japanese alike. This isn’t anything even remotely new. Korea’s roots in rituals and elegant skincare have been so deeply ingrained in the culture that there are surviving beauty artifacts from the Silla Kingdom Era (57 BC–935 AD), which you can see for yourself at the Coreana Cosmetic Museum in Seoul.


hanbang k-beauty versus j-beauty


To paint all Korean products as flash-in-the-pan trends made with wacky formulas is ridiculous. Korea has some very famous high-end brands rooted in traditional hanbang. The aforementioned Sulwhasoo and The History of Whoo are two very elegant (and very expensive) examples. I don’t know how you don’t feel a “quiet seriousness” when using a $300 cream made of aged top-shelf herbs. There’s also more affordable and very effective hanbang-based products from established lines like Su:m37 and Missha. And don’t forget newcomers like Swanicoco and Eclado, which both do stellar jobs without being goofy or gimmicky.


None of this is to say I’m against Japanese beauty. I quite like a lot of it. I have tested, very much enjoyed, and even repurchased many of the famous Hada Labo products; there’s a Rohto eye drops container right next to my bed and a Bioré sunscreen in my bathroom. And here’s something you might have noticed from those products: None of them are operating on some spiritual level of simplicity and ritual. They’re just drugstore products, housed in plastic containers. Nothing paradigm-shifting there.


I’m also puzzled by this labeling of all Korean beauty as kooky and Japan as somehow above it all and elegant. Am I taking crazy pills or is the Japanese makeup brand Kiss Me not pretty much the same level of “kawaii” as, say, Etude House makeup? I mean, if you want to pick and choose to fit your narrative, let’s compare a History of Whoo lipstick with a Hello Kitty lip balm. But you wouldn’t ever do that would you? Because that’s apples and oranges. Kind of like trying to compare Tony Moly with Shu Uemura.


Let’s stop the mystical Orientalism nonsense.


What do you think of the marketing ploy trying to pit K-beauty versus J-beauty? Do you use Japanese beauty products (or Taiwanese or French or any other kind of beauty, for that matter) in your beauty routine? What’s your take on the different “genres” of beauty out there?



Coco Park is an author, beauty journalist, blogger, podcast host, and all around oddball living in Montreal Quebec with her family. Originally from the southern USA, she worked for several years in the makeup industry as a professional makeup artist and holds a certificate in esthetics. She is a proud member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Want to know more? Check her out on the Beauty Beyond Basics podcast, on her blog, on Instagram @thebeautywolf, and in her book "Korean Beauty Secrets: A Practical Guide to Cutting-Edge Skincare & Makeup."




I think both beauty products are great. I've tried Japanese products and they've worked great for my skin~ I don't understand why there needs to be a "competition". They're all unique and great in their own ways.


I love Korean products. They are so much better. The quality is awesome. I want to get in on this.


The mystical Orientalism drives me batty. It’s not mystical; it’s old. I grew up going to a doctor who specialized in cupping and acupuncture when I had a cough, cold or flu. My other pediatrician did my physical and my vaccinations. When I had knee surgery from a dance injury, my parents took me to sports medicine specialist who worked specifically on young athletes. Sorry about the ramble. My point is this: I use what works best for me. Right now I use almost exclusively Korean first and especially second cleansers. For hardcore acid toners I’m... Read more


I really haven't heard about K-beauty versus J-beauty, but it obviously makes no sense. Every country has it's own traditional and it's own newest cute and pop products.


I've read similar articles in German as well recently, and their carelessness makes me angry! Pitting Japanese skincare against Korean, and then declaring Korean beauty less sophisticated and almost like a crude copy of Japanese "originals" has some very problematic undertones given the history of those two countries. Koreans are still often seen as less refined and less cultured than the Japanese in the Asian world, and it makes my blood boil to see Western media just adopting this view. South Korea has struggled hard to rise from the ashes of World War 2 and the Korean War, as well... Read more


I've read several similar articles recently. I don't think it's a coincidence that the same co-owners of a shop are quoted in each article. Their store carries more than just Asian beauty products but most of the k-products they carry are Tony Moly and their homepage has a link for "The Best of Japanese Beauty" on it.

My (step)grandmother is Japanese so that's what I was exposed to first but most of my beauty wardrobe is still Korean. There are well formulated and poor formulated products everywhere regardless of what letter-beauty they are. If it works for me, I don't... Read more

It's really wrong of them trying to pit Japanese & Korean beauty products agains eachother. The point of your skin care or any other care is finding the right remedy for you. It could be all Korean or Japanese (I use korean, French, Ethiopian &etc products because, it works for me). I admit product packaging does influence but, I luv those cute stuff and sometimes the competition is high that u need visuals to attract customers-via be it elegant or not, if it works it works. Sulwhasoo is freak'n top notch and other products;Swanicoco is awesome too. I think the... Read more


I totally use all kinds of beauty as well (American, French, Korean, Japanese, etc.) — I agree with you, it's totally about finding what works for you and what you love. But when they mischaracterize ALL Korean beauty as gimmicky and cutesy, while labeling ALL Japanese beauty as more "serious" and minimalist, I find it absolutely ridiculous. (And I agree with your theory about K-pop too!)