A tangled mass of
scandal, hair-raising competition, bizarre rituals and deep pockets, Tokyo's salon
industry is in a class by itself. Sally Fisher and Maki Nibayashi got the buzz.
New Yorkers will share their most intimate secrets with two professionals, a shrink and a
hairdresser, and pay hundreds of dollars on their way out the door. But in Tokyo a new cut
is one of the few bargains available in the world's most expensive city and does not
involve baring your soul at the washbasin. "And there's more hair stylists here [in
the high fashion areas of Shibuya and Minami-Aoyama] than anywhere else," says Hayato
Tanoue, who has three salons, including one in New York.
Indeed, the number of professionals beautifying hair in Shibuya and neighboring Minato-ku
is staggering. There are 860 salons in Shibuya alone, which is one for every 230
residents, while Minato, with the next highest concentration, has 567 - or one for every
250 - odd people. Tokyo is studded with 16,000 shops that call themselves "hair
make," as all stylists do make-up as well. And the salons in four of Tokyo's most
fashionable wards outnumber all of downtown Los Angeles with 2500 and central London's
Japanese hair is up to five times thicker than the average Western strand, and of the
total 12 tones of color from deep black to bright blonde, the natural hues span just the
three deepest. Tokyoites in particular want their hair to look less Asian and have more
movement in it, hence the recent fads for coloring and razor cuts to give some swing. And
unlike gaijin, Tokyo men and women aren't afraid to try a radical array of treatments,
going from color to perm to straightening to bleach in a matter of weeks.
Elissa Galbraith and Estelle Viscovich at Sin Den in Harajuku say that even with their
training in color they have to look twice at some girls to see if they're Japanese or not.
"Six years ago color was only used by punks who went for blues and bleaching... it
was risque. But in the last two years there have been a lot more colorists from overseas
coming here," says Estelle. Elissa adds that highlights for Japanese are really new,
and "trends in hair take a bit longer to arrive from overseas." The women have
worked with Wella and Redken in Tokyo teaching coloring techniques.
Most clients of the funky Tokyo salons in Aoyama, Harajuku and Shibuya are aged between 20
and 30 and spend about JY12,000 ($96) every five or six weeks. "(But) in New York and
London clients think nothing of spending $200-$300 at a famous salon. Here, the clients
tend to be younger and don't spend that sort of money, and once they get to 40, they're
married and don't care how they look anymore," Hayato says.
A cut above
The haircut experience in Tokyo is based on the idea that styling makes you feel beautiful
on the inside, too. As you wait for your hair to be washed, a tissue is gently fixed to
your forehead so you don't make eye contact with the assistant-considered uncomfortable
for both-and you get a bonus head and shoulder massage afterwards. "The design of the
salon is very important," says Ryo, who goes only by his first name at his ultra-cool
salon, afloat. Water streams down panes of green glass that invisibly support the
stylists' mirrors and hipster young things smile and offer iced tea. "Our front door
has the look of the pages of an opening book, and once inside the foyer is intentionally
small and narrow. It then opens out to this room which helps clients relax
about enhancing clients' inner beauty," he explains of the expensively understated
A few blocks away, the pint-sized manager of elf in Shibuya, Takako Katoh, says
there are so many hair stylists "we have to work hard to differentiate
ourselves." She says having your technique featured in glossy hair make magazines and
getting your work on TV is great for business, but it can't beat word or mouth. About half
of elf's clients are young men, and because so many people come to Tokyo from the rest of
Japan to live and work, they are eager to get tips from magazines on where to go. She
regards her greatest skill as being able to shape hair. "Japanese have square skulls
that are very thick at the top and the back of the head is flat. I can cut someone's hair
so their head is more rounded, and this makes them very happy," she says. "I'm a
sculptor," says the woman who was set to become a painter before her aunt talked her
Every morning Katoh and
her ten staff have chorei, or the morning meeting where they stand in a circle
and go through the day's targets and notices before shouting, onegai shimasu"
and bowing deep bow. This ritual is repeated at night, with the meeting reviewing the day,
before the staff either start their long commute home or go out for a bite. "My work
colleagues are my friends, too," explains Katoh, who gives her age as 20-something
and is in the rare position of managing a funky salon when mostly only men take charge. On
a day off, she and her female workers attend kimono class, where they learn to dress
themselves and others in the elaborate outfit, or she works on magazine and TV shoots.
"A 12-hour day is a good one, it's usually 16 hours, six days a week. But this is the
best career to have and there's nothing else I would rather do."
Stylists in their 20s are earning more cash than their conservative high school pals who
are now apprentice salarymen, staying in the office all day, wearing dark suits and
getting drunk with the boss. Pay for assistants or apprentices is around JY100,000 a
month, which is abysmal and below the breadline in the world's most expensive city. There
is scant membership in the beauticians' union and most stylists don't know its name.
"Anyway, it has no power," scoffs Ryo, who spends his days off working at hair
shows, promoting afloat. But after an assistant earns their license and then finishes a
three-year training program in a salon, they can make from JY2 million a year to JY12
million depending on ability and profile. Some earn a straight percentage of the salon's
take, and others get salary plus a percentage.
A dye-ing breed
One of the biggest money-making styling outfits in town is acqua, the Harajuku
salon with a Minami-Aoyama offshoot that is the birthplace of the karisuma
(charisma) hairdresser-a stylist who cuts Japan's tarento's priceless manes. If
you call for an appointment, one of the four should-be models working the Harajuku phones
pointedly asks if you're a regular or "newcomer." If you're an acqua virgin,
expect to wait one month for a no-name stylist. But for a celebrity hairdresser who's been
on TV, sliced an actress's tresses or trimmed before thousands at a Budokan hair
your split ends can wait two months.
The Harajuku salon refused a Metropolis interview, "We don't want/need any
more advertising," says the press officer. But there was a time acqua couldn't avoid
it when partner Masayuki Aoyama became the first karisuma-and then a blackmail victim.
Aoyama and his partners starred on the wildly successful and now defunct Fuji TV show,
"Scissors Series," in the late 1990s. Stylists were pitted against one another
to create their best hairdos in real time. Aoyama's personality and flashy razor-cutting
technique, where the hair is cut on the angle and layered heavily to give it movement,
made him a star.
Takako Katoh, from
But soon after, Aoyama's
lack of a beauty license, which all hairdressers must have, was exposed by a jealous
competitor. The show's producer, Koichi Ishimoto, was forced to quit his high-paying job.
Miffed that his Porsche may have to go and that his mistress was lowered to paying for her
own clothes, he dropped into acqua in late 1999 with a couple of stand-over guys,
demanding JY300 million in lost income. Aoyama called the cops and started brushing up on
the beauty license rules, earning the scrap of paper the day his old producer was busted.
The infamous Aoyama still works at acqua and for JY8000 will cut your hair and another
JY16,000 will give you curl and color.
Hayato has been called a karisuma but says it's now old hat. A karisuma might do 30
clients a day but only spend ten minutes with each client. They do the same cut, like a
razor cut that's very bad for the hair. It's just a factory," Hayato complains.
"They're dead, no one uses this word anymore. I'd rather have more customers than be
karisuma," Ryo says dismissively and Katoh from elf agrees, but the driving force
pushing the ever-morphing salons is something that Japanese customers desperately want but
will never achieve. Industry pundits may claim karisuma are dying out as a breed, but
there are still plenty to be found at salons such as Hair Dimension and Beautrium in
As Japanese women and men discovered permanent hair color, they are now moving into full
bleaching or highlighting, a la Destiny's Child and J-Lo for the women. But when it comes
to talk of the future trends, the hairdressers just cannot agree. Aki Watanabe of Watanabe
Hair Dressing in Shibuya says that the new trend for men is a soft Mohican, think
footballer and Mr Spice, David Beckham. "But not punk with a shaved head but a soft
one with peak at the top and also some color through it, especially blonde, but not all of
it, in chunks."
Katoh predicts more unisex hairstyles, with lots of layers, shorter, ash brown color and
bleach highlights. Ryo says for women the bob, soft wave, beige hair with some orange in
it and for men yellow color, not blonde but bright yellow. "Everyone here wants to
look Western, which is good for business," says Hayato.
acqua, Jingumae 1-10-23 1F Fontaine Bldg, Shibuya-ku, 03-3478-3131.
afloat, 5-10-13 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, 03-5778-0387.
elf, Jinnan 1-5-7, 2F Akansas, Shibuya-ku, 03-5728-2185 and Jingumae
5-48-7 Shibuya-ku, 03-5468-0630.
Hayato, 3F, 5-9-3 Minami Aoyama Minato-ku, 033498-9113 and Nishi Azabu
Sin Den, 3-42-12 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, 03-3405-4409
Watanabe Hair Dressing, 03 3405 1188, Jingumae 3-25-6 Shibuya-ku
Beautrium, 3-14-2, Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, 03-3402-6132
Hair Dimension, 5-7-23 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, 03-5467-3021