Japan’s nail-art pioneer recalls the early years

by Eriko Arita

Sachiko Nakasone, Japan’s pioneer nail technician and principal of NSJ Nail Academy in Tokyo, first recalls seeing signs for nail salons in 1972 when she visited Long Beach, California, as a hair stylist with a Japanese advertising agency.

At the time, she wondered whether those salons were strangely named shops selling the sort of nails used in construction. Then, when she found out they were actually manicure salons, it wasn’t long before she dropped by one to check it out. And immediately she was amazed to witness all the pink, red and gold polishes that even old ladies were having applied.

“I was so impressed by the gorgeous appearance of the American old ladies, with their colorful nails and their hair dyed purple or blue,” 61-year-old Nakasone said, adding they were in stark contrast to older women in Japan back then, who tended to wear clothes in subdued colors and have their hair dyed black.

At that Long Beach salon, Nakasone also watched manicurists making “sculpture” nails (artificial nails) by brushing on a kind of paste and then filing it smooth when it hardened. Nakasone, whose right forefinger was injured in her childhood, leaving her with a split nail, asked one of the technicians there to make a sculpture nail on that finger.

“After the technician created the sculpture on the nail, my complex about that finger disappeared,” Nakasone said. Also, she said that as she was looking for a job in the fashion field at that time, “I decided (manicuring) was what I wanted to do.”

Nakasone then quit her job at the advertising agency and moved to Los Angeles to study at a school for nail technicians run by SuperNail, a major U.S. nail-polish maker. After completing her course and returning to Japan, at age 28 she became a manicuring instructor for SuperNail at a nail-care agency in 1976.

In that job, as well as passing on skills she had learned to her many students, Nakasone also strove constantly to extend her own techniques. Then, in 1985, she decided to test her ability by entering the manicure competition of the World International Nail and Beauty Association held that year in Anaheim, California.

In the contest, she competed in the nail-art category and created flowers on the nails of a model by using acrylic powders. Although she was confident she had done well, Nakasone scored a stunning “0″ for attitude. Terribly shocked, she asked the judges the reason.

“They said, ‘You used readymade artificial plastic flowers,” Nakasone said. “I told them, ‘They are not artificial flowers!’ and crushed them into powder in front of them.”

It was the judges’ turn to be shocked, and the next day they awarded Nakasone a trophy and a prize.

After that, Nakasone established her own school, named NSJ Nail Academy, in Tokyo in March 1989, and has since sent numerous students to that competition and others in the United States — where many have won trophies and prizes as well.

Even while she was teaching and running her academy, though, Nakasone was also working away to develop new techniques. In particular, she wanted to make three-dimensional nail art such as curved flower petals. But the materials available then could only form sharp shapes.

In May 1989, however, Nakasone made a major breakthrough while she was making sculpture nails for a client by mixing transparent acrylic liquid and colored acrylic powders. When the sculptures didn’t harden as they were meant to, Nakasone realized that she had mistakenly added nailbrush cleaner made of acetone to the powder. So naturally enough she threw the failed sculpture nails into a trash can.

Next day, as chance would have it, something in the trash can caught her eye and Nakasone found curved objects in the shape of nails in there. They were the failed sculptures, and all of a sudden they made her realize that the mix of the nailbrush cleaner and color powder could be just the material she needed to create 3-D nail art.

“I mixed the powder and the nailbrush cleaner, spread the material out on an aluminum sheet to the size of a petal and wrapped it around a ballpoint pen,” Nakasone said. “After a while, it became a beautifully curved petal.”

Before long, Nakasone was teaching this technique, and others she later developed, to her students, many of whom went on to create excellent 3-D nail art and win awards in U.S. World International Nail and Beauty Association competitions around 1990.

Meanwhile, the number of students in manicurist schools and customers at nail salons in Japan both continued to rise, even after the country’s economic bubble burst in the early ’90s.

As a profession that requires special skills, the job of a manicurist attracts many people because it is so rewarding, Nakasone said. Also, she pointed out that nail art as both a fashion and a career is something women can enjoy for their whole life.

“Customers say, ‘Beautiful nails make me feel vigorous and cheerful,’ ” she said. “And doing a job that makes people happy is great, which is the reason it has become popular.”

Women in Japan who love nail-care will have their nails colored even when they are 80-year-olds, Nakasone said. “So in the future, manicure technicians will be able to continue working even when they are over 60. When that happens, the job of manicurist will be a genuine profession in this country,” she said.

“And when I die, I want my nails to be colored crimson red.”