One of the more difficult things that faces me about life in Japan is that seasonal ritual of getting a haircut. See, I like to get my hair cut freakishly short so that way I can go a good four months without needing a trim. I’ve considered shaving my head, or getting a buzz cut, but usually decide against it for two reasons. Firstly, there’s my sister’s constant taunt: “I’ll laugh if it never grows back.” Secondly, there’s the design of my face. Between my extremely large forehead and my “we-can-get-these-for-free-on-Dad’s-health-plan” geek glasses, a bald head would make me look like some form of cartoon supervillain. So, I at least need a little hair to cover my forehead. Back home, this would pose no problem, but here in Japan, where I face the language barrier at the barber shop, going for a haircut is twice as paranoia-inducing as anything I’ve ever done.
I’ve been told that most foreigners in Japan usually do one of two things to avoid language barriers at the barber shop. Usually, women opt to just let their hair grow long. One of my coworkers boasted about how she didn’t get her haircut for the 10 months she’s been in this country. Of course, she did go home for winter vacation, and one of the first things she did was stop in at her hometown hair salon. Most men, on the other hand, invest in a pair of clippers and give themselves a buzz cut over the bathroom sink. And, as I’ve already mentioned, that’s not much of an option for me. I guess I’m just doomed to forever visit the barber.
I first ran into this problem in the fall, as I was painfully ready for a haircut. I first asked my fellow foreign coworkers for a good place to get a trim. One of my coworkers is a woman, who made her boast, and my fellow male foreigner just happened to be dating a hairdresser, so he got the occasional free haircut from his girlfriend. That didn’t help me out much. I then started asking the rest of my coworkers, and that’s where I ran into the problem of living in the commute-happy country that is Japan. Most of my coworkers said, “Well, gee, I live 6 stops up the line, and that’s where I get my hair cut. I really don’t know where you’d go in Kumagaya.” I then started asking my students, but again, most of them commute to my school and didn’t know of any good local places. It seemed that I was stuck, but then, I was given a break. A week earlier, that fellow male foreigner had a fight with his girlfriend and was forced to go to an outside source for a hair cut. He seemed to like the place he stumbled across so he recommended it to me.
A week later, I walked up to the front door, ready for a trim. I reached for the doorknob, but was too scared to go in. “What am I thinking?” I thought. “I don’t speak Japanese. There’s no way I’m going to be able to get a hair cut in this country.” I backed away and just walked around the block a few times. I walked back up to the front door, but again walked away in terror. I hopped on the bus and spent the rest of the day safe in the confines of Toys R Us.
A week after that, I thought to myself, “OK, this is nuts. I NEED a haircut. I must do it this weekend.” I set out to get it done. I went back to the place that was recommended, and again, I couldn’t summon up the nerve to go inside. I paced around outside for about four hours working up the nerve. Finally, I said, “Argh!” and ran in before I could start thinking rationally again. The clerk looked at me and said, “Sumimasen,” the standard Japanese greeting for someone who comes into a store. (Of course, I probably just pulled the wrong word out of the Japanese phrasebook, but I know the word I always hear sounds similar.) I looked at her and nervously said, “Hello.” She looked back at me and said, “Hello.” That’s my quick check to see if they speak English: if they say “Hello” back to me, odds are, they know a little more. So, I said, “I need a haircut.” They pointed me towards a sink, where I sat down, they washed my hair, and before I could say, “Sumimasen,” (or the appropriate word) they had the scissors at the ready.
Here’s where the truly difficult task came into play: communicating what I wanted. My pacing paid off, as I had chosen a particularly slow time in the salon, so about three other hairdressers came over to help find out what I wanted. The clerk who said, “Hello” to me seemed to be the only English-speaker in the place, and was eager to practice her English. After trying to translate for a few minutes, one of the hairdressers brought over a few magazines for me to leaf through. Of course! Find a picture of what I wanted, and then they could do it. I went through the stack of magazines, but nothing seemed like my usual. But then, I was hit with a brainstorm. Rolling with the “show them a picture” idea, I reached into my wallet and pulled out my Alberta Driver’s License, which I still carry with me. I showed it to the team of hairdressers, and the manager (at least I assume she was the manager, she was definitely in authority) looked at my driver’s license photo and said, “Ahh! Very very short.” Yes! Exactly! The crowd dispersed and the hairdresser went to work.
About half an hour later, the hairdresser stopped cutting and waved over the lone English-speaker. The hairdresser said something to the translator, and the translator said to me, “How’s that?” I took a look and said, “Shorter, please.” The clerk went back behind her desk and the hairdresser went back to work.
Half an hour later, the hairdresser again waved over the clerk. Again, something was said, and again I was asked, “How’s that?” I took a second look and said, “Shorter, please.” The clerk went back behind her desk and the hairdresser went back to work.
Half an hour later. Wave. Japanese. “How’s that?” I look. “Shorter, please.” Clerk leaves. Hairdresser goes back to work.
Half an hour later. Wave. Japanese. “How’s that?” I look, and I say, “Dijobu.” One of the few Japanese words I’ve picked up. I’ve been told it means, “OK.” A sigh of relief goes through the shop as it looks like this difficult gaijin is finally happy. What can I say? I like it short. I’m ready to pay and go on my way, but oh no, that’s not where it stops in Japan.
From here they take me over to the sink and wash my hair again. Not that I objected, but it did seem to be quite the waste of resources. After this, I was escorted back to my chair, and the English-speaker was once again waved over. She looked at me and said, “OK, so now, I’m going to massage you. If you start to feel uncomfortable, just say so, and I’ll stop.” I just nodded, but in my head, I was screaming, “What kind of place was recommended to me?” Luckily, it wasn’t anything dirty, just a shoulder massage. Having never had a significant other to do those sorts of things to me, yes, it was my first shoulder rub. It was…unique. And then, I was done! I went off to pay my money. What only took a half-an-hour and cost $10 in Canada took me two and a half hours and cost ¥4000 in Japan (almost $50).
Here we are now, four months later, and I’m again ready for a haircut. Naturally, I wanted to go back to the place I went before, mainly because of the comfort factor. Now that I’ve been there, hopefully they’ll remember me, remember what I like, and it’ll be less of a hassle explaining what I want. But, again, I ran into a problem. For today is Monday, you see, and I’ve run into one problem with working a Tuesday-Saturday work week. Most Japanese holidays fall on Monday, so when you’re looking forward to doing all of your running around like an average Monday, you’ll discover it’s a holiday, and everywhere you wanted to go is closed. And that’s what happened to me, as I summoned up my courage to go back for my second haircut, only to discover the place was closed for the holidays.
Of course, there were still several other options open to me. There were some other barber shops open and I was certain I could go get a trim at one of them. But, it were as though I was transported back in time four months. I paced around the streets nervously, thinking about this place or that one, looking over the price lists out front. Again, I was just gripped by fear; a fear of being unable to communicate what I wanted. Of course, now I have a more convenient excuse than running from the barber shop in fear: “Well, my place wasn’t open.” The fact of the matter is I only went to my place once, and I’m certain I’d just get as good treatment from any other place. But because I went to that one place first a few months ago, it’s now cemented in my head that it should be my place. Even though I’ve been there once, it now has the warmth of familiarity to it.
Nothing I’ve done so far in Japan is a fearful as thinking about getting a haircut. It is truly the highest level of human interaction I’ve done, and pushes the language barrier to its uppermost limits. It takes me hours just to summon up the courage to walk into the shop. But when I am reminded that most other foreigners choose not to try it, I can’t help but feel a little smug. True, you may be mastering the language and climbing Mt. Fuji, but I’ve had a haircut! Beat that! Although, next week, as I am once again pacing nervously and trying to find the courage to go back, I know I will be contemplating buying a pair of clippers, supervillain looks be damned. Who knows, it could even be the start of a new career for me. Forget teaching English, you will all bow to the might of…DR. COLLUSUS! HA HA HA HA!!