Navigating Through Japan’s Black Hair Desert

Posted On May 25, 2021

Truth be told, hair care has never been my forte. Don’t get me wrong, wash and go’s, twists, topknot buns, etc. are great. But ask me what’s my “real” hair type, or how to tell when hair has too much or not enough moisture and…you’ve lost me. My hair journey has been a circuitous one to say the least. A relationship requiring constant communication and compromise. Unfortunately, this has only become more complicated after arriving in the land of the rising sun and realizing the depth of the hair desert here.

The Complication

For many melanated folks, hair is something of an exquisite masterpiece. A crown of glory that only we are blessed enough to rock. Yet, with such beauty comes great responsibility and a lot of effort. For those in cities, close proximity brings more resources and chances to find another foreigner who “knows how to do hair,” but they are rare luxuries even for those in Tokyo or Osaka. Forcing many to either travel (which isn’t always feasible), or explore the local Kawaneya for Pantene and Shiseido’s Tsubaki shampoo.

Of course, having expectations that there would or should be “natural hair care products” in Japan is a little far-fetched. Still, the process of trying to find something only reminds us of our differences. 

Meanwhile, it only takes a few tries before desperation and frustration set it.  Leading us to our dear friend, the Internet.

Our hunt takes us through the endless posts on Facebook where everyone is asking: What do we use?! Sadly, these desperate cries are met with only two viable options. The first is to go to the Meccas of hair care convenience, Amazon and iHerb. Of course! Anything can be found on these sites! Our excitement leaves us blind to the fine print, and it’s only when we notice ourselves accepting that ¥5000 shipping fee (around $50) at check out is it clear that this isn’t really sustainable.

Now, I’m not saying that Amazon or iHerb aren’t brilliant resources (if not the only reliable few), but shelling out a month’s worth of gas just for the shipping can add up. This brings us to the second option: bringing products back or having loved ones send them from home. This is an okay option, but the trick is anticipating whether or not these products will remain potent against the misleading Japanese climate. Sadly, it’s a fight we cannot win.

As our ends get drier and our curls hard to keep, some take a jump and go local.

Most of us have had an experience where a stranger in Japan has touched our hair. Some speak up or quickly mimic the offender. Others adopt a Matrix-like response to non-verbally cue their discomfort. So, what happens when Japanese hands are invited into our manes?

Okay. Let’s be real for just a second. I think it’s safe to say that at one time or another many of us have found ourselves watching “Black hair videos” in [insert Asian country here]. The ones on YouTube where our brave counterparts venture into a hair salon in said country and record their experience.

It’s academic. It’s pure entertainment. It’s in the name of science. Whatever the reason is for watching, these kinds of videos feel like a roller coaster. From the start, we sit mesmerized at the edge of our seat. Will the stylist be able to press their hair well? Can they do a clean fade? Did they even come close to the roots? For the love of everything that’s right in the world, don’t forget to section!

We look with bated breath as they detangle every curl. Each yank of the brush brings back childhood memories and we unconsciously wince. We feel for the customer. We feel even worse for the tired, but still enthusiastic stylist as they recruit others to help them towards the end. For those long 20 minutes, we sit with the staff and customer nervous, yet curious and hopeful that everything will turn out well.

This sense of hope is familiar because it is the same kind we hold for ourselves. It is a hope that cuts through the frustration as we continue to look for a better, more sustainable path past this hair desert. Recent conversations surrounding blackness have grown (admittedly slowly) with the increasing presence of Black bodies and movements in Japan. While much of the heavy lifting around hair care has been done through personal conversations with Japanese friends, students, eager stylists wanting to learn, and our partners there are two questions that still remain:

  • Will the growing buzz bring opportunity for a budding new market of Asian-supplied Black hair care products?
  • Who or what will it take for this stark desert to finally become a refreshing oasis? 

Written by Jessica Brooks

Jessica Brooks is a writer, musician, and fashion stylist. She loves storytelling, and believes that the greatest can be found in everyday life. When she's not writing, she's in nature, having tea with her obaa-chan crew, or eating unagi. Through her work, Jessica hopes to inform and encourage readers to push boundaries, explore, and be the authors of their own stories.

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