A couple of weeks ago I happened to see an NHK human interest story that used bimajo as the hook. The reporter was standing outside a wooden building set against a background of forests and fields, saying “The rumor is this café is run by a bimajo! Let's see if it's true”. He went inside and asked a teenage waitress where to find the bimajo, and she gestured him further inside. What followed was a typical bimajo video introduction. Starting at the tips of a pair of black high heels, slowly up sleekly nyloned legs to a modest hemline. At a faster pace up the trim body clad all in black, to ― the back of a head. All we see is a fall of shoulder-length black hair as the viewers hold their collective breath in the rising tension. Finally, she turns to face the camera. A nice-looking woman of a certain age.
Bimajo, if you read the kanji, is “beautiful witch”. The word was coined in 2009 by a fashion magazine that targets women in their 40s, defining it as a woman over 35 that gives no suggestion of her age, as if casting a magic spell. The magazine started a group blog Bimajo Kaigi (bimajo conference) on a dedicated web site and a year later launched the Kokuminteki Bimajo Contest (national bimajo contest), which was picked up and widely reported by a number of media. The word itself was nominated as one of the top 50 new and popular words of 2012. Bimajo is an ingenious twist on bishojo, beautiful young girl, riding the wake of the Kokuminteki Bishojo Contest (junior miss talent and beauty contest) that has a history of close to 30 years. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the one-time pre-teen and early teenage hopefuls of that contest's early years were now competing as bimajo middle-aged beauty queens.
Of course, the beauty pageant is only one facet of a complex marketing approach leveraging the magazine, the web site, the appearance of bimajo personalities in other media and functioning as a platform for advertising a wide range of anti-aging, health supplement, diet, skin care and other cosmetic products and services.
While I don't want to do all the hard work needed to compete as a beauty queen, I certainly wouldn't mind looking 10 or 15 years younger than my age! However, there are some disadvantages to being a Caucasian woman living in Japan. For example, facial cleansers and moisturizers pose no problem, but I can't buy concealer, foundation, powder, blusher or any other skin-tone product ― not even the ubiquitous BB cream ― because the colors are all wrong. With my Scottish ancestry my face and arms are covered with freckles, and it is pretty scary standing in front of the hundreds of bottles and tubes of bihaku skin whitening products at the drugstore and wondering what they would do to me. Would I become completely colorless? I was shocked the first time a Japanese beautician called my freckles shimi (blemishes) and my naturally curly hair kusege (kinky hair).
A Japanese woman visiting the States might be well advised to keep her bihaku (skin whitening) beauty regimen a secret. The history of slavery and the racial inequality that still persists is integral to American culture, and ethnic identity is considered to be very important. The black pride movement reformed American thought about skin color. Someone who is not Caucasian ― the so-called “white” race ― wanting to lighten her skin color is likely to be interpreted as a victim of racial prejudice ashamed of her ethnicity. Of course, this is not true in the context of Japanese culture. I think of it as a remnant of pre-industrial times when lighter skin was a sign of wealth and privilege. If you had lighter skin, it proved you could stay out of the sun and didn't have to labor in the fields.
Witches have a long history in the West and in the memories of children who grew up hearing the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Witches eat children like Hansel and Gretel. Witches imprison young women like Rapunzel in high towers or poison them like Sleeping Beauty to keep them from meeting their true love and living happily ever after. Witches are not only evil, they are hideous, with long crooked noses, warty skin and missing teeth. They are old and dried up. I definitely wouldn't want to be called a “witch”, not even a “beautiful witch”. On the other hand, in Japan, it's not unusual for a majo witch to be a cute little anime girl, the most famous of which is the star of Miyazaki's Majo no Takkyubin. The English title of this movie, Kiki's Delivery Service, neatly avoided the potentially aversive image of the witch to the Western eye.
When I first came to Japan in 1998 yamamba (Japan's indigenous mountain witch) was a very popular look among Shibuya girls who wanted to be different from the bishojo norm. I was very impressed by this look and the desire of the girls to make a statement about being wild and independent. Yamamba had dark brown skin, the opposite of the bihaku ideal. Trends have changed since then, and now the more edgy young women are experimenting with extreme anime and kawaii looks, from Hatsune Miku make-up to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu costumes. I'd like to see some more adventurous looks for women of a certain age, too.
 human interest story 新聞で言えば「三面記事」（研究社『ルミナス英和辞典』第2版，human interest 項）．
 hook 呼び物．
 The rumor is (that) 後に続くのは that 節．
 What followed 続いての映像が［ありがちな「美魔女」紹介のそれだった］．
 a modest hemline 要はスカート丈が短すぎないこと．
 以下の that 節で述べられることについて，三省堂『スーパー大辞林 3.0』「美魔女」項の次の説明を参照．――主に40代の若々しく美しい女性．〔魔法をかけているかのように美しいことから．女性誌「美 STORY」が「35歳以上の才色兼備の女性」として命名したのが始まり〕
 自身が「魔女」だから as if casting a magic spell. しかし「まるで魔法をかけられているかのように，年齢を感じさせない」という解釈もありうる．その解釈に立てば as if under a magic spell.
 dedicated 専用の．
 pick up （メディアが）取り上げる．
 ride the wake of [前述の「国民的美魔女コンテスト」が，「国民的美少女コンテスト」]にならう．wake は「航跡」の意．
 hopefuls . . . ［「国民的美少女コンテスト」の］開始当初そのコンテストを夢見ていた少女たち．
 personality 要はタレント．
 a complex marketing approach leveraging . . . and functioning
 I certainly wouldn't mind ［若く見られ］たとしても全然かまわない．
 be well advised to 不定詞を従えて，［…するのが］賢明である．
 beauty regimen （肌を白くする）美容法．続く a secret は前出 keep の目的補語．
 edgy （流行の）先端を行く，大胆に進んだ（研究社『リーダーズ英和辞典』第2版）．