Japan -- it's all about the hair

Japan -- it's all about the hair

Forget the sushi, cosplay and jam-packed trains -- Japan’s obsessed with cutting, curling, perming and primping instead

C. James DaleAnyone who’s come to Tokyo -- either for business, pleasure or to settle down -- no doubt has the memories of their first hours and days burned into their brain.

Snapshots of the schizophrenic streets of Shibuya and Shinjuku. Unspoken commentary about the curious cosplay of Harajuku. Unspeakably busy, but efficient, trains. Recollections of hand cramps suffered after chop-sticking through a dizzying array of sushi and noodle restaurants.

Then there are the temples, shrines, drunk salarymen, kimono-clad women, cherry blossoms, and all the things you see in guidebooks.

However, Tokyo’s true obsession often gets less attention. If you’re thinking porn, think again. Go for a walk and look past the myriad signs for restaurants, retail outlets and pachinko parlors.

You too will pick up on the trend. And trust me -- like the chorus of a bad 1980s song or the lines from an old commercial, it will stick in your head and you won’t be able to shake it. Tokyo’s true obsession is -- wait for it -- hair.

At first, I thought it was just me. I’ve been preoccupied with hair for years. I feathered my locks in the 1980s, grew them down to my chest in the 1990s and started off the 2000s with a Caesar cut.

Now I’m constantly searching for a stylist to replace Michael in Los Angeles, the scissor savant who gave me an Alexander the Great look (best $120 ever spent -- even better because my TV actor sister-in-law spent it).

Pun-tastic

The most important thing I have to say to you today is that hair matters.

-- Hillary Clinton, 2001

Maybe my thing for hair has made me predisposed to spotting the city’s abundance of salons, I thought. The simple names -- Jill the Hair. The boastful -- A Cut Above. The literary -- Capote. The cautionary -- Joker of Hair. Or the downright weird -- Hair Slug.

But thanks to the power of Google, I found a kindred spirit -- Chris Carlier, whose blog has covered the capital’s coiffure craze and its many points of delivery.

“I used to live in the suburbs, and there were dozens of them,” says Carlier. “I think I noticed Triple Napalm Bomb in Shibuya and Burning Blood in Shimokitazawa in quick succession. I wasn't sure if they were salons or torture chambers.”

Once you open your eyes, as Carlier and I have, you’ll see that these salons (or torture chambers) are everywhere.

Japanese hair salonYou might get one of those ridiculous 'pineapple' cuts, but at least it'll be a laugh.Hair Saloon down the road from Bloomie’s. Rockets around the corner from Daisy Hair Salon.  Candy LaugH Air across town from Good Hair Fevrier. Rim’s Bump right next to Van Council.

It’s enough to make anyone who figures opinion pieces deserve a modicum of research and a heaping of anecdotal evidence conclude outright that Tokyo is the hair capital of Asia.

It is the largest metropolis on the planet after all, with more than 30 million potential clients.

“There are around 20,000 salons in Japan and 3,000 of them are in Tokyo,” says stylist Hayato Tanoue, who runs salons in Tokyo, New York and London. As a point of comparison, the United Kingdom has 34,000 salons.

“Hairdressers were hyped in the mid-1990s by famous TV dramas,” continues Tanoue. “It became very fashionable to be a hairdresser, especially among young men.”

Yui Ikeda, a 30-something hairstylist in west Tokyo, explains the other side of the equation -- why there's enough business to support the huge number of salons.

"For women, especially, getting a cut, color or treatment, is almost part of the daily routine," she says.

"It's not the same for men, but young guys definitely do get their hair cut more often than ten years ago. Perms and highlights too, so that keeps us going.

"It's a competitive trade and we welcome the business, but some of our male customers are, well, a bit too fussy and borderline neurotic about their hair."

More on CNNGo: 5 Tokyo hair salons for the bold, the brave, and the beautiful

Of course, humans have paid attention to hair for millennia, even as they moved from caves to castles to condos. Cutting, coloring, perming, extending or just shaving is now a multi-billion-dollar global industry.

''The most important thing I have to say to you today is that hair matters,'' said Hillary Clinton in a tongue-in-cheek commencement address to graduates at Yale University in May 2001.

“Your hair will send significant messages to those around you. What hopes and dreams you have for the world, but more, what hopes and dreams you have for your hair. Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.”

Hair, writes sociologist Anthony Synnott of Montreal’s Concordia University (tongue not in cheek), is perhaps our most powerful symbol of individual and group identity.

“Powerful first because it is physical and therefore extremely personal, and second because, although personal, it is also public rather than private.”

Haircuts are a way to stand out like a peacock or blend in like a chameleon, a universal desire in any concrete jungle, especially in a place like Tokyo, where some girls look like dolls, some guys look like girls, and some Goths look like aliens.

“If you have experience with Japanese people or culture you know they are quiet people,” says Fabio Alfano, director and president of Sin Den in Jingumae.

“But they like to expose themselves in the way they look -- conservative, fashionable, elegant, and ‘extreme.’”

End of days?

Japanese hair salonHair Slug -- just add salt.But here’s a hair-raising thought -- Tokyo’s run as haircut capital of Asia could be coming to an end, thanks to the combined pressures of a declining number of customers and a hopelessly sluggish economy.

Japan’s population is expected to drop to 86 million in 2060 from the current 128 million. Currently, its debt is twice Gross Domestic Product and climbing. Fewer people translates to fewer haircuts.

And if you believe The Hair Index, the offbeat indicator that suggests people spend less on coiffing during tough economic times, then Tokyo’s legion of salons could be on the endangered list.

Tomoya Kosugi, my stylist at Tony Tanaka in Ebisu (who used to work in L.A. but who’s no Michael), sees the writing on the wall (or the future in the clippings).

“It’s going down because there are fewer beauty shops targeting young people,” he says. “With the declining birthrate, I think there will be fewer hair salons.”

So the next time you’re out for a walk in Tokyo, take a minute to scan the cityscape for its Hair Saloons, A Cut Aboves and Triple Napalm Bombs.

Maybe snap a few pictures and share them on Facebook, Instagram or wherever. You could be witnessing and documenting the death throes of a once-thriving trade.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of C. James Dale.

More on CNNGo:  Japan's amazing hair-washing robot

C. James Dale is a Canadian journalist based in Tokyo.

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