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Bilingual beauty, straight and permed

by Peter Backhaus and Yuko Kunimatsu

Special To The Japan Times

Beauty must be a bilingual thing. At least that’s the impression one gets from looking at signs outside hairdressers, beauty parlors and similar types of businesses in Japan. Commonly titled “Beauty Menus,” the main function of these signs is to provide a list of the services a shop offers and the prices that will be charged for each of them.

One characteristic of the beauty menu is that it is commonly full of English loanwords. The most basic service, obviously, is a cut, which is カット in Japanese. In addition, you may have your hair shampooed (シャンプー) and blow-dried (ブロー), get a perm (パーマ) or some other treatment (トリートメント), or have some makeup applied (メーク).

This heavy reliance on loanwords on a beauty menu leaves room for but a very few distinctly Japanese words. One of them is shukumō kyōsei (縮毛矯正, hair straightening), which is something you can do when you are unhappy with the curls of your “natural perm” (天然パーマ). A related loanword is available here too, ストレートパーマ (straight perm), but this latter type of application is less durable in effect.

Instead of the somewhat outdated katakana script, many hairdressers today prefer to announce their services in romaji. This won’t improve the language skills of their employees, but it at least serves to lend a more global flair to the business. The result of this rather hairy bilingualism are signs that seem to function mainly in English, and could in fact be found in many other places around the globe were it not for a few remaining Japaneseisms such as the odd typo. Two such examples can be seen in the photo at right, where we have “parm” instead of perm (most likely because the corresponding katakana term starts on pa), and “brow,” which is not a special treatment for the line of hair at the lower part of your forehead, but simply a misspelling of “blow.”

In order to find out what motivates the choice between katakana and romaji on Japanese beauty menus, a few months ago we conducted a little survey. In Tokyo, we took photos of signs from 30 businesses around Shinjuku Station and another 30 in the area around Sugamo Station a couple of miles further up the Yamanote Line loop. The reason why we went for these two areas was the different demographics they are famous for. While Shinjuku is known as a place for the young, Sugamo in recent years has acquired some reputation as “Granny Harajuku” (おばあちゃんの原宿), a reference to the Tokyo district known for hip youth fashion. We assumed that these differences might be reflected some way or another in the language of the area’s beauty menus.

We focused on the term “cut,” because that was the one service we could be sure to find on all of our 60 beauty menus. We distinguished three types of cuts: those given on a sign in katakana, those written in both katakana and romaji (as in the photo), and romaji-only cuts. In Sugamo, no less than 26 (87 percent) of the 30 beauty menus offered a katakana cut, two were bilingual, and two gave the term in romaji only. In Shinjuku, by contrast, almost half (47 percent) of the 30 beauty menus offered their cuts only in romaji, another 43 percent were bilingual, while katakana-only cuts were found only three times.

These results show that the shop owners in the two areas are clearly sensitive to the different target groups they are catering for: the young, who are supposed to read — and appreciate — English-language elements on beauty menus, and older folk, for whom katakana is still considered the most feasible script type.

Apart from these relatively straight-forward local differences, we also took a closer look at the prices charged for each of the 60 cuts offered on the signs. Here too we had some vague idea that there might be differences, but this time we were quite surprised by the clearness with which these would show.

We found that the average price of a cut offered in katakana in our data was ¥3,855. The average amount to be paid for a cut offered in both scripts was almost the same, ¥3,800. What’s really amazing is the average price for a romaji-only cut, which was no less than ¥4,275. In other words, and leaving aside a few statistical nitpicks, we could say that in Tokyo a haircut offered in romaji will cost you about ¥400 more on average than one in katakana. Though this doesn’t say anything about the quality of the cut, it goes to show that beauty, as we know, is in the eye (rather than the hair) of the beholder.

  • ArtTokyo

    You failed to consider one thing, rents in Shinjuku versus rents in Sugamo. This is more likely the reason for the price differential.