Hair today, gone tomorrow

Living with baldness is not an easy task in Japanese society


With a father and grandfather who were both completely bald, sports journalist Nobuya Kobayashi had always suspected that he would turn out the same way. Yet, when he actually started losing hair in his late 20s, he was shocked and found himself unable to accept his fate.

After trying a number of hair-regrowth tonics with no success, he decided his best option was to hide his condition by wearing a wig, but it only made his life even more difficult and troublesome.

This June, Kobayashi finally came out about his baldness in his book “Katsuraa no Himitsu (The Secret Life of a Katsuller).” Katsura means wig in Japanese, and Kobayashi coined the word “katsuller” to refer to wig-wearers.

In the book Kobayashi humorously describes the trials and tribulations of 12 years of life wearing a wig. Despite being fixed to his head with metal clips, the hairpiece he used to wear fell off easily, so he deliberately avoided many activities for fear his “secret” would be revealed. He stopped playing baseball after his wig was blown off during a game. He avoided golf, too, because the hair of his wig became squished into the shape of his golfing cap, creating a bizarre sight when he took the cap off.

He became reluctant to go to hot-spring resorts with his friends, because they would become suspicious if he did not wash his hair. He could no longer take a peaceful nap on the shinkansen, since he worried the wig would become dislodged. He refused to ride in convertibles with the roof down, and even hesitated to go out on windy days.

Despite his troubles, Kobayashi persisted in wearing his wig. “I felt that baldness did not suit my image as a sports journalist,” he says. “Also, I was very proud, and didn’t want others to tease me about my hair loss.”

Kobayashi points to negative attitudes toward baldness among men as one reason he refused to reveal his condition for so long. “Your masculinity is questioned simply because you’re balding,” he explains. “Those who laugh at bald people apparently feel superior and I don’t like it.”

Today, Kobayashi still wears a wig, but a high-quality one from a German manufacturer which he happened to read about in a magazine. The new wig looks much more natural than his previous ones, and cannot be dislodged accidentally. This gave him the confidence to play sports again and, strangely enough, to go public about his hair loss.

“People laugh at wig-wearers because wigs usually look so obvious, but my present wig is so natural that people don’t tease me any more, even though they know it’s a wig,” Kobayashi says. “I wrote this book to let more people know that there are good-quality wigs out there which can help give them confidence.”

Wigging out

Hair loss scares most men. No matter how bad the Japanese economy is, products targeted at people who are worried about their hair have continued to sell well.

For instance, Taisho Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. recorded sales of 29.7 billion yen 11 months after it started selling RiUP, the first hair-regrowth tonic in Japan to contain minoxidil. Aderans Co. Ltd., Japan’s leading manufacturer of men’s wigs, announced their annual sales were 50.7 billion yen in 2000, 14 billion yen more than in 1996.

Does this mean more and more Japanese men are suffering from hair loss? Or are they just becoming oversensitive about their hair?

A survey conducted by Aderans showed the number of men with thinning hair has increased significantly in Japan: The percentage of balding men was 23.7 percent in 1998, 8.1 percent higher than 1982. This means the estimated number of balding Japanese men has almost doubled, from 6.2 million to 11.37 million.

Aderans believes that the increase may reflect changes in the Japanese diet (people today eat more oily food and food with a high calorie-count, which is believed to contribute to hair loss) as well as physical and mental stress caused by changing lifestyles.

At the same time, people in younger age groups are becoming more sensitive about hair loss. For instance, today about 60 percent of Aderans’ new customers are in their 20s, while in 1990 the figure was only 35.8 percent.

“People used to wear wigs after their baldness had already progressed, but today they want to hide it before others notice it,” says Rika Okano, of Aderans’ public relations department.

Cultural roots

Aderans has investigated the incidence of baldness in other countries, too, and discovered that the percentage of baldness is higher in European countries than in Japan (41.2 percent in Germany in 1998, 39.1 percent in France in 1997 and 37.9 percent in the Netherlands in 1998); yet the men’s wig business in those countries is not thriving as it is in Japan.

“We believe most men feel shocked when they first notice that their hair is thinning, regardless of their nationality,” says Okano. “But popular attitudes toward people with thinning hair differ from country to country. In Japan, people tend to tease or insult balding men, which makes them even more self-conscious.”

Sociologist Fumio Sunaga, who published the book “Hage wo Ikiru (Living With Baldness)” last year, says balding men are a “minority” in Japan. This is not due to their number, but to the fact that they suffer various hardships and discrimination in society because they are visually “marked,” in the same way that skin color is an easily noticeable difference, he says.

“In modern society, it has become unacceptable to ridicule people because of their race, but it is socially acceptable to make fun of balding men,” Sunaga says.

The situation is complicated by the widespread belief that men should not care about their appearance, as this is supposed to be a “feminine” concern, he says. Even if they are bothered by jokes about their baldness, men are vulnerable to censure if they get upset or complain.

For the same reason, trying to conceal baldness with wigs or by combing hair over the bald patch (commonly known as the “bar code” look) is considered more embarrassing than exposing the hair loss, Sunaga says. In most media reports about baldness, women say they do not necessarily dislike bald guys; they just dislike the lack of confidence that comes from cover-up attempts.

What, then, is a balding man to do?

“Bald people do not have to do anything special because baldness is nothing to be ashamed of,” Sunaga says. “The public should change its attitude.”

He said the best way is for balding people to simply come straight out and tell people they don’t like being teased.

No worries

Not all men worry about hair loss, however. Bank employee Tomoyuki Shigematsu (not his real name), 35, says he does not mind being teased by his friends about his receding hairline, saying, “Friends do not judge me only by appearance. I might get upset if a total stranger laughed at my hair, but that’s never happened to me so far.”

When Shigematsu began losing his hair around the age of 25, he was studying at a graduate school in the United States, where people paid little attention to his hair loss. He says he has never thought of using a hair-regrowth tonic or wearing a wig.

“I’m not the type of person who could keep on using a hair treatment every day. Wigs are very expensive and I want to use my money for something else,” he says. “My mother once recommended that I wear a wig, but I refused. The people around me all know that I’m balding. What’s the point of concealing my baldness now? I’d only look silly if I suddenly appeared with lots of hair.”

Shigematsu thinks baldness may be disadvantageous if a person is participating in omiai (matchmaking) sessions, but says it can sometimes work favorably in business.

“When I meet my clients, my balding head leaves a strong impression,” he says. “Many of them say they never forget my face. I think being remembered is a big advantage for me as a banker.”