Wielding a hair dryer in one hand, a comb in the other, and with another comb held between his teeth, hairdresser Hideki Sato, 34, tackles the jet-black locks of a male model.
Within 10 or 15 minutes, a super-precise and strangely symmetrical combed-back style emerges in front of a mirror at the Mitaka salon of Hair Resort Clips, one of Sato’s three shops in western Tokyo.
At the front, the model’s hair is blow-dried so expertly that it stands up 6 cm from his forehead, while on top it’s a dead-flat surface. Viewed from the side and the back, the model’s head is square-shaped. His hair is so impeccably combed, with not a single strand out of place, that Sato points out the shiny line that runs — circling his crown — rather like those hamon temper-line patterns so highly regarded along the length of a traditional Japanese sword.
This is the hairdo with which Sato is poised to win over the world.
A veteran hairdresser and winner of cutting and styling prizes both at home and worldwide, Sato is busy right now preparing for Hairworld, a four-yearly event organized by the Paris-based Organisation Mondiale Coiffure. Otherwise known as the World Hairdressing Championship, the next event will be held in Chicago in March.
There, Sato will be one of six Japanese entrants in these tonsorial Olympics, competing in the Classic category that judges hairdressers’ skills through their ability to create this semi-pompadour, semi-James Dean hairdo — from cutting to styling — within just 35 minutes.
Many of Sato’s tools are specially made; the dryer weighs only 280 grams, he says, so he won’t get tenosynovitis from practicing for hours on end, and his scissors — bearing his name — are made to fit his thick fingers comfortably.
Sato’s passion for technical excellence dates back to his youth, when he grew up in the Yamagata Prefecture city of Tsuruoka in northern Japan watching the work of hairdressers in his family. And there were a lot of them.
“All my relatives are hairdressers,” Sato says proudly, with a grin. “My grandfather was a hairdresser. My parents are both hairdressers and they still run a salon in my hometown. My two sisters are also in this trade. Then there’s my wife who is a hairdresser, too — and so are her parents.
“Ever since I was a child, I’ve been interested in creating and designing things. And plus in this job you are aiming to make your customers happy. There aren’t many professions in the world in which you can receive direct words of appreciation for being creative.”
While some of Sato’s talents might have been inherited, he has worked hard to get where he is. After graduating in hairstyling from a vocational school in Tokyo, he went to work for Toshio Tanaka, a high-profile hairdresser who runs seven salons in western Tokyo and is a pioneer in Japan’s beauty industry. In the early 1990s, Tanaka became the first Japanese to win gold medals in hairstyling championships overseas, and he still serves as an adviser to the Japan team for Hairworld, which Sato says attracts some 100,000 people working in beauty industries around the world.
Tanaka’s training was so rigorous that eight of the 13 hairdressers who joined Tanaka’s salons in the same year as him quit halfway through, Sato recalls, noting that, while his coworkers enjoyed themselves after work, he continued to practice with his scissors. After several years of training every day from early morning till late at night, he won the All-Japan Championships in 1988 at the age of 25. Then, in 2001, he won his first international title in an event in Germany — an award he has followed up with gold medals in competitions in Oslo, Norway, Milan in Italy and, just last year, in Paris as well.
Sato also opened his first salon in 2003 in Mitaka City, which has been followed by two more in the neighboring city of Koganei. Right now, he is awaiting the completion of a four-story building in Musashino City, also in western Tokyo, that will be the site of his fourth store, as well as accommodating a dormitory for his employees and his own home.
But all this time, despite his mushrooming management duties and other responsibilities, Sato has never stopped practicing his skills.
“My Oshisho-san (a respectful way of referring to his teacher, Tanaka) used to tell me, ‘If you want to be No. 1 in the world, you must practice like No. 1,” he says. “Plus I love competitions. If you stop competing, you are finished, I think.”
However, attending international events requires not only a competitive spirit but also hard cash. It costs a hairdresser about ¥10 million to participate in one competition overseas, so not everyone can afford to go, he says. The costs, he explains, include flying in models from Europe weeks before the actual competition, then training with them right until the day of the competition.
But why on earth do people have to demonstrate the best of their abilities with this outlandish hairdo? It is all the more perplexing here, because the “classic” flat-top style, which Sato says used to be favored by Western men in the 1950s for occasions such as social dances, is only sported in Japan by yakuza gangsters and yanki (adopted from “Yankees” in English) juvenile thugs.
For Sato, though, who grew up being fascinated by the “Bebop High School” series (a Japanese comic and drama featuring high-school hoodlums with combed-back hairstyle), it epitomizes “a man’s idea of romanticism.”
“I was so obsessed with this hairstyle when I was in high school that I could not leave my home in the morning until I got my hair right,” recalls Sato, who now looks nothing like the “Bebop” high- schoolers, with his purposefully untidy, dyed-brown hair. “Back then my bangs had a habit of hanging down over my forehead, so I had them permed so they would stand up,” he recalls with a laugh.
Such “bad boy” days are long gone, however, and Sato has turned into a successful businessman as well as a hairstyling wizard. Nowadays, he is often asked to give lectures and seminars both on business management and styling techniques, and he says his dream is to nurture a future generation of hairdressers by helping to create a system in which their skills are valued.
“Sadly, in many parts of our society, technicians are not rewarded for their techniques, as money goes to business owners,” Sato says, noting also that some young people who are not strong academically enter the profession because they feel the only way to make a living is “to do something with their hands.”
Sato, for his part, knew exactly what he wanted to do when he was in high school, when he says most of his friends were set on going to college and getting office jobs with large companies. “In contrast, I would like to change the status quo,” he says, “so that skilled hairdressers in Japan are well rewarded for great work.”
So on the night of our interview, just like any other night, Sato was busy trying to set a good example for his staff, fashioning another flat-top masterpiece regardless of the lateness of the hour. His young workers, who had also been doing after-hours training, all stopped their snipping and watched him intently.
“It’s a privilege to see the world’s No. 1 hairdresser up close,” whispered Yoshiya Inagaki, 24, who has worked for Sato for four years and says he wants to open his own salon some day. “Others have to pay to go to his seminars.”