When you pass someone on the street in Japan, how do you size them up as they pass by? Is it their clothes? Their gait? Their make-up? How about their hair? The cut, color, condition, and degree of styling of a personユs hair arguably give a more accurate picture of that person than what they are wearing. A kid with straight, short, black hair is unlikely to be a rebel, even if you see them in the punky gear they put on at the weekends. And vice versa, someone turning up for a company interview would hardly be taken seriously if they sported a Mohican. Clothes are taken on and off at least once a day, but even the most avid hair fanatic would surely only change their cut and colour at most every couple of weeks. Dress up in whatever you like, but your locks will give you away.

Tokyo street fashion is famous for itユs diversity, ranging from uniformed masses to daringly different creations. But equally notable is the lack of variation of natural Japanese hair, which is thick, black and mainly dead straight, though there exists a wavy minority. This makes the state of oneユs hair in Japan, if anything, even more revealingムtight curls or blonde manes may hold more significance than in more follicly diverse societies, since they are always the result of a conscious decision to expend effort and resources in altering those straight, black tresses. Having black, straight hair is also tied more symbolically to the sense of ヤJapanese-nessユ than either brown, blonde or black would be to notions of ヤAmerican-nessユ in the USA, for example. Hair is a politically loaded aspect of appearance in Japan in the way that fashion, often enjoyed for just itユs own sake, is not.

During Japanユs Edo era (1603-1867), a personユs hair often marked their position in society. The topknot sported by samurai distinguished them from the townsfolk. Likewise, the elaborate hairstyles worn by geisha varied depended on the stage of their career, and distinguished them from the maiko in training. Although the samurai chonmage (a short hairstyle typified by a distinctive top-knot) caught on in the typical top-down flow of fashion throughout society, the geishaユs hairdo was the result of such a labour-intensive process, only able to be carried out by someone who themselves had been through a long specialist hairdressing apprenticeship, that the look was harder to achieve. (And who would want to sleep motionless with a wooden pillow so as not to disturb such a delicate and costly coiffure?) The world of geisha hairdos seems an anachronistic extravagance compared with the bobbing heads of Japan today, but in terms of effort expended and subtleties of meaning, not to mention the arduous training for stylists, the two worlds may have much in common.

I have fond but frustrating memories of teaching English in a rather rowdy high school a few years ago in Osaka, having to battle for attention during class with a certain girlユs curling tongs. She had her priorities set straight out on her desk (although her hair was rather more curly). At the front of the desk was her make-up bag and curling tongs (desk conveniently located near the wall so that they could be plugged in). Behind these items was stand-up mirror, in the shadow of which, finally, lay her English book. Not far from the school was the posh suburb of Minoo, which must hold some sort of record for density of hairdressers. Noミactually that must go to Tokyoユs Shibuya ward that has around 1000 salons jam-packed into its 15 square kilometres.

Hair cutting, dressing, dyeing and perming is big business in Japan and despite (or because of) the uniform quality of Japanese hair, much effort continues to go into turning it into something less black and straight. Even if you donユt go to a salon, with the wealth of products and instructional hair magazines available you can do it yourself in the comfort of your own home, or classroom. The Shibuya tribe of gyaru (gals) are most adept at this skill of carrying out DIY styling sessions on the run. Tongs, mirrors, brushes and clips are all necessities that go into the oversized Louis Vuitton bags and pulled out everywhere from in front of Shibuya station to fast-food restaurants.

Like the world of geisha, the gyaru ヤtribeユ has its internal variation partly expressed through hair. The hime-kei (or princess-style) gyaru must make sure that her hair is suitably ヤbouffantユ and that it falls in large curly tresses around her face. Heaven forbid that a single hair should be out of place. The onei-san (or older sister) gyaru may be content with maintaining the sleekness and color (a darker shade of brown) and not worry so much about curls as her more flashy counterparts. Then there are the gyaruユs naughty stepsisters, the yamamba who have taken the dyeing of their hair to extremes, further even than their blonde ganguro predecessors, and colours now range from white to various shades of neon.

Other social types have their different trademark hairstyles: the punch perm of the yakuza, the ヤbozuユ shaved head of the school baseball fanatic or Buddhist monk, the short back and sides of the ヤsalaryman,ユ the slick, voluminous, dyed mane of the host, the blue and purple granny rinses and the attitudinal asymmetric cut of the fashionista. What with afro-perms, dreads and extensions (even those made from bright plastic tubes) there are no limits to the creative directions of Japanese hairstyles.

Therefore, itユs no wonder that there are so many hair salons in Japan. With hairstyle being so tied to identity, itユs important to get it right, and apart from the gyaru pros, most people need a hairdresser to tease their straight black hair into a different style. Nevertheless, the process is usually a very pleasant experience, with massages being an integral part of the hair salon experience in Tokyo. Some hair salons are more like social clubs or libraries where you can pass a pleasant afternoon sipping tea and browsing foreign art books and manga. Shibuyaユs Bloc de gemmes is one such salon. The manager, who goes by the nickname Mani, explains that Japanese have a desire to get closer to things they look up to. That image can range from Western celebrities or, as is increasingly the case with Japanese youth, the image of their own hairdresser.

Whilst the notion of ヤcharismaユ anything (shop girl, housewife, etc.) is rather pass  the charisma hairdresser is alive and well amongst Tokyoユs most fashionable youth. Shima, perhaps the foremost salon driving this scene from Harajuku, has worked with some of the biggest stylist stars in recent years. The epitome of this new breed of superstar hairdresser is Shimaユs Nara Yuya, an elfin figure with a great fashion sense and a nationwide army of adoring fans. Teenagers travel far and wide to be able to spend time in his company and to say that theirs is a ヤNaraユ cut. Popular hair and fashion magazine Choki Choki (in Japanese, literally, ヤsnip snipユ) features Nara and his fellow ヤoshare (stylish) kingsユ as they go about their personal and working lives. These oshare kings command so much intrigue that a recent issue featured a DVD of a sell-out fashion show modelled by this yearユs royalty, with lengthy interviews and other features with each one afterwards. They are the Kat-tun (a J-pop super group) of hairdressing, but trendier.

The status attached to being a hairdresser is greater for many in Japan than in my native England. Itユs an increasingly attractive option for school leavers, not least because if you get it right, or if you exude the aura that lends you ヤcharismaユ status, you can find yourself earning much more than your contemporaries slaving away at desks in corporate Japan at a young age. All the same, trainee hairdressers must work very hard, especially for the first few years.

The most common route to becoming a hair stylist in Japan now is to attend a two-year training college, at the end of which you get your license. Then the competition really heats up as you vie to get an assistant job at your hairdresser of choice. In the case of Shima, this involves putting together a portfolio of hair, fashion and culture clippings and drawings, and going through interviews where you are pitted against your rivals, not in cutting (everyone already has their license remember), but talking, dress sense and ヤaura.ユ Bloc, whose stylists are also fashion leaders, places more emphasis on hairdressing skill, but also on individuality (including individual cutting style) and communication skills. メAt Bloc we donユt give everyone a ヤBloc cutユムwhat you get depends on the stylist you have,モ Mani explains.

Whilst many yearn to become a stylist at one of the top salons, the current world of hairdressing is just, if not more, cutthroat than that of the university educated job hunter. Mani has been through it herself and came out on top. But for the handful that do make it, hoards more have to either settle for more parochial salons or give up all together. She describes how you might make stylist after one or two years of being an assistant if you are good, but some take five or six years, if they make it at all. Assistants, like in much traditional Japanese arts training, must carry out menial tasks such as shampooing whilst hunting for ヤcut modelsユ on their day off to get the all-important styling practice and to prove their skills to their superiors. But unlike traditional apprenticeships, which take years of formulaic routine, those with the skill and aura can rapidly leapfrog to success and often stardom.

Given the unrewarding months or years of washing hair and sweeping floors that face Japanユs would-be stylists, many choose to leapfrog abroad, rather than wait for their time to come back home. London is a popular spot for qualified hairdressers, who often come to study at the famous Vidal Sassoon training academy or to get some impressive foreign styling experience under their belt. Junko Baker has been running three hair salons in London for over ten years. A hairdresser herself, she employs only Japanese staff. She explains why: メTheir skills are better because they get more practice in Japan. Also, theyユre trained to do everythingミcoloring, perms, cutting, and make-upミwhereas England tends to produce specialists.モ

Actually, Junkoユs salon has it all. The wages are higher, the atmosphere is more relaxed and the staff doesnユt work and train for as long as they would in Japan. But in employing Japanese stylists, she reaps the rewards of their long training. With many local Londoners coming for cuts, as well as Japanese, the strategy has paid off. メPeople appreciate the customer service, the politeness, massages, and good hair washes,モ says Junko. メIn a way itユs easier to deal with foreign hair. You need to decrease [the] volume of Japanese thick hair, and itユs trickier to style because of the head shape, which is flat at the back.モ

As for Tokyoユs trendiest, Shima and Bloc get their fair share of non-Japanese customers as well. A UK designer duo recently asked Mani to dye their hair the color of waraibashi (disposable chopsticks). メIユve found that foreigners tend to explain what kind of cut they want in terms of images,モ says Mani. メLike ヤaggressiveユ or ヤenergeticユ and leave the details up to the stylist, but Japanese customers are very precise in what they want.モ

In tune with the recent wamono (literally ヤJapanese things,ユ especially traditional) boom, it is not the colour of disposable chopsticks, but natural black that is making a comeback. Shiseidoユs ヤTsubakiユ (camellia) hair range launched last year was promoted with images of long straight glossy black hair and was an instant hit. Camellia oil has long been used to shine and condition hair in Japan, and now many of Tokyoユs young women are starting to look back to those times for traditional beauty ideals, rather than to the West. Tokyoユs young men are also increasingly growing their hair and tying it back in a bun that is reminiscent of the samurai topknot. However, Tokyoユs hair landscape is in no danger of slipping back to that of Edo just yet, and is sure to remain as colorful and varied as its fashion.

Story by Philomena Keet
From J SELECT Magazine, Feburary 2008