They say that once you are able to talk to a barber and a cab driver in a foreign country, using a foreign language, you are now considered fluent. Of course until you reach that skill level you are considered a jackass (rough translation). Generally, the service industry is the front line of any country or culture. In Japan, however they have taken it up to a level that is difficult to comprehend for most western self-obsessed societies.
For example, here is a clip from my gas station story:
When you go to a gas station in Japan (to get gas mind you), a team of uniformed attendants converge on your car like trained mechanics from a Formula 1 pit crew. They fill, clean, and check your car so that it leaves just short of it’s purchase day condition. I was even asked once if I would like a special water resistant spray put onto my windshield because, “He thinks it might rain”. The final member of the pit crew will then dart out into the busy street to hold up his hand to the oncoming traffic using the international “HALT” gesture. The cars all slowdown and stop with no protests. He then gives you the international “ALL CLEAR” gesture by waving his hand down the now open street. Just when you think that one day you will blog about this because nobody back home will ever believe it, you look out your window back at the gas station. Along the gas pumps, the entire crew have lined up with their heads down, bowing to you as you drive away. Now I love exaggerating just as much as the next comedy writer, but this is no exaggeration. This is just how things are in Japan. Not just one time! This is what happens every time I get gas!
This kind of service is pretty standard throughout Japanese business and culture. It was the one concept from my culture shock list that I had the hardest time explaining to the folks back home. Everyone knows what a pain in the ass it is to use chop sticks, but the whole gas station crew bowing as you leave… who the hell is going to believe that?
With this in mind, I will try to explain the Japanese barbershop. I may not be the best person to gauge the differences in technique between U.S and Japanese barbers. Because, I must admit, I have never been to a barber. Any barber. Anywhere. Ever.
It may sound strange, but my uncle is Tony Colucci, the famous Italian barber who is known throughout Chicago as “The Guy”. In fact, my Italian side had a long lineage of famous Italian barbers going back to the immigrants leaving Italy. Why would you go to some local shop or hair salon when your uncle is “The Guy”. He would cut my hair right at my house when I was a boy and later I would just go to his shop. I’ve been going to him since the Norman Rockwell days. When waiting kids would get different flavored Tootsie Rolls and waiting men would get Playboy magazine. Because he was “The Guy”, and I was his family, I never made appointments or paid a dime. I showed up, he’d stop everything, throw his arms open, hug me, shake my hand, and make all the other customers wait while he cut my hair. This went on for 30 years. I just didn’t know how good I had it. I also didn’t know what customers actually “paid” for.
The day before I left for Japan he came over to my house and cut my long hair. As my godfather and “barber”, he became a important roll model for how I communicate and interact with people. All people. Including Japanese people. He is “the guy” who transformed me into a clean-cut corporate gentleman. A cultural ambassador to make America proud. It had never occurred to me, that maybe I should have asked him for some advice. What happens at a barber if you don’t know “The Guy”?
My first trip to the Japanese barber is its own crazy story (read it here). When I first started going, I had little experience to bring to the table, or the chair as it were. Now that I have had my haircut in Japan for a few years, I can confidently say this: Every time I walk into a Japanese barbershop, it turns into a two hour salon marathon that leaves me feeling like it’s my wedding day. And every time I walk out, I end up looking like Martin Sheen. Not Charlie Sheen mind you, there is too much controlled blow drying for Charlie’s look. I’m not sure of the reasoning for why I always end up looking like Martin Sheen. I have been to several different barbers, in different parts of the country, and I could tell you that it’s a cross-platform technique.
The Japanese barber, like their blue-collar cousins, the gas station attendants, feel the need to give you your money’s worth. All the barbers I went to possess the very common Japanese ability to look like they are rushing, yet take twice as much time. They always perform some kind of meticulous blow-drying and styling to my hair. I tell them in my best broken-Japanese, that I would like to keep the same low-maintenance hairstyle that I came in with… only shorter. But that always seems to translate into looking like Martin Sheen.
I imagine that all the barber schools in Japan have a textbook entitled; Learn the Rules Before You Break Them – The Martin Sheen Haircut. From this book, they study. I also imagine that Martin Sheen himself is there to give the speech at the school graduation ceremonies. I can see him at the podium donned in a black robe. A twisted red, white, and blue barber-pole tassel hangs off his square hat. His speech goes something like this:
“You’ve trained hard and practiced everyday. Now you will go out into the world and make everyone look like me. I’m proud of you… good luck, and godspeed!” He walks off the stage, as barber school students yell frenzied chants of “Martin… Martin… Martin!”
Choosing a barber in Japan is easy. I pick the one closest to where I’m living. It seems like there is a hair salon on every block in this country. Every third one has a barber pole. I think it’s the second oldest profession. (Probably better than having the first oldest profession on every block.) The Hair Stylist and the Barber have two different licenses. The barber needs an additional skill to allow for straight razor shaving.
A friend of mine in Japan has a different way of choosing a barber. His method is a little more particular. He chooses a barber he feels sorry for. Maybe his shop is never busy, or he is old, and young guys won’t go to his shop anymore. Once, when in his neighborhood, I inquired about the quality of the barber around the corner. He said,
“I don’t know… I go to the one-eyed barber on the other side of town.”
I paused. That was not what I thought he was going to say.
“Why would you go to a one-eyed barber who is not even conveniently located? Is he a Pirate?”
“He’s a nice guy, I feel sorry for him, ” he said with compassion.
“I would feel sorry for your haircut.” I mumbled. The English teaching biz is about 95% Japanese women; I can’t afford a haircut with no depth perception. If I can barely speak to these girls in their native language, I feel grateful to come out looking like Martin Sheen.
Very few of the Barbers I went to spoke a word of English. So the burden is clearly put on you (The long-haired person reading this post). I highly recommend visiting the old-school barber shop as a real-world test of your Nihongo skills. If you could talk to these barbers, not only will your Japanese language skills improve, you will probably get a wealth of information along with your Martin Sheen haircut.