Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, April 01, 2005

Parting or Permanent?

“Are you an English teacher?”

I patiently stifle an inner sigh. I’ve been asked that question so many times even though the answer is painfully obvious. It’s even sillier since she already knows where I work. However, I understand perfectly that her real intent is to start the conversation. That’s not always easy to do. She probably could have said, “So, do you come here often,” instead, or asked about the weather, but I presented her with something different. For her, at least, it is a unique situation.

“Yes, that’s right,” I reply, my chin yanking the towel on my face out of position.

She readjusts the towel with one hand as she hoses off my hair with the other. “I only remember a little bit of my first-year English,” she says cheerfully. “I’m sorry.”

I chuckle. “That’s still better than some of my students. Some of them go off to college and come back barely remembering how to say their name.”

“That’s surprising,” she says, readjusting the towel again. “It must be very frustrating for you sometimes.”

As usual, this is my first visit to the haircut place in months. I usually only make it there two or three times a year. It’s hard finding the time for it. I go there and get my hair cut fairly short; one might even say “respectable”. By the time I make it back again, I look like John Lennon. No, actually, now I look more like Yung-san, that Korean soap opera star that has surprisingly become the latest heartthrob among Japanese women. I wouldn’t mind so much but for the looks of contempt I keep getting from my male peers and superiors at work.

The place I’ve been going to for the past seven years is a fairly fancy, European-style styling salon in Kashima’s largest shopping mall. It is rather pricey. I also know it drives them nuts that I always ask for just a cut. (I got a soft perm there once, which made them happy, but my wife made me promise never to do it again.) There’s also the fact that I’m probably the only male in my age group that goes there. While I’m waiting my turn, I’m usually surrounded by staring middle-aged ladies, spoiled-looking young women that try very hard to pretend I don’t exist, and the occasional sheepish-looking teenage boy or girl. A forty-year-old American man sticks out like a nail about to be hammered down. So why do I go there? It’s partly for the atmosphere. It’s pretty much just like the salons I went to in the States in my school days. As if to humor me, the stereo is usually blaring 80s music (ah, nostalgia!). They also have some cool magazines to keep me occupied while I’m waiting. However, I mainly go there because, unlike some of the traditional barber shops I’ve been to here, they have yet to screw up. If I’m going to look like a geek anyway, I’d rather be a somewhat stylish and well-groomed one instead of walking around with a dopey-looking, lopsided haircut.

With my visits to the salon as infrequent as they are, it’s not surprising that things change in between. The crew of stylists has largely remained the same, at least over the past five years or so, but the assistants are always different. As usual, the young woman that is washing my hair now is a new face, and a pretty one, at that. She’s also a lot less frosty than they tend to be. In fact, she’s downright warm…and talkative. But at least the conversation is entertaining.

As she washes my hair, it comes up that I’m also a music director and a musician. She tells me (quite excitedly) that, as a euphonium player, she was very active in her school band in her junior high school days. That might explain some of her eagerness to chat with me. Just about anyone who has been in a junior or senior high school band in this area during the past fifteen years knows who I am. Anyway, we talk about music for a while, and then, after a pause and a muffled, nervous giggle, she asks me a startling question:

“What do you think is the biggest difference between Japanese and American women?”

Wow. I’m not sure how to answer that. It’s not that I don’t have an answer. Assuming American women haven’t really changed all that much, I could probably name a few points, but they would probably make this poor girl upset. On the other hand, saying something like, “Japanese women are prettier,” would undoubtedly make her very happy, but that’s just a bit too cliché for me (pardon my being a bit of a snob). Instead, I just reply, in all honesty, “That’s a very difficult question. What’s considered ‘normal’ for Japanese women has changed a lot while I’ve been here.”

“Right,” she says thoughtfully. “Women here have gotten to be a lot stronger recently, haven’t they?” Strangely, she says it as if she’s not sure it’s such a good thing.

When I indicate my agreement, she sighs and adds a little bitterly, “It’s the men, too. Japanese men have had it. They just don’t try very hard anymore.”

“That’s true,” I retort. “But the women are trying hard. That’s good, isn’t it?”

She pauses as she starts rinsing my hair off. I hear her muffled, nervous giggle a couple more times. Then, quietly, she says, “But everybody ends up getting old…”

That’s a very surprising comment, but understandable. The media has been talking about it a lot, and I’ve been seeing it first hand at my school every day. Young Japanese men have become weak, lazy, unmotivated. Childish. On the other hand, the women, long oppressed throughout history, have suddenly become aggressive and assertive. They also tend to be very self-centered. It’s an almost complete reversal of traditional personality stereotypes, but without any change in traditional roles. That means that women are finally taking charge of their lives, but without any promising goals to look forward to. Initiative without an objective. It’s no wonder that the norm now is for young women to give themselves completely over to a decadent lifestyle, living with and sponging off their parents, blowing all their income on brand-name fashion goods and weekend romps, often until their thirties. The government, while raising all kinds of alarms about the dangerously-falling birthrate, actually supports the idea of these “parasite singles” because all that disposable income that they toss around helps keep the economy running.

And what are the men doing? They’re sitting there waiting for someone to take care of them. Their parents direct their education and their lives. A company recruits them and tells them how to do everything. Their spoiled, assertive girlfriends tell them what they want and when they want it, and they either say, “Okay” and go along with it or whine until they get dumped again. No direction. No motivation. No spine. No family jewels.

Marriage? The man will do it if mommy tells him to, provided she also finds him a bride. The woman will do it when she finally gets tired of playing.

But everybody ends up getting old…

It must be hard on those that don’t really want to play that game.

My regular stylist finally comes over and starts attacking my hair. He always does a good job, but he seems rather hasty today. He’s not being as careful or as thorough as he usually is. His conversation seems a bit more wooden than usual, too. He’s a busy man, but that doesn’t seem to explain everything. Clearly, he wants to finish up quick and get me out of there. Perhaps it’s because he started on me more than fifteen minutes later than my appointment. Perhaps it’s because I only want a measly cut. Perhaps it’s because, well, I’m a forty-year-old American man, and I probably don’t really belong there in fashion-land.

Looking in the mirror, I notice a familiar face behind me. It’s Yatagawa, a boy who has just graduated from my school. When he sees me, he bows politely. When my cut ends (rather abruptly, it seems), I turn around and greet him in a warm, friendly manner. He always used to be a real pistol, spunky and talkative. Now all he can do is eye me blankly and bow repeatedly. Fresh out of high school, and he’s already acting like a modern, young Japanese man.

I head toward the front counter, and the woman who washed my hair comes running over, a big, eager smile on her pretty face. After I pay, she hustles past me and holds open the door. When I turn to the coat rack instead, she lets out a cry, nearly trips over me in her rush to beat me to my coat, and helps me into it rather awkwardly. She is giggly and tongue tied, and she stands at the door, waving and blushing, as I head out into the darkened parking lot.

Poor girl. Pretty, pleasant, and probably lonely. It goes without saying that they don’t get adult men in that salon very often, particularly not American ones.

But, you know, everybody winds up getting old.


  • You go into a salon to get a haircut, and you have a beautiful young woman go all gooey over you. Does your wife know about this?:) Never think of your self as deprived again.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:31 AM  

  • Well, that's actually part of being a gaijin here. There are a lot of girls that will "go gooey" over anyone with round eyes and a strong nose. I've noticed that tendency has increased lately, too. I guess, as she said, "Japanese men have had it."

    Even so, such attraction is rarely serious. If I were actually to ask that girl out, chances are she'd freak out and bolt. Still, you never know. As I said, Japanese women have become a lot more aggressive these days.

    At my school, there are a lot of girl students that fawn over me, but at Christmas or Valentine's Day I get far fewer cards or presents than the Japanese teachers. As the kids get older, and the novelty wears off, they become increasingly cold to me. Graduates that come back to the school to visit rarely even acknowledge my existence. One 12th-grader once explained to me that, now that she was close to graduation, the teachers didn't seem like teachers anymore. They seemed like ordinary human beings. However, in my case, that meant I was "just a gaijin".

    I don't think my wife has much to worry about.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:59 AM  

  • Frequenting the same salon the past 5 years with no reason? I am sure there must be more than what meets the eyes!! Thank God, u've hair for cut! Some unlucky ones have none!

    By Anonymous najar, at 3:33 PM  

  • Actually I like the haircut better on the "Back in the Day" tour. A "soft perm"? NO WONDER I never saw you for those several months. And I thought it was something I said...
    It's true, tho. A haircut in Japan is heaven. An old-fashioned shave, ear cleaning, massage at the end...
    can't get that back in Canada unless you're up to no good. ;-)

    By Anonymous Jeff, at 7:36 PM  

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