It takes a little courage to go to hair salons when living overseas. Without knowing where to go and what stylist has which specialty, you can wind up gambling with your style.
That’s why many expats choose to either groom themselves or visit hair salons during pit stops in their home countries.
Yet some beauty shop operators in Japan are aiming to attract more foreign residents and visitors to widen their business as the Japanese population dwindles.
Such operators are racking their brains to come up with ideas, including creating salons that can be community hubs for foreign residents and deepening ties with international students in Japan.
“The number of foreign nationals living in Japan will probably increase in the future. When that time comes, I think it’s important that there are restaurants and other shops that they can casually use,” said Minoru Yamada, director at Tokyo-based Seyfert Ltd., which publishes recruiting magazines for the domestic beauty industry.
Seyfert International USA Inc., which has been running hair salons in the U.S. and is a subsidiary of Seyfert, is planning to open a hair salon in Tokyo’s Shibuya district in April that will specifically target expats here.
Yamada, who heads Seyfert USA, said finding good hairdressers can be troublesome in other countries especially for those whose hair types are quite different from that of local residents.
For instance, “doing color on Westerners requires a great deal of technique,” but Japanese hairdressers are not used to serving people with blonde or gray hair, he said.
“It’s a really difficult task and I don’t think there are many Japanese hairdressers who have that technique,” he said.
Thus many expats end up doing their own hair or waiting until they go back home for vacation.
Some foreign residents interviewed by The Japan Times on Tokyo’s streets echoed Yamada’s point.
“Usually with my type of hair, I do it myself, or if I travel to Europe or if I travel to the U.S., I get it done there,” said Trista Bridges, who is originally from the U.S. and has black, tightly curled hair.
“I am just unfamiliar really with the types of salons that could do my hair,” said Bridges, who has lived in Japan for a little more than a year.
She said she doesn’t mind going to Japanese hair salons if friends recommend them. She added that if there were a salon that targets expats, she might feel comfortable trying it.
A woman in her 20s from Russia said she has tried different salons but hasn’t found a perfect one yet.
“My hair is softer than (that of average Japanese) and it’s often that hairdressers don’t exactly get the style I want,” said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous.
Yamada of Seyfert USA said hairdressers at the new shop will all speak English, have experience working overseas, and be familiar with different cultures and the handling of a variety of hair types.
He also said the new hair salon will be designed to be a community-oriented space for foreign residents, who can just visit there and chat with other customers.
“We really want them to just come to the place, so it’ll be crucial to create a welcoming atmosphere,” said Yamada, adding that the image is like “a casual sports bar” with a wood-paneled interior and TVs airing overseas programs.
If the reputation as a community hub spreads and more people come, eventually a few of them will get their hair cut there, said Yamada.
While Seyfert USA is looking to win the hearts of expats, Osaka-based Forcise, which operates eight hair salons in Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures as well as Tokyo, has been seeing an increase in international travelers.
“In the beginning, we weren’t actually targeting foreign travelers. We were thinking that Japan will be seeing an increase in foreigners in the future amid the declining labor population,” said Shinji Nakano, a director of the company.
The company started teaching its staff English about four years ago, and as Japan began to see a surge in inbound tourism in recent years, Forcise saw them as another business opportunity.
Forcise created English pamphlets that were distributed to hotels, and when it started seeing non-Japanese tourist at its salons, it realized it was serving a niche beauty need.
Nakano said that hotels were really happy to have the pamphlets because tourists had previously asked where they could get haircuts, but found the search for salons difficult due to the language barrier.
“It takes (almost) twice as much time to serve a non-Japanese customer because of the communication issue. Many hair salons also assume that (tourists) won’t be repeat customers,” said Nakano.
He said some tourists actually have returned to the salons on later trips to Japan.
Nakano stressed the importance of expanding Forcise’s customer base.
“If you ask me whether there is a bright future for hairdressers, I don’t really think so” given the declining population, he said, adding that hair salon operators must try something new, including targeting foreign clients.
Nakano said foreign customers still account for just about 1 percent of the total, and that most are travelers.
Forcise is now reaching out to international students by offering free haircuts. In return, the company asks the students to take pictures of themselves with hairdressers and post them on social networking services, including Facebook and Twitter.
Nakano said Forcise’s efforts to attract travelers have been covered by a number of Japanese media, but that the coverage did not really contribute to boosting the customer count.
“Japanese media coverage doesn’t reach potential travelers overseas. So we’ve been focusing on how we can reach them and thought that partnering with international students and local popular figures” to spread the word and reaching out to overseas media would be a good strategy, he said.
Teaming up with international students has other benefits as well, Nakano said. Many international students are hesitant to visit Japanese hair salons because they look a bit too exclusive, so they eschew haircuts while in Japan.
But if they get haircuts before going to job interviews, to look well-groomed, they will make a better impression, Nakano noted.