Cosmetics Company History: Shiseido

In the year 578, Abdul Muttalib, the grandfather of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, died. The Byzantine Emperor, Julius II, also passed away. (He was succeeded by his general, Tiberius.) It was 11 years before the first historical reference to toilet paper. It was the time of both King Arthur and Beowolf. And, in the year 578, in the city of Osaka, a construction company called Kongo Gumi was founded. It would go on to become the world’s oldest continuously operating company, working out of Japan for over 1,400 years. (Sadly, it was liquidated in 2006.)
Clearly, Japan is supportive of its industry. As a result, they have some of the most long-lived companies in the world. As of 2008, Japan housed 3,146 of the 5,586 companies that are over 200 years old worldwide (that’s about 56%). Japan has a full 21,000 companies that are over 100 years old. In comparison to Kongo Gumi, Shiseido is a mere flash in the pan. However, founded in 1872, Shiseido has been continuously operating for more than 140 years, growing from a tiny organization into the fourth largest cosmetics company in the world. To the best of my research, they are also the world’s oldest cosmetics company.Shiseido Pharmacy was founded in 1872Β  by Arinobu Fukuhara, the former head pharmacist for the Japanese Imperial Navy. (A sense of scale for those of us who are Americans: that means that Shiseido has existed during the presidency of every US president since Ulysses S. Grant. 1872 is also the year that Brigham Young was arrested for polygamy, that Susan B. Anthony illegally cast the first vote by a woman, and that Yellowstone was established as a national park.)

Arinobu Fukuhara

Earlier in 1872, a fire burned down large segments of the Ginza district of Tokyo. In response, the Japanese government designated the area as “a model of modernization”. Giant streets and stylish (but fireproof!) buildings were built throughout the Ginza district. Companies moved in quickly, building beautiful window displays for shoppers. Thus, it is no coincidence that Shiseido was started up in the fashionable Ginza district; it would have been seen as a demonstration of the company’s innovative mission. Starting in the mid-1850s, there was a heavy divide in Japanese cosmetic use, with some women opting for the traditional rice powder and hair lacquer, whereas others took the more Western approach of using lipstick, blush, and flesh-toned powder. Shiseido implicitly marketed
towards the latter type of customer.

Ginza circa 1910

According to the company, “The origin of the name Shiseido comes from a classic Chinese text, the ‘Yi Jing’ (‘Book of Changes’), which reads, ‘Praise the virtues of the
great Earth, which nurtures new life and brings forth new values.'”

Fukuhara aspired to create a new system for dispensing medicine in Japan, where pharmacies were separate from hospitals, akin to Western pharmacies. His inspiration didn’t stop there; Fukuhara was so enamoured with the soda foundations on his trip to the United States that he added a soda foundation to his pharmacy. Shiseido also introduced ice cream to Japan for the first time. The Shiseido Ice Cream Parlour branched off in 1928 and is still in business today (under the name Shiseido Parlour).

Someone TripAdvisor Photos of Shiseido Parlour in Ginza

Despite these side projects, Shiseido continued to produce and sell innovative personal care products. In 1888, they introduced Japan’s first toothpaste, Fukuhara Sanitary Toothpaste. Although it was much more expensive than the commonly used tooth powders (by about tenfold), it was considered to be less messy. As a result, it garnered sizable sales.
When the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 to 1895 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 to 1905 began to restrict cosmetics imports, Shiseido’s focus began to shift. In 1897, the company introduced Eudermine, a softening lotion. This was its first true “cosmetic” product. As a nod to the West, Eudermine is derived from Greek (meaning “good skin”) rather than Japanese. (Worth noting: although Eudermine is still available for sale, the formula is not the same as the 1897 version. Additionally, with alcohol as the second ingredient in the modern formulation, it’s probably not living up to its product claims.)
Cosmetic imports to Japan were also obstructed by regulation. Cosmetic-precipitated lead poisoning was a very real risk for Kabuki performers. In response, the Japanese government required stringent testing for cosmetics products. Consequentially, most Western cosmetics companies didn’t bother to sell in Japan, opting for markets with more lax safety standards. An established company like Shiseido not only had a recognizable name to the citizens of Tokyo, they had the capital to pay for cosmetics development. As a result, they were embraced as one of the few competitors in the Japanese market.

Arinobu Fukuhara was succeeded as head of Shiseido by his third son, Shinzo Fukuhara, in 1915. Shinzo’s experience in a pharmaceutical maker’s cosmetics factory gave him the knowledge needed to develop new product formulas. As a photographer, his ties to the art community would inspire Shiseido’s marketing campaigns. (He would also become the company’s first president went it went public in 1927.) Arinobu’s products like the Rainbow Face Powder, a seven-colored pressed powder for balancing out complexions that was introduced in 1917, set Shiseido apart, as white-face powders were the norm in Japan at the time

In 1923, Shiseido began to spread, operating as a chain store, where each store had set prices. They also began to distribute, selling their products though other retailers. They were listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 1927. They began to grow incredibly rapidly. Even World War II only resulted in a brief period of re-organization for the company, returning to the Toyko Stock Exchange four years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1957, Shiseido began international operations and manufacturing. By the 1960s, they were selling in both the United States and Europe. Although Western sales lagged at first, Shiseido began to offer exclusive products to high-end department stores, which quickly turned out to be a popular choice, earning $75 million annually by the mid-1980s.
In the 1990s, the Japanese government began to eliminate cosmetics-related regulations, triggering an influx of cheap, foreign brands on the Japanese market. However, Shiseido’s huge marketshare of Japanese cosmetics and their decision to begin offering more cost-effective products to challenge new competitors means that Shiseido is still the largest cosmetics company in Japan by a very comfortable margin.

Shiseido owns a variety of other popular brands, including NARS Cosmetics and Bare Escentuals (Bare Minerals), although the majority of the company’s sales still do take place in Japan.


1. Interesting post, Funnily enough, I just wiki-ed Shiseido the other day and was surprised at how old they were. I wonder if the Rainbow Face Powder predates Guerlain Meteorites?

2. It definitely does! Guerlain Meteorites were first released in 1987.

3. This was really interesting! I’m amazed that multicoloured face powders to balance out skin tone have been around for so long!

4. If it works, it keeps being used!

5. This was fascinating! I did not know that they own Bare Escentuals, which is the only foundation that really works for me.

6. It’s amazing how different things work for different people! Bare Mineral is an AWFUL foundation on me…

7. I use Bare Escentuals, too. I find it feels a lot less heavy on than other foundations I’ve tried. And funnily enough, I just found out last night that an on friend of mine now works for Shiseido, so the timing of this post is rather, erm, spooky.

8. Fascinating! πŸ˜€

Shiseido is quite popular here, although I only have one Shiseido product, a Majolica Majorca lip/cheek tint…which I actually got online, slightly derailing my point. *pats self on back*.

I think I had a compact of their moisture mist face powder waaaay back. It was quite nice, as I recall.

9. Their lacquer rouge is really nice, if you’re looking to add to your collection.

(I’m not a corporate shill, I swear!)

10. Hehe, thanks for the tip ;-

11. Shisedo also have a line called Moisture Mist that is only sold in New Zealand perplexingly. They have a green foundation stick that is the shit for serious rosacea .

12. Huh. Apparently Moisture Mist is “specifically formulated for New Zealand women”. What?!

13. We’re just that special πŸ˜‰ It’d be interesting to know how we ended up with our own ‘line’ actually…

14. Is it made with… Kiwi? *snicker*

15. Great post, I love these company history posts, I always learn something. This time it was that I had no idea they owned NARS. I’ve fallen in love with their sunscreens lately, my first product I’ve bought from them. Had a bit of sticker shock looking at everything else but I’m sure I’ll get over that pretty quickly…

16. I didn’t know they owned NARS until I started researching for this post!

17. There’s so much interesting stuff here to process. Imagine a company being 1400 years old! Shiseido owns both Nars and Bare Minerals. Even with all 3 companies combined, they STILL sell more in Japan than anywhere else. The size and scale of the Japanese beauty junkie population must be staggering! Thanks for a great piece.

18. The Wikipedia page for “List of Oldest Companies” is fascinating to look through!

19. Love your blog, and the variety of articles you put out!

I thought you might have meant prophet instead of profit in the first sentence πŸ™‚

20. Thank you! Fixed.

21. You might be interested in this site:
It covers the role of Shiseido in 20th century Japan including how WWII influenced beauty standards (and the role of the govt to limit western influences during that time). It also has tons of ads, posters, magazine covers and videos of Shiseido from 1875 to the 1960s.

22. Thank you for the article!

23. I was so confused. I think you mean prophet πŸ™‚

24. Double fixed!

25. You should do a review of how much some Tarte products cost per ounce now that they changed their packaging to half or third the size and kept the prices the same. Lipsurgence and the cheek stains are the first to increase.

26. I’ll see what I can do!

27. Such an awesome article, thank you so much for writing it! Makeup, history, makeup + history!! What more is there to love?