Benibana: Safflower Red in Japan

Kuchi-beni, Painting the Lips by Utamaro, Kitagawa (1753-1806), woodblock print, ukiyo-e, 36.3 x 24.8 cm, New York Public Library

The use of safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) in Japanese culture has a long and rich history. From early times, it is has been referred to in songs and poems, used to dye textiles, and chosen to colour woodblock prints. Originating in the Middle East, the safflower (benibana in Japanese) spread into India and later along the Silk Road into China. It was from China that the safflower is thought to have entered Japan between the 2nd to 5th centuries; and was widely cultivated in Asia and Europe by the 13th century. In Japanese legends and poems, it is referred to by such names as kurenai and suetsumu-hana – the former is a shortening of kure-no-ai, the indigo plant known in the Wu dynasty (222-280), indicating that it probably entered Japan at this time.

The earliest use of the safflower (benibana) dye in Japan was first seen in Nara period (710-784) in Heijokyo, the ancient capital, as it was mentioned in the Manyoshu (the oldest anthology of Japanese poems, written between 600 to 759), as well as being used in works of art for the Nara court featuring Chinese motifs of flower and birds. These objects are preserved in the Shosoin in Todaiji temple.

Benibana Was Widely Used During the Heian Period

Benibana was also used widely by the ladies of the Heian court (794-1185) as a rouge and lipstick, but the real height of popularity for the dye in Japan was not seen until the late 18th and 19th centuries during the Edo period (1603-1868), with its explosion of fashion, art, and culture. With the development of chemical dyes in the Meiji period, the demand for all natural dyes declined. Red from safflower is still used today in cosmetics and textiles, but to a much lesser extent. Today, Yamagata prefecture, in northern Japan, is the region where most safflower cultivation now takes place. The fresh orange/yellow petals are made into patties (beni-mochi) and oxidise to a deep red. They were historically transported to Kyoto to be made into rouge or used for dyeing textiles in this form, used in such traditional textiles as beni-itajime shibori. Recently, there has been renewed interest in benibana, not only as a natural dye for textiles and cosmetics, but also in traditional medicine for blood circulation.

How the Dye is Made

The florets of safflower create a wide range of hues – from the first pressing that produces yellow, to the second pressing that produces a cherry red to pink. The plant is a tender annual with spiny leaves and composite flower heads containing the many yellow to orange disk petals. Once the beni-mochi are crushed into a paste, it is washed with water to remove the non-lightfast yellow chromophores (molecules). The red colourant, primarily carthamin, is then extracted in an alkaline bath. The deepest reds are only obtained through several initial washings to remove all of the water-soluble yellows. Since the Heian period, fabrics dyed with safflower red have been worn close to the skin to evoke physical healing power.

As an important dye used in the creation of textiles and clothes over centuries, safflower (benibana) has been recorded in the textiles stores in the Shosoin in Nara, which have survived from the 8th century. A scientific study conducted on these Nara textiles discovered that they have the oldest scientifically confirmed presence of safflower red on historic textiles. The Shosoin examples chosen for research included the red carpet laid inside the workshop hall at the Todaiji Temple in Nara, used for the inauguration of the statue of the Great Buddha in the temple in 752; a red undergarment and a gown with a tie-dyed design worn by craftsmen in the Todaiji Temple; and embroidered shoes belonging to Empress Komyo (701-760). Comparison of the spectra to documented references identified that safflower red was found in the red or orange areas of the textiles.

Court women during the Heian period wore a complicated costume with 10, 12, 15 or even 20 layers of garments at a time, called juni-hito (12 layers). The layered colour palette would have included safflower-dyed fabrics that would have symbolised many things, with colours linked to the seasons, compass directions, virtues, as well as showing a connection to the guardian spirits of nature (kami). In the later Edo period and into the Meiji period, an under layer (shitagi) was worn under the top layer (uwagi) – together this set of garments was called kasane. This was made up of two or three layers with most of the shitagi hidden from view. Visible outer red layers (made with natural and or chemical dyes) were worn by women in their youth, but after marriage these shades of red appear only in undergarments and can be seen to symbolise a ‘hidden’ affirmation of life

Benibana Used in Japanese Prints

Safflower (benibana) was used for colour in printing, too. From the 1740s to about 1765, the first block printed colours in Japanese prints appeared to create simple two- or three-colour images. Called benizuri-e (crimson printed pictures), they are an early type of ukiyo-e that were usually printed in red (beni), blue, or yellow, occasionally with the addition of another colour, either printed or added by hand. Sometimes these colours were over-printed to create the secondary colours purple, orange, and green. From 1765 onwards, the skills required to use the kento registration system reached a level where several colour blocks could be expertly printed and full-colour nishiki-e or ‘brocade prints’ such as those designed by Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770) became the standard. Examples of beni colouring used in prints include Actor Ichikawa Danzo III as Adachi Hachiro from 1762 by Torii Kiyomitsu I (1735-1785) and Actors Matsumoto Koshiro IV as Ukita Sakingo and Sawamura Sojuro III as the Ghost of Takao by Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815).

Japanese Makeup Styles

The colour red has been fashionable in beautification rituals for centuries. In this application, it has been considered a rare and precious colour for centuries and was used sparingly on the lips and cheeks. Both the 8th-century Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) an early Japanese chronicle of myths, legends, and semi-historical accounts and anecdotes and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japanese History) reveal that even in ancient times, it was documented that specific beauty customs of painting the face with red pigments, were already in existence. Besides being used as lipstick and blusher, the colour red was sometimes also used to enhance the outer corners of the eyes and nails.

One unusual makeup style that became popular in the 19th century was sasa-iro beni (bamboo grass red), which was in high demand during the Bunka and Bunsei eras (1804-1830), at the end of the Edo period. The upper lip is painted red, while the lower one appears green. This was achieved by using beni that also turns an iridescent green (from red) when thickly applied. Beni, at the time, was a product as expensive as gold and this fashion was, it is said, initiated by geisha who covered their lips daily to show off this luxury. The dye was bought in cups (benizara or benichoko) that were coated inside with this precious substance. To use, it was wiped with a finger, or a wet brush, to spread on the lips in successive layers. After use, the bowl was placed upside down on the dressing table to prevent oxidation.

By the late 19th and 20th centuries, the red for cosmetics was extracted in small quantities from the safflower (benibana) used by textile dyers, making it an extremely expensive product. Beni-ya were the companies that produced the paste for rouge and lipsticks and were mainly found in and around Kyoto. The processes of pounding safflower by kneading, and rubbing the petals to make an alkaline solution from ash as well as an acid solution using ubai (smoked Japanese apricot) continued for centuries in workshops until the decline of the craft in the first quarter of the 20th century. The situation was exacerbated by the availability of cheaper synthetic imported dyes. However, true beni cosmetics are still made by a few specialists companies and are readily available to buy today in Japan.

A small display on the culture of beni and its link to fashion is on show at the V&A Museum in London until 31 March, 2024

In Tokyo, the Isehan Honten Beni Museum is devoted to the world of beni and is run by Isehan Honten, the last remaining beni shop that continues traditions that date back to the Edo period

The Kahoku Benibana Museum is located in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan

Plant Dye Identification in Japanese Woodblock Prints by Michele Derrick, et al, 2017