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Japanese train to smile Hollywood-style

China Daily | Updated: 2023-06-06 09:38

Keiko Kawano teaches students at a smile training course at Sokei Art School in Tokyo on May 30. KIM KYUNG-HOON/REUTERS

TOKYO — In one of Keiko Kawano's classes, more than a dozen Tokyo art school students held mirrors to their faces, stretching the sides of their mouths upward with their fingers, practicing how to smile.

It is not something most people would think to pay for, but Kawano's services as a smile instructor are seeing a surge in demand in Japan, where mask wearing was near universal during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Himawari Yoshida, 20, one of the students taking the class as part of her school's courses to prepare them for the job market, said she needed to work on her smile.

"I hadn't used my facial muscles much during the pandemic, so it's good exercise," she said.

Kawano's company Egaoiku, literally meaning "Smile Education", has seen a more than fourfold rise in demand from last year, with customers ranging from companies seeking more approachable salespeople to local governments looking to improve their residents' well-being. An hourlong one-on-one lesson costs 7,700 yen ($55).

Even before the pandemic, donning a mask in Japan was normal for many during hay fever season and around exams because of concern about getting ill for a key life event.

But while the government may have lifted its recommendation to wear masks in March, many people still have not let them go on a daily basis. A poll by public broadcaster NHK last month showed 55 percent of Japanese saying they were wearing masks just as often as two months earlier. Only 8 percent said they had stopped wearing them all together.

About one-fourth of the art school students who took the class kept their masks on during the lesson. Young people have perhaps become used to life with masks, said Kawano, noting that women might find it easier to go out without makeup and men could hide that they had not shaved.

Spreading virtues

Kawano, a former radio host who started giving lessons in 2017, has also trained 23 others as smiling coaches to spread the virtues and technique of crafting the perfect smile around Japan.

Her trademarked "Hollywood-style smiling technique" method comprises "crescent eyes", "round cheeks" and shaping the edges of the mouth to bare eight pearly whites in the upper row. Students can try out their technique on a tablet to get scored on their smile.

Kawano believes that culturally, Japanese people may be less inclined to smile than Westerners because of their sense of security as an island country and a unitary state. To hear her tell it, the threat of guns might ironically encourage more smiling.

"Culturally, a smile signifies that 'I'm not holding a gun and I'm not a threat to you'," she said. With a surge in inbound tourists, Japanese people need to communicate with foreigners with more than just their eyes, she added.

"I think there's a growing need for people to smile."

Agencies via Xinhua

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