Clip, Smile, Bow: Barber Boot Camp For Japanese Girls

With Samurai-like discipline, an apprentice learns how to ensure comfort for customers

It may be the kindest cut of all.

The young women who clip, wash, and sweep up hair at Akira Nakagawa's barbershops conduct themselves with enough courtesy to impress a charm school headmistress. The many elements of a Japanese-style cut-and-shave - two shampoos, two scalp rubs, a shoulder massage, and the shearing and shaving of all unwanted hair above the collarbone - can take nearly two hours.

Through it all, Mr. Nakagawa's workers coax their customers along, making sure that the steaming face towel is not too hot, the hair style is right, and there is no discomfort.

"I'm not trying to teach girls to be the No. 1 haircutters in all of Japan," says Nakagawa, who runs a beauty school in Tokyo along with three barbershops. "I want to upgrade the whole experience."

As one who has experienced a dozen or so haircuts under the scissors and razors of Nakagawa's employees, this correspondent can attest that he has succeeded in his mission. But the Nakagawa experience - particularly the youth and sincerity of his workers and the sheer Japanese-ness of their manner - demanded closer scrutiny.

Values and a good perm

Nakagawa is clearly successful in instilling some key Japanese values in his students, such as the willingness to tough out adverse circumstances and a devotion to duty. His system evokes the apprenticeships of an earlier era, but it also demands the dedication that many modern Japanese corporations require of their workers.

Japanese workers are often said to be married to their jobs. At Nakagawa's workplaces, the connection between marriage and employment isn't just figurative.

In addition to being a businessman, Nakagawa is a matchmaker of sorts. In the 26 years that he has run barbershops, Nakagawa estimates that he has arranged more than a hundred marriages for the girls who have worked for him. It's not that men come in for a haircut and leave with a wife, he explains, but that grandfathers and uncles inquire quietly about the possibility of arranging an introduction for a nice young man.

Nakagawa's academy is called the 5-6-7 Barber and Beauty School, since those admitted are 15, 16 or 17 years old. They are graduates of Japan's junior high schools who decide not to go on to high school. Instead, they join Nakagawa's academy, where they learn their trade and earn the national barber and beautician licenses that will enable them to work independently.

Nakagawa wants students to stay with him for 10 years, but says that six years are "essential." Japan's Ministry of Health and Welfare says at least four years are needed to earn the two licenses.

But Nakagawa's training goes beyond haircuts and permanents. He teaches his students how to "behave" and how to speak using extremely polite forms of Japanese. All his students are young women.

He is part Professor Henry Higgins (teaching Japanese Eliza Doolittles how to speak properly) and part lord and master. The students address him as "father," his wife as "mother," and each other as "sister."

"My parents and friends are surprised because I speak better," says Hitomi Jin, who is in her first year at the school. "I'm becoming much more of an adult," she adds, although her youthful face and bashful smile don't register too much adulthood.

Nakagawa's theory is that a lot can go wrong between a hairdresser or barber and a customer. "No matter how much you train or practice," he says, "it's inevitable that some customers will be made uncomfortable or upset" when they sit down in the chair for an hour or more of grooming.

So he trains his workers rigorously, emphasizing the repetition of procedures. For students, this system means countless hours spent clipping and curling the hair on life-size plastic heads in a mirrored basement room. A student doesn't cut the hair of a paying customer until she is in her fourth year of training. Months of practice precede even the first shampoo in the barbershop.

He also instills an unusual degree of deference and self-effacing politeness - this in a society where encounters between customers and those who serve them are normally replete with deference and politeness. In training, the girls bow - deeply - to the plastic heads.

Learning these traits is in part accomplished by repeating a series of slogans. "Argument is no good. Be obedient. We depend on each other. We help each other," goes one chant. "Being tough on yourself will make you grow, and being soft on yourself will spoil you."

Twelve-hour days

No one could accuse Nakagawa of being soft on his students. The girls work and train from 8 a.m. until 8 or 9 p.m., and the barbershops are usually open six days a week. One day a month, Nakagawa takes students to nursing homes and hospitals where they provide free haircuts in exchange for the opportunity to cut the hair of a real person.

Learning under Nakagawa is a demanding commitment. Most of the girls come from areas outside of Tokyo. They go home only once a year, during a five-day break each girl gets in the summer. "The only free time is during the summer recess, when we can go home, but we have the telephone and we can write letters," Ms. Jin says.

She joined Nakagawa because her school records were "not very good" and she wanted something to do. After a three-day visit to 5-6-7, she enrolled. She lives with 32 girls in a nearby house, complete with bunk beds, that serves as dormitory. Fifteen girls occupy the house's biggest bedroom, more-senior girls share smaller rooms.

The living arrangement is cramped even by Japanese standards.

The daily routine revolves around work, practice sessions, meals, bathing, and sleep. The busy schedule effectively rules out the possibility of a boyfriend, and Jin says it's difficult to maintain connections with friends back home. "I don't have a lot of free time," she adds. "Sometimes I'd like to have more."

Unlike many vocational programs, Nakagawa's students get paid while they study. During the first three years, he says, students receive about $600 a month, once fees for meals, tuition, and housing have been subtracted from a basic monthly salary of about $1,130.

In later years, when the girls work more than train, Nakagawa says they make more, but won't say how much.

Given the close quarters in which his students live and work, Nakagawa concentrates on maintaining harmony. He forbids the girls from forming cliques or factions. "One of the things I have to teach is consideration," he says.

Sumie Koseki, now in her sixth year with Nakagawa, remembers a dispute with other girls as the worst part of her experience. To cut down on disruptions, Nakagawa encourages the students to consult with each other and to "shift the negative into the positive."

"However trying or agonizing, life is endurance, perseverance, and patience," goes one of his motivational phrases. In the same breath, it adds: "Behave cheerfully, delightfully, and merrily."

'Scold Me, Please': Slogans Teach Pupils More Than How to Wash, Cut, and Comb

Akira Nakagawa, who runs three barbershops and a training school in Tokyo, devised these 'Heart and Harmony' slogans for students. The girls recite them together twice a day. A sample:

Good morning, father. Good morning, mother. Good morning, sisters.

Today will be another wonderful day.

We can make it. It will be OK, it will be easy - a success, a pleasure, and a delight.

It will be good, excellent, great, splendid. We'll make it!

I will be a woman other people appreciate.

My sulky, obstinate, egotistic, and arrogant self - just fly away!

I will be a much-loved woman.

I will live for myself today. I am reborn today. Be yourself.

Get used to being defeated. Learn to be put to shame. Be a fool.

Argument is no good. Be obedient. We depend on each other. We help each other.

Being tough on yourself will make you grow, and being soft on yourself will spoil you. Put yourself into hard situations.

Scold me, please. Snap at me, please. Curse me, please. Complain to me, please.

However trying or agonizing, life is endurance, perseverance, and patience. Behave cheerfully, delightfully, and merrily.

Practice, practice, and practice! Train, train, and train! Try, try, and try again!

If you don't do it, who will? If you don't do it now, when will you do it? Try, try, and try again!

The master and his pupils are one in spirit. You and me are one in spirit. Try, try, and try again!

What is good will come to light. What is wrong will also come to light. Try, try, and try again!

Just smile, and say, "Yes." Try, try, and try again!

*Translated by Miharu Hasegawa

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