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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Japanese Perfume: A Selected History

By Marla

Full disclosure: I am a Japanese perfume nut. When I look at my collection, I see that more than half are from Japanese houses, with Kenzo, Shiseido, and Hanae Mori at the top of my daily wear list. I also love Japanese incense, so I thought I’d learn a little more about it all.

During the Japanese Middle Ages, wealthy people wore small lacquer cases containing perfume or powdered incense, which hung from their kimono. The bottle for the original Opium is modeled on such a case. Clothes were hung over burning incense, and ladies’ floor-length hair was scented with incense smoke also. Incense games were highly developed and incense making became a family art. The famous houses of Shoyeido and Baieido were founded in the 17th and 18th centuries, and remain closely held family businesses to this day. Ingredients came from China, India, and the Middle East via the Incense/SpiceRoad, while other ingredients came from SE Asia or local markets.

Shiseido: founded in 1872 by Arinobu Fukuhara, former head pharmacist to the Japanese navy. He sold western-style medicines as opposed to traditional Asian remedies. The company grew larger and started producing perfumes, nutritional supplements, and cosmetics. The Camellia Club, for loyal customers, and a fashion magazine called Hanatsubaki followed in the 1930s. The Camellia Club currently has about 9 million members, and Shiseido has about 25,000 outlets, so this company is just huge.

Shiseido began marketing its products to the west in the 1960s, and perfume history was made when they appointed Serge Lutens their international image creator in 1980. Serge soon expanded his job description into perfumery and we all know the rest! Unfortunately, though, most of Shiseido’s perfumes are unavailable in the West, and even the famous Sheldrake creation, Feminite du Bois, is found primarily in Europe. (Shiseidos in my collection: Zen Classic, Zen Pearl, FdB, Blue Rose, Basala for my DH, Chergui, Rousse, and Gris Clair.)

House of Kenzo: Kenzo Takada was born in 1939. He didn’t speak French, but moved to France after he graduated university, and made his name there in the 1970s. His wild, colorful clothes with Asian motifs fit the wild European 70s perfectly and his fame grew. I believe his first perfume was the infamous banana scent King Kong, which has, perhaps mercifully, disappeared. He officially started his fragrance house in 1988 with Kenzo, followed by Kenzo pour Homme, L’Eau par Kenzo, Kashaya (the one with the creepy, glistening pod bottle), the knock-your-socks-off Jungles, and finally the powerhouse Flower and all its variations. Kenzo’s newest is Power, which has apparently been doing quite well among both men and women. Kenzo’s bottles are particularly stunning, and I really love the new Ryoko stones (nomad sprays), now appearing in airport shops. They’re just fun to hold! (Kenzos in my collection: L’Eau par Kenzo, Jungle Tigre, Jungle Elephant, Le Monde Est Beau, Kashaya, Flower, Flower le Parfum, Flower Oriental, and Amour Indian Holi.)

Hanae Mori: born in 1926, she incorporated traditional Japanese motifs and textiles in her haute couture line, which commenced in 1955. Today she has a $500 million fashion empire. Not too shabby! She’s the only Japanese member of France’s haute couture syndicate, and she designed the wedding gown of Japan’s Princess Masako. She wanted perfumes that would match and complement her stunning clothing collections, and has so far created 4 and a flanker, of which 3, Butterfly, Haute Couture, and Magical Moon, are still available. There are several for men, as well. (HM’s in my collection: Butterfly and my Holy Grail, Magical Moon)

Issey Miyake: born in 1938, he graduated in graphic design in 1964. He worked in the West for 6 years, then returned to Japan in 1970 to found the Miyake Design Studio. He launched what is perhaps the most famous of the aquatics (along with CK One, I suppose), L’Eau d’Issey, in 1992, with the very popular men’s version following in 1994. Interestingly, his perfumes are produced under the auspices of Shiseido. (IM’s in my DH’s wardrobe, oh guess which one, L’Eau d’Issey pour Homme, and what I wouldn’t do for a sample of the discontinued Feu d’Issey!)

With the ever-expanding Asian market, I’m sure that not only will we be testing some wonderful new perfumes from the old houses, but seeing some new houses come along as well. Anyone tried Tokyo Milk??

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I Think you had forgot MURASAKI from Shiseido! It was a wunderfull graet fragance. I'm so sad, that it was not continued.

Please excuse my bad english.
Greating from Germany

6:01 AM EST  
Blogger elle said...

Great piece! I really enjoy Japanese scents and have quite a few I've found on ebay. Shiseido Koto, Chant du Coeur, Myth of Saso and Murasaki are high on my list of scents I purchased unsniffed and absolutely adore. I just went and checked and found incense from Shoyeido and Baieido on ebay, but no perfumes. Do they make any? And are you familiar w/ Kanebo's Hinotori or Kinu? I love their Nioi Sakura and Morinosei and so have been thinking about getting a few more, but am not sure I will love the Kanebos as much as I do the Shiseidos. I've tried all the Tokyo Milks and have to say they're fun, but don't feel remotely compelled to own any, which is a shame, given their great price point. I was sorry to see LS quit carrying the Miya Shinma line. I really enjoyed their Sakura and Feuillage Vert for early spring scents.
I adore Kenzo's designs - they always make me smile - and the bottles. Have to say that I only have a few of his scents, but never feel like saying anything bad about any of them since I just like the man so much. :-)

7:51 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd love to try Murasaki, but ebay is unavailable to me here, and I have never seen it. I did like Vocalise, which is no more either. I'd love a trip to Tokyo just to try all the scents that are only available in Asia!
Elle- Shoyeido, etc., are incense only firms. Nippon Kodo, another great incense company, sells some perfume oils by Esteban, but that's it. And Myth of Saso is high on my list to try someday, too!

11:23 AM EST  
Blogger tmp00 said...

Thanks for this! I love reading the history of companies like this..

12:02 PM EST  
Blogger Flora said...

Marla, such an interesting history these companies have! Thanks for the fascinating post.

I LOVED the original Murasaki by Shiseido, it was based on a gorgeous iris/violet accord, but it seems to be long gone. I read that they have recently reintroduced a scent of the same name but it is entirely different now, and it may not be available over here anyway.

I get confused by all the Kenzo flankers, frankly, so I don't know them as well as I would like. I adore Flower though.

6:10 PM EST  
Blogger ScentScelf said...

Rats. Murasaki sounds like it would be a potential home run for me.

Very much enjoyed the post...thank you.

8:31 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Feu d’Issey is truly gorgeous, my mother wears it. Her husband says she smells like a freshly baked cake since it has that slightly foody/spicy drydown. I can't remember where she got it from, but definately ordered a couple of 100 ml bottles from the states sometime late last year.

8:54 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hello marla! lunarose here. thank you for taking the time to write this summary of Japanese perfumes. it's interesting to me in two ways.

firstly, as a home sewer, i've always loved sewing issey miyake's patterns (produced by Vogue patterns) and am always hoping to see more influence of japanese design in the west. i'm fortumate to live on the west coast in the USA, so we have a lot of asian influence here.

secondly, the first perfume i was able to enjoy wearing was shiseido relaxing. i had a sample for years, it came with some eyeshadow and i never tried it until my sense of smell returned. so many scents just don't work on me or i can't take the smell, but it what so easy and so pretty that it got me thinking "aha! so there ARE some scents i CAN wear!" you all can guess the rest.......

9:38 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great post - thank you for your research. I didn't know about Kenzo's first perfume, a wild concept to say the least. Aside from the lacquer boxes of the Nara-Kamakura periods you spoke of, many people in more modern times also had perfumed sachet-charms (for lack of a better word - some were made of silk and had intricate designs) and they could be tucked in the obi or in the sleeves. My grandmother had them, and disapproved of wearing perfume on skin. :-)

7:48 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great piece! Japanese perfumes certainly are unique and lovely! I lived in Japan for 6 years and fell in love with Japanese incense--which is very hard to find outside of Japan. For those of you looking for a company that will ship overseas (and is a bit more modern) there is LISN (by Shoyeido incense co). You can check it out at They shipped to me without any problems and you can order in English as well.---Jen

11:36 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Sali-
Thank you for your informative comments! I notice that Shoyeido sells lovely little "tuckaways" of powdered incense in tiny silk bags, are these similar to what you wrote of? I bought several a few years ago and kept them in winter jacket pockets. They smelled so good!
Best to you,

1:19 AM EST  
Blogger Sali said...

hi MArla,

Thank you for your reply. The tuckaways certainly sound like the ones my grandmother had. How nice to know they're still being sold. Btw, another line I love that's made with a Japanese aesthetic is Comme des Garçons by Rei Kawakubo. She seems to specialize in incensey blends and some very out-there ones, maybe a bit too avant-garde for me. The urban Japanese culture is very modern. Thank you again for this wonderful article.

6:18 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah Japanese fragrances, my passion. thanks for the lovely article!!!!

8:11 AM EST  
Blogger Olga Rusu said...

I liked a lot this article about perfumes in Japan and Jjapamese perfumes:

3:02 PM EST  
Blogger Unknown said...

You can get shiseido tentatrice sometimes off ebay. It is based on chinese cymbidium orchid and smells divine. I read somewhere the reason it is not exported is because it is a very subtle scent.

8:59 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I buy some of these perfumes at the airport. I'd like to buy some for my wife but I'm leaving on Friday.

5:54 AM EDT  
Blogger Frank said...


Some time ago a friend had some beautiful perfume from Japan. I had a lovely fragrance of Dianthus/Pinks.

Could anyone possibly tell me what it was called and where I might get some for my wife?

Hopefully & Many thanks in advance.


11:36 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can anyone tell me the name of a Japanese perfume with the scent of dianthus (pinks)and where I can get some for my wife?

Thanks in advance. Frank

7:23 AM EST  
Blogger Robin Riopelle said...

I used to wear Murasaki many years ago, and everytime I looked for it over the last 15 years or so, I just got blank looks from store clerks. I believe I bought it when I lived in Japan. Now I make do with Kenzo perfumes, but...not the same! Thanks for reminding me about how wonderful Murasaki was.
Elizabeth in Canada

9:15 AM EST  

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