The mane attraction

Japanese just barmy about barnets


In 1979, Japan was in the Dark Ages. Dark that is, in terms of hair. No one dyed their hair any other color but black and when they reached for lighter tints, were considered a bit on the bizarre side.

There was one woman singer called Mina Aoe, who built her career on an auburn hair-do but she was a lone pioneer, a single spot of color in an ocean of black. Schoolgirls especially, were banned from hair activities like dying, curling and setting — all grooming prerequisites for today’s 7th graders.

On my first day in junior high school, we were told that a student adding any sort of “artifice” to her hair, including the use of colorful barrettes or other accessories during school hours, would be tried and punished.

The school encouraged the “okappa” (bobbed hair) or “osage” (braids) for girls and told boys to shave their heads or make sure their hair length never exceeded the mandatory 5 cm.

Then in 1980, the scene began to change as pop icon Seiko Matsuda made her debut. Never mind that she was this skinny girl who couldn’t really sing — every Japanese under 45 was stunned by the brilliance of her hair-do.

Dubbed the “Seiko-chan cut,” it involved feathered layers of hair covering the ears and part of the cheeks, with bangs that came down softly just above the eyebrows. This elaborate style required hours of struggling with a brush and blow-dryer, not to mention oodles of eco-unfriendly hair spray to keep it in place. Throughout the early ’80s the Japanese woman concentrated most of her free time in getting those feathered layers to look right and the public restrooms in all major terminal stations were full of girls wielding brushes and refusing to budge from the mirror.

By 1986 “asa-shan” (morning shampoo-ing) had become a national ritual and a year later, manufacturers were coming out with the easy-to-install “asa-shan sink,” in which the daughter of the house could shampoo and set her hair without having to draw an extra bath. Many schools banned the Seiko-chan cut, but it was a losing battle. After all, the girls weren’t dying or perming, just blow-drying.

Fast forward to present day and it’s as if the Dark Ages had never happened. The Japanese Hair Renaissance has already come and gone — leaving in its wake a populace who has all but forgotten what it was like to go around with undoctored black hair.

The Mina Aoe “do” is a commonplace and the more adventurous reach for Rod Stewart. Parents take their 2-year olds to salons. Mid-level executives have brown streaks. And the teachers in junior high schools? They trade salon information with the students.

Indeed, dying has become so mainstream that it’s a bit of a bore. In Shibuya, straight black hair is now considered a precious rarity. Black hair, and shaved heads for boys: these have become an act of rebellion, a badge of distinction.

But rebellious hair becomes faddish hair, with very little time lag in between. Japan is a difficult place to assert one’s individuality in the best of times but the stakes get higher when the issue is hair.

Almost as soon as you think you look “different,” 10 other people will be imitating you, and the number will have tripled by the end of the week. In this way, hair is less a means of self-expression than a way of confirming our sameness. Hair isn’t a personal issue — it’s a patriotic one.

Remember how almost every member of the World Cup soccer team had flamboyantly colored hair? Asked why he had colored his hair red from brown just before the games, defender Kazuyuki Toda replied: “When I’m on the field, I want to stress my nationality.”

But black or brown, straight or frizzy, styled or wind-blown, the fact is that there will always be hair fads on a national scale, simply because the Japanese have always been obsessed with hair.

New hair salons kept opening in Tokyo, even during the worst years of the recession. Hair styling remains among the top 10 desired professions among young people and surveys consistently show how people will pay 10,000 yen for a hair job and only 500 yen for lunch.

Why did we get like this, or more specifically, since when? The general verdict is that the do-fascination has its roots in the Edo Period.

The “mage” of the samurai required major maintenance: shaving the top of the head every morning, applying lotion to keep the exposed skin clean and shining, and then placing the pony-tail-like contraption on it, just so.

Not an easy “do” to do in windy Edo. So there were innumerable hair salons called “kami-yuidoko” all over the city, for everyone to drop in and get their hair fixed.

As for women, not only did they have more elaborate “mage,” they were banned from cutting their hair, which meant they spent most of their lives with coils of heavy hair wound on their heads. Apparently, the Tokugawa shogunate devised this style for women, in order to put pressure on their brains and prevent them from thinking too much, lest they disturb the male-dominated social order.

Oblivious to, or possibly because of such tactics, the women prized their coiled hair above all else.

It was the standard of beauty, the measurement of their worth. A woman with a small mage, or less hair, was deemed un-sexy and unappealing. The opposite ensured that she was fertile, sound of health and brimming with sexual charm.

Times have changed, yes, but they haven’t changed enough. The Japanese remain unliberated from hair concerns. Hair stylist Aya Takashima, who runs a salon near Omotesando, says it has to do with humidity.

“In dry climates like the U.S. and Europe, people don’t have to worry so much about their hair. But in the awful Japanese dampness, hair spreads, or gets messy and unruly. Something must be done, pretty frequently.”

As Japan heads toward the rainy season, salons become full of women (and men, too) wanting the “tsuyu-perm” which is a straightening/flattening process that keeps hair neat and pristine in the worst of rain storms.

One can only hope this won’t interfere too much with our thinking abilities.