KOCHI – Beauty salon worker Kiichi Watanabe believes the best way he can contribute to society as a hairdresser is by fitting wigs made of human hair to children who have none.
Watanabe, 44, founded the nonprofit organization Japan Hair Donation & Charity, or JHDAC, in Osaka along with two other hair stylists. That was in 2009, a year after they opened a hair salon in the city.
To date, their hairpieces have been given to more than 70 children under the age 18 who have no hair because of a congenital condition, cancer treatment or the result of an accident.
“It had been so long since I had seen myself truly smiling in the mirror,” said a high school girl, recalling the day she became the first recipient of one of JHDAC’s wigs.
“As a hair stylist, this is something you can do on a volunteer basis. It doesn’t take a special effort,” said Watanabe.
“Anything could happen to us tomorrow, so we should always place ourselves in another person’s shoes,” he said.
The hairpieces are made of human hair donated by customers of participating beauty salons across Japan. The group has wigmakers make the hairpieces to order after visiting the intended recipient at home or in a hospital to take measurements.
The price of a human-hair wig runs to ¥300,000 or more and is not covered by public health insurance, but the NPO pays for it out of proceeds from the sale of donated hair that is too short for a hairpiece but useful for training hairdressers. It also relies on cash contributions collected at the roughly 250 salons in 42 prefectures that support the program.
A wig made of human hair lasts only about two years, according to Watanabe. In June, a girl in Osaka Prefecture collected her second hairpiece from the NPO.
“Even if we had been able to afford it, we couldn’t have found such a high quality hairpiece,” her mother said. “My daughter is so happy now.”
The hair donation movement began in the United States in the 1990s. Watanabe was moved to start something similar in Japan after one of his customers stopped coming because she lost her hair due to illness.
“I was a hair professional, but I couldn’t do anything for her. When she really needed someone to talk to about it, I couldn’t be that person,” he said, recalling the helplessness he felt and how it led him to re-evaluate his role.
His organization accepts hair that is 31 cm or longer and in good condition, regardless of whether it comes from a man or woman.
Ganesh, a salon in the city of Kochi, became a supporter of the campaign 1½ years ago.
“I felt this was a form of social contribution I could make as a hairdresser,” 41-year-old salon manager Mari Yoshimoto said.
In July 2014, a high school student in the city came to Ganesh to have her tresses cut after learning on the Internet of the hair donation campaign.
“I want to encourage people who are suffering from hair loss,” she said, adding that she plans to grow the hair again and make another donation someday.
JHDAC is currently the only group in Japan that collects hair donations from the general public, according to Watanabe, who believes the campaign deserves wider promotion.
“If it became the norm for people to ask a friend who had their hair cut short, ‘Did you make a hair donation?’ that would be fantastic,” he said.