BIPOC Voices, Heads up, Key Topics

The scarcity of Black Haircare in Japan

Cultural appropriation? Sure looks like.

words by: Alee Kwong
Mar 5, 2021

Despite having adopted a lot of influence from the West, moving to Japan from America is arguably one of the biggest culture shocks an American will experience in their lifetime. While there are many advantages to moving to a country with a completely different culture, there are a few drawbacks – specifically when it comes to personal grooming. While many can get away with the limited products Japan has to offer, BIPOC will find themselves with an even slimmer selection and booking yearly trips back to America for a fresh cut.

 

I spoke with Ahraun Chambliss (27) and Jordan Williams (31), two Black-American ex-pats who are both currently living and working in Japan, about their experience with the lack of hair care options in their respective prefectures.

 

AK: What is your occupation and prefecture you currently reside in?

AC: Translator for the prefectural government, Okayama Prefecture.

JW: Analyst, Tokyo Prefecture.

 

AK: So, what products do you use daily?

AC: Aside from when I wash it, I don’t put anything in my hair.

JW: During the pandemic? Honestly, I don’t use anything daily (laughs). Frequently (3-4x a week?), I use Lebel Iau shampoo and conditioner (cream treatment). Maybe twice a week I will moisturize with coconut oil, too.

 

AK: Since you come back to America for a haircut, how often do you usually come back (pre-COVID, of course)?

AC: I mean, I get my haircut out here monthly. But to answer your question, about once every year if I can. I definitely go and get my haircut the way I’m used to having it done.

JW: About twice a year.

 

AK: Considering how much influence Black-American culture has had on modern Japanese pop culture (Japanese people getting dreads, braiding their hair, etc.) why do you think there’s still a scarcity of barbershops and salons that can accommodate Black hair?

AC: I feel that it has a lot to do with the fact that they can style the “popular” haircuts like braids, dreads, curling, etc. using the methods that they had before Black culture was popular. Since they can do what’s popular/trending, they don’t really look further to accommodate the people that made it, which seems kind of backward to me. I don’t even think that concept even crosses their minds, to be honest.

There are of course other reasons as well. An acquaintance of mine that cuts hair in America came out here and met up with some barbers that he followed online. They had a demo where they both showed each other how they cut hair using their preferred methods. My friend used clippers and a straight razor. The Japanese barbers used no electronics and did everything with scissors, razors, combs, and brushes. Afterward, we went out to eat, where they continued their conversation about cutting hair. My friend suggested that they should adopt using clippers at their shop, but the Japanese barbers declined, explaining that the shop they run was inherited by family members over several generations, so they have to carry the tradition and stick to the methods and equipment that their ancestors used. I’m not sure how rare that specific case is, nor am I sure how it is in Tokyo or Osaka.

In Okayama, the shop I frequent (which is probably one of the more forward-thinking establishments out here) doesn’t have the equipment to accommodate a Black person’s hair. I’ve gotten used to not having that option out here, but one time I showed them a video of a dude with waves getting his hair cut and asked if they would be able to do copy that if I wanted it (I didn’t but just wanted to see what they would say). They apologized and just said that they don’t have the equipment for it in their shop. My barber is always telling me that I should get braids or dreads since I’m lucky enough to have the hair for it (she thinks those two options are the way to get the best value out of my hair), and I always decline. She’s kind enough to look up different ways she can style my hair though, which I appreciate.

JW: Honestly, there’s not a lot of people with the hair grade to justify an abundance of barbers that can cut Black hair. Most people that want what would be traditionally “Black” haircuts are Japanese, so there are many hairstylists that do perms for straight hair, can do a lineup, etc. There are so few Black people in Japan that it’s pretty hard to give hairstylists enough experience to confidently cut Black hair. I don’t think much of it, though. It’s like expecting barbers in the hood to pull off a flawless pompadour — you don’t expect it but it’s not a bad thing.

 

AK: With globalization and more BIPOC and non-East Asian POC, do you think the Japanese will adjust accordingly and start diversifying the products and services offered?

AC: The area I live in is pretty rural, and there are so many shops that none of them get a frequent amount of Black customers, so I doubt they will ever feel it’s necessary to accommodate them. I’ve heard of one place in western Japan that actually accommodates and even studies different hairstyles for Black people, which gives me a small amount of hope. Thinking about it realistically, we may only see diversification out here if Black culture continues to be a trend from here on as well. Even then, it would only really happen if Japanese people started seeing other Black hairstyles as cool and wanted to try it themselves. I really can’t imagine them adopting something for another person’s sake.

Seeing the spread of hip-hop and spotting more people out here with dreads or braids, I had a slight feeling that Japanese people would start showing a little bit more concern for Black lives and be a little bit more interested in learning about the culture that’s not trendy yet. But judging by their actions — or inaction, rather– when the BLM protests started in 2020, I gave up on that idea. I think that Jordan posted about this as well, but a lot of club promoters and owners, and plenty of their DJs and frequent guests were painfully silent. I think I would have even just been happy with them spreading awareness, literally the least they can do, but they didn’t. These establishments make money off the culture to keep their business running, and it may not go any further than that. If these people at the top of their fields aren’t really about the culture enough to support it when it’s struggling, I can’t see other people taking action either.

So to answer your question, nah. It just seems to be for show or personal enjoyment out here. They’ll do it when it’s convenient for them, and that might not happen.

JW: Japan still has a lot of steps to take before I think these non-East Asian groups will reach a critical mass such that niche products will be offered. I don’t really expect significant enough growth of these non-Japanese populations in the short term to drive up commodity diversity, either. Culture is more accessible thanks to technologies like the internet, but it’s not that easy to move freely throughout Asia from western countries, I think. Even with that, the people that come to Japan tend to prefer East Asian products over western alternatives (e.g., skincare). Also, globalization makes it easy enough to order items from abroad, so it’s not like we’re completely screwed outside of more westernized markets. 

Japan believes heavily in the free market as an efficient means to address consumer needs, so unless there’s a massive influx of Black people from all over, I’m not getting my hopes up that there will be a meaningful change in domestically available products. I can’t even buy muenster cheese in Japan without a ton of research and effort, there’s no way I’m going to find a tub of s-curl (laughs).

 

All is not without hope though as a Black entrepreneur from NYC opened up a Black-owned barbershop in Roppongi called Room 806.