Art at your fingertips

From thumbnail sketches to extensions, jewels and starbursts adorning every digit, the nail-art business in Japan is pointing ever upward

by Tomoko Otake

One Sunday morning in late November, a throng of people, mostly women in their 20s and 30s, made long lines to get into a convention hall at Tokyo Big Sight in Koto Ward. Many others were sitting on benches outside the hall, opening suitcases at their feet and examining tiny bottles, cotton swabs and whatever else they would need in their upcoming competitions.

Inside the hall, at virtually every one of countless sales booths, young nail technicians wearing headset microphones were proclaiming and demonstrating what magic their company’s latest products could make happen. TV monitors were set up everywhere to show off their expert work up-close.

Meanwhile, some vendors were so feverish in their pitches that they bordered on sounding silly. “Maji, kono jeru yabaidesu! Kite-masu!” (“Seriously, this gel is dangerous! Unbelievable!”) a young man in a business suit yelled at visitors crowding the booths that were selling everything from nail polish and paint brushes to stone-studded nippers — almost all at “special prices.”

In fact the borderline-silly salesman was, it turned out, stressing how sticky and yet safe his gel-type coloring product was.

And then in another corner of the hall, quietly sitting at desks arranged radially, were dozens of contestants braced for the start of one of many of the day’s scheduled nail-art contests.

Tokyo Nail Expo 2010, organized by the oddly-named industry group Japan Nailist Association, drew 50,000 visitors over two days — the biggest turnout ever in the event’s 25-year history. Also featured in the program were seminars by Japan’s top nail artists on such themes as “lacework-like hand-painting” and “the best cuticle-nipping technique in the world.” And then there was a stage appearance by gorgeously made-up and manicured TV celebrities who were anointed with the title of “Nail Queens.”

With so much glitz, buzz and tension throughout the day, the hall had the air of a fashion show, a college entrance exam and a fish market offering big discounts at the day’s end — all in one.

And every part of this was proof that the nation’s nail-care/nail-art industry is booming — despite the prolonged economic stagnation from which the nation is suffering.

Indeed, according to the latest edition of “Nail White Paper,” published by the industry group last October, Japan’s nail-care and nail-art industry had an estimated market size of ¥201.5 billion in 2010 — nearly double what it was five years before. The number of facilities where nail-care, coloring and nail-art services are offered has also doubled in the last five years to 17,000 — helped by the relatively low startup costs of nail salons.

For Sachiko Nakasone, a veteran nail artist who heads Tokyo Nail Expo’s planning committee, all this is like a seeing a long-held dream finally coming true.

That’s because, until as recently as the mid-1980s, the concept of nail care, coloring or decoration was totally foreign to most people in Japan. Since then, it is primarily through the unremitting efforts of Nakasone and a handful of other pioneers, that the industry here has reached its present size — and many Japanese nail artists have come to rank among the very best in the world.

And behind the high reputation the nation’s manicurists enjoy today are the technicians’ “diligence and a spirit to pursue accuracy in the finest details,” Nakasone boasts.

One of the projects Nakasone has worked hard on over the years has been a system of certification of manicurists according to their expertise and use of various techniques as determined by examination. This alone, she argues, has been key to raising the quality and standing of nail professionals in Japan.

To date, around 335,000 people have taken JNA’s exams. In the test for the first-grade technician certification, the highest of three grades available at present, applicants must pass a 45-minute written exam in which they are tested on their knowledge of cosmetics, chemistry, nail structures and skin biology. Then they face a 150-minute practical exam consisting of the creation of “sculpture nails” (long artificial nails) and “nail art,” which requires design and color sensibilities, as well as creativity.

Kaori Kobayashi, an eight-year technician in Tokyo who won eighth place in the “Design Sculpture” (extension nails featuring original designs) championship of the Expo in November, says she became interested in a career as a manicurist after she had her nails done for the first time when she was 19.

“I had always had an inferiority complex about my excessively short nails,” Kobayashi — now sporting long, “French-style” extension nails with white, squared-off corners — said recently, as she skillfully applied layers of “gel-type” manicures to this reporter’s nails. “When I saw my extended nails, I was so moved, and felt like sharing my experience with other people through my work.”

During a visit to a salon in Tokyo’s trendy Shimokitazawa district where Kobayashi works, I was getting a “soft gel” treatment done on my nails. Since the treatment, which originated in America, became available in Japan three or four years ago, its popularity has taken the nail industry to new heights. Last year, treatments using gel-type coloring grossed sales of ¥93 billion — up from ¥43 billion in 2007.

Soft gel is different from traditional manicures, as it uses a type of acrylic resin that solidifies only when it is exposed to UV light. Gel-type manicures look glossy and last longer than regular nail coloring. Gel nail treatments are also pricier, starting from about ¥8,000 for a set of 10, while standard nail care, involving the removal of loose cuticles and the application of regular nail polish, typically costs less that half that. Of course, elaborate nail extensions are a different matter price-wise, and can easily set you back way over ¥10,000 for all 10 digits at many salons.

In my case, the treatment took about an hour from start to finish. Every time Kobayashi applied color to my nails, I was told to put my hands into the blue UV light machine and keep them there for about a minute. I ended up being UV-ed more than five times.

What truly amazed me, though, was the microscopic three-flower art she created on the nail of my right ring finger, with each white petal she planted there measuring no more than 3 mm.

To do this she mixed white acrylic powder with an acrylic liquid to create a paste. Then she dropped a tiny blot of the paste on my nail and pushed it subtly with her paintbrush to create a petal. She painstakingly repeated the process to create a total of 12 petals.

In the center of the corolla she next applied even tinier bits of sparkling aluminum stones, some of which were so small that they looked more like air bubbles than mini rocks.

Like Kobayashi, 28, many of the nation’s 62,000-plus nail technicians are in their 20s and 30s, and through their dedication and techniques, nail art, which was originally shunned by the mainstream Japanese public as too strange or gaudy, has turned into a national obsession.

But that doesn’t mean all those who work in the industry are adequately compensated.

According to the Nail White Paper report, the monthly wages of JNA-certified manicurists working full time at nail salons average ¥172,632, while those certified as nail-care/nail-art instructors earn a monthly average of ¥275,455.

“In this day and age, it is hard to get a job as a nail technician if you don’t have a certificate,” said Kobayashi, herself a first-grade holder who also teaches at a nail school on some days of the week.

In that sense, Japan’s nail industry has a lot more room for expansion, says Nakasone, who notes that the nation’s nail market is nowhere near that of the United States, where she says 0.4 percent of the entire population (of around 309 million) has their nails taken care of by professionals.

“Japan’s nail salons are still concentrated in cities,” she said. “There aren’t many salons in the countryside. My goal is to make nail care common among people of all ages so they would say, ‘Well, my nails got dirty from pulling daikon radish today. Let’s go to the nail salon.’ “