Japanese children undergo plastic surgery

This article originally appeared on VICE Asia

Michie, who is 9, doesn’t remember going under the knife. Instead, all she remembers are the countless conversations she had with her mother about her almond eyes.

In the months leading up to the major procedure earlier this year, they talked about the kind of double eyelids you wanted. Did you have a less invasive, more precise surgery? Or did she choose the more expensive option, which requires the surgeon to cut her eyelid folds to correct sagging skin?

Her mother, Rucchi, urged her to choose the second. Roshi thought that if her daughter was going to do it, then she should do her best. At her request, we do not use their real names in this piece, as she fears negative feedback.

Rucchi posts these mother-daughter conversations on her YouTube channel. She also uploaded a video clip of her daughter’s operation, in which the girl appears crying and having a panic attack.

The video, which was also shared a lot on TikTok, received a lot of criticism from people on the internet. Many are wondering how this little girl – who is obviously in pain – could have plastic surgery, even with her mom’s permission.

But Micchi is part of the younger generation who have plastic surgery years before they reach adulthood, often voluntarily.

In 2021, a Japanese clinic found that 9 in 10 teen participants wanted cosmetic surgery to overcome their insecurities, up from 7 in 10 just two years earlier. Many young people in other parts of the world have done the same. In the United States, more than 220,000 cosmetic procedures are performed annually on patients between the ages of 13 and 19.

Medical experts and governments worry about these numbers. Last year, British lawmakers made lip fillers, a common procedure or “modification” among young people, illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to protect children. Opponents warn that younger generations, raised largely on social media, feel pressured to conform to standards of physical beauty, leading to psychological — and sometimes physical — harm to minors.

Toru Aso, a plastic surgeon in Tokyo, has seen firsthand how the number of underage visitors to his clinic has increased in recent years.

In his more than twenty years in practice, he has primarily worked on women in their twenties and thirties. “About ten years ago, I might have had one underage client a month. Now I have one every day,” he told VICE World News.

For Aso patients, eyelid surgery is the most common procedure, something that can also be seen nationally. In 2020, 64 percent of all surgeries in Japan consisted of eyelid surgery, also known as blepharoplasty. While the procedure is relatively safe compared to more physically demanding surgeries such as a Brazilian butt lift or liposuction, there are still risks involved, such as blindness or damage to the surrounding eye muscles.

In Japan, anyone under the age of 18 can have plastic surgery as long as they have parental consent. But Aso said some guardians abuse the law and project their own ideas of beauty onto their children. This is why he pays extra attention when minors visit his clinic. He said: “I talk to them separately to see if the child really wants to have the operation – sometimes parents pull their children and try to force them to have plastic surgery.”

Tomohiro Suzuki, a professor of child psychology and body image at Tokyo Future University, acknowledges that plastic surgery can have positive effects on a person’s psyche, such as improving self-esteem.

But if these operations are performed on a minor who is still developing psychologically and physically, he may regret it later, he said. They often don’t know what their ideal “look” is either, because they are still growing, and some have already compromised several times to achieve their ideal self-image.

“Then you get into a cycle where you can’t stop plastic surgery,” Sukuzi told VICE World News.

Recent trends in plastic surgery are often associated with the rise of social media.

Research has shown that social networking applications such as Instagram or Facebook make people more aware of how they view themselves – and others. These sites also have filters that give people a “perfect” look, such as higher cheekbones or fuller lips, which can be very different from what people see when they look in the mirror.

Some Japanese surgeons such as Aso attribute the popularity of double eyelid surgery in their country to the influence of Western, mostly white, beauty ideals. People of mixed Japanese and white ancestry have traditionally been used in the Japanese fashion industry and media to represent an idealistic and aspirational appearance. “It’s a slightly foreign-looking face, with some unusual features,” Aso said.

But Laura Miller, a professor of Japanese studies and anthropology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, says the idea that the Japanese choose double eyelid surgery to “look whiter” is completely wrong.

In her research on this topic, Miller has never met a young Japanese person who would imitate a non-Japanese person as an ideal. Many women actually believe that the operation will help them look bigger kawaii she told VICE World News in an email.

While actors and singers originally defined beauty ideals for a generation, social media has spawned a new breed of celebrity that’s just as powerful: influencers.

This is how Nonoka Sakurai, whose real name is Rei, became famous as a plastic surgery influencer. She has wanted plastic surgery since she was eight years old because she was bullied by her peers throughout her school career for having large nostrils that “made her look like a gorilla”. At 18, she underwent rhinoplasty as her first procedure.

After 10 years and 25 million yen (€170,340) in procedures, Nonoka says she feels more confident about her looks. “I was insecure because I wasn’t popular with the guys at school,” she told VICE World News.

She said she realized she was unpopular because she was ugly. The solution was to modify her face. “Thanks to plastic surgery I can walk around proudly with my head held high.” She’s now a full-time plastic surgery influencer and runs a ladies’ bar, where customers interact and chat with attractive waitresses.

But monetizing her looks isn’t always as sweet as the self-love story the 33-year-old tells her followers.

She also said, as plastic surgery becomes more widely accepted, there are many more trends than simple double eyelid surgery to keep up. “People tell me my face is dated.”

Sometimes these comments come from anonymous profiles on the Internet. But she said sometimes they come from customers at her bar, who tell her they like her face better than five surgeries before, five surgeries.

Keeping up with the constant spin of trends can be physically exhausting for Nonoka. Cartilage is added somewhere, only to be removed after only a few months. Silicone is injected all over. She says the anesthesia and recovery after surgery can be so painful that she sometimes wishes she was dead.

She said she wouldn’t stop until she found someone who could tell her she was the most beautiful person in the world.

Rucchi, the mother who had her daughter get plastic surgery, never aspired to be the most beautiful of all.

But growing up with a younger sister and mom who both had double eyelids, Rucci always felt like she was being treated differently. She remembers that her sister always received compliments and sweets from the neighbours, while being left empty-handed. “My sister has always been loved by everyone,” she said, “much more than me.”

When Ruchi turned 18, she underwent tonsil surgery. Now a mother of five — three boys and two girls — she says she wants to do everything she can to help her daughters grow up without insecurities, even if it means pushing them to get plastic surgery.

“I’ve never seen a girl with almond eyes that I thought was beautiful,” she said. The same does not apply to her children, because, according to her, society accepts ugly boys faster, as long as they are successful and intelligent.

Once Micchi turns 18, her mother wants her to get a nose job. She said maybe breast implants too.

“She’s still growing, so we don’t know how big she will be yet. But if she’s worried about being too small, I’ll push her to do it,” she said.

As far as Rucchi is concerned, anything is possible.

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