• Differentiating Japanese & Chinese versions of Japanese Cosmetics

    A reader recently asked me how to differentiate domestic (Japanese) and Chinese versions of Japanese drugstore cosmetics. Perhaps show a ‘show and tell’ would be useful for some readers here?

    If you live in Japan, can read Japanese & Chinese, and/or use department store brands only, feel free to skip this post. 

    Some brands produce only one version of the product and simply use sticker labels to cover the Japanese characters when distributing to other Asian countries. You should see large sticker labels covering a good portion of the packaging. Peeling these labels off should reveal Japanese characters for these ones.

    That being said, many major Japanese drugstore cosmetic brands distributed outside of Japan are specifically made and packaged for the intended market.

    If you don’t look at my labellings for the Biore UV AQUA Rich Watery Mousse below, can you tell which is which?


    If you cannnot read Chinese and Japanese or at least be able them apart, you might have a hard time distinguishing. Many brands use identical packaging with language substitution.

    Other brands like Rohto’s Mentholatum have slight variations in the packaging. Despite having some Japanese characters on them, they’re not made in Japan. Like these 2 examples below:

     In Japan, most sunscreens (especially ones from major brands) are repackaged on an annual basis or pretty close to it). Production and expiry dates are completely unnecessary for this reason.

    The Chinese versions generally look the same year after year (like many US products).  The above 2 products are the most current yet they have already been repackaged a few times in Japan already.

    A few brands like Anessa have totally different outer packaging but bottles look the same.

    The examples are chosen based on their popularity and differences in packaging. This extends beyond sunscreens and the brands mentioned.

    Why does it matter?

    Although marketing always implies that the products are identical to the ones sold in Japan (except repackaged and/or relabelled to comply local regulations), more often than not, that is just not the case.

    Some are made in China/Taiwan instead of Japan. Others may have ‘made in Japan’ printed on the package despite not a word of Japanese can be found.

    Why should you care?

    Sidestepping the issue of made in China/Taiwan versus made in Japan… many have different official ingredient lists despite supposedly being the same product.

    Japan requires cosmetic products to display all of the ingredients that were included in the product. Manufacturers are required to list ingredients in descending order from the most commonly used substance. Ingredients that are included in quantities of 1% or less of the product can be included in no particular order.

    This labelling law is standard for most developed countries. If the product is truly the same, there should not be any difference.

    I only use official ingredient lists provided in Japanese by the manufacturers themselves so the information found in my website follow suit.

    If you’re using my website (particularly the ingredient lists) as a reference but you’re not buying the Japanese version, you may be in for nasty surprise if you have very sensitive skin or avoid certain ingredient(s).

    My Tips?

    • Buy directly from Japan.
    • Do your homework! I try my best to keep the product information (including images) as up-to-date as I can.
    • If you’re buying online and the prices are on par if not cheaper than Japan’s retail price (as listed here), there is a good chance that it is a different version. All the English online shops based in Japan are simply buying retail then resell to customers.

    I am more than happy to ID a product for you if you contact me.  Ensure you provide clear images of both the front and back of the product. Without both, I will not be able to help.

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    • Jessica

      what about sasa.com?

    • May

      These tips are very helpful for someone like me who can’t distinguish Chinese from Japanese characters. Thanks also for the above links.

    • Bon bon

      Thanks for this really useful post. I’m going to be in Hong Kong soon and was looking forward to stocking up on some Japanese sunscreens. Am I right to assume that the versions sold in HK are made in China?

      • http://ratzillacosme.com ratzilla

        Hong Kong has both.

        Kose and Kanebo tend to produce only one version. Kao’s Biore and Shiseido’s Anessa reformulate and repackage (some are still made in Japan, some are not). Rohto’s Skin Aqua and Sunplay in Hong Kong are completely different and are made in China.

        • Bon bon

          Thank you! I’ll probably just order Skin Aqua online to guarantee I get the Japanese version, because I did have that on my list.

    • Jazz

      Do you know if the sites Ichibankao (ichibankao.com) and Momoko (imomoko.com) are Japan based (to ensure the products are coming from Japan)? I was searching for the Orbis acne line to buy online. I saw selections from Ebay but a lot of the items are located in Hong Kong. After reading this post, it made me think twice. I found these two sites and was wondering if you knew.

      • http://ratzillacosme.com ratzilla

        ichibankao.com ships from Japan whereas as imomoko is based in the US.

        • Jazz

          Would you trust that ichibankao has the current Japanese version of the product because it’s based in Japan—whereas imomoko is based in the US, so chances are it may have the “incorrect” versions?

          • http://ratzillacosme.com ratzilla

            Japan-based online shops should carry only the most current Japanese version of product since manufacturers don’t distribute other versions locally (for obvious reasons).