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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - From twentysomethings trying to emulate wide-eyed manga heroines to middle-aged housewives seeking an elegant look that lasts, Japanese women are fluttering the latest in luscious lashes -- and they're artificial.
Not to be confused with false eyelashes, a do-it-yourself option that lasts for a day or evening, extensions require a real commitment, since they are glued one-by-one to natural lashes.
The process can take 45 minutes or longer and cost from $40 to $100 and more, depending on the number of lashes and the skill and training of the beautician.
Still, the extensions are smudge-free, last for weeks and are said to be immune to a dip in the pool or a visit to the sauna.
"I do it for fun. Your eyes look so much wider and bigger," says 24-year-old Asuka Miyajima, an extension aficionado who works for a fashion firm. "It looks like mascara but lasts about two weeks. And you don't have to put on too much make-up."
At Glamour Eye Salon in downtown Tokyo, Makiko Kurokawa, 26, plies her trade with the precision of a skilled artisan.
In a demonstration on an assistant reclining on a narrow bed, Kurokawa first covers the lower lashes with tape to protect them, then applies a criss-cross of tape from the eyelids across the eyebrows to create tension so that the real eyelashes protrude.
After brushing out the natural lashes with a cotton swab, she takes up tweezers and glue and delicately begins attaching the extensions, in this case 25 strands between 10 mm and 11 mm long (0.4 inch), one by one to individual natural lashes.
After a brief blast of cool air from a small hair dryer to dry the glue, the tape is removed and the process is complete.
"I had to practice on 50 models before I could work on a real customer," says Kurokawa, who now runs the salon, one of 13 nation-wide.
Keiichi Hirata, a Glamour Eye executive, traces the fashion trend to young women fond of "cosplay," the popular past-time of dressing up like manga and anime characters, many of which are drawn with huge, round eyes and long, exaggerated lashes.
"The trend began about two years ago with celebrities and young women sensitive to fashion and spread to housewives and women in their 50s and 60s. It's become mainstream," Hirata said
"The first extensions were very showy, rather than natural," Hirata said, noting that women in South Korea, where extensions are also popular, tend to favor a subtler look.
Booming demand, however, has created some eyesores.
Reports of health problems prompted the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to issue a notice in February and a month later, the health ministry sent a directive to local authorities insisting that practitioners be properly trained.
"Sometimes glue gets in the eyes and they get bloodshot, or inflamed, or the eyelid swells or natural lashes get damaged," said Eriko Furukawa at a Tokyo consumer consultation center, where she said complaints continue to surface.
Less serious problems include waking up to find the extensions sticking out at an odd angle or, for eyeglasses wearers, feeling the extensions brush up against lenses.
Ironically, the growing popularity among an older, staider set could end up dampening the allure of the lashes for those who hope extensions will make them stand out from the crowd.
"They resort to hyberbole to get their point across. The point is to be sexy, to be attractive in their own way," said Gene Krell, an international fashion director at Condenast in Tokyo.
"They try so desperately to distinguish themselves, and then the subculture becomes part of the mainstream."
Editing by Miral Fahmy