Saturday, 21 January 2017

Colored Hair Out — Black Hair In

Since the latter half of the 1990s, dyeing hair has become a rage in Japan, spreading to other parts of Asia. For a decade, a bobbing sea of fashionable colored hair women and young men has strolled through the central areas of major cities. Recently, the tide has turned — the hair-coloring craze is ebbing and the glossy black hair is back in vogue.

Coloring hair, known as chapatsu (tea hair), covers a wide range of choices from yellow to brown, including the conspicuous shades of orange, green and purple. Some of the most popular hues among women sound like names of exotic beverages — caramel mocha, mocha tea, jasmine tea, pink ash, and sugar pink. Despite a spectrum of colors available at hair salons and stores, most Japanese prefer lightening their hair with various hues of brown. At the extreme end, Ganguro, women with bright blonde locks and dark faked tans, offset by white lipstick, epitomize the overhaul physical oriental appearance for the fun, daring trendy looks.

Dyeing one’s hair can immediately transform one’s self-image as well as project one’s desired image to others. For the elderly, concealing graying hair under a black coat presents an image of being younger. On the other hand, lightening black tresses makes a young face appear larger and livelier. In addition, unmarried adults claimed that brown hair conveys casualness, while black hair promotes seriousness. Both men and women commented that they prefer playing the field with brown-haired dates but settling down with black-haired spouses.

Customarily, a Japanese opts for a different hairstyle right after a romantic breakup, marriage, or divorce, as a step to a fresh beginning in life. The ones who altered their hair color associated dyeing hair with wearing a new hairstyle.

Although wigs could be a quick fix for switching to a different hairstyle, changing hair color or concealing thinning hair, most Japanese compared putting on a wig to wearing a rug. Unfortunately, the idea of donning a wig has never been a positive one as though the wearer has something to hide. Worse still, tabloid papers tend to make fun of celebrities who wore wigs in “wig allegations,” with the same zest as reporting speculations of extramarital affairs.

Hair color has always been a statement in the Japanese culture. In the past, natural black hair was considered the social norm; even the elderly dyed their hair black as an expected tradition. Bleached hair was exclusively reserved for a minority who consistently sought attention — celebrities, musicians, bar hosts and juvenile delinquents.

At the turn of the 21st century, young adults and middle-aged women have eagerly embraced hair dyeing as a hairstyle fashion, whereas the traditional society has never really welcomed it. In fact, most schools still ban colored or tinted hair, while corporations and government ministries tend to resist hiring someone with dyed hair for any responsible position. Politicians, company presidents, bank officials, police officers, and salary workers continue to uphold a conservative black-haired culture.

The social phenomenon for coloring hair could be attributed to the following reasons: to seek individuality; to go against the social norm; to try something different; and to be trendy.

When the Japanese government attempted to promote creativity in classroom activities under the slogan “my own pace,” its efforts spilled over to the mainstream consciousness — seek freedom of expression. Dyed hair portrays a model of the modern, independent individual. In a conservative male-dominated society, it’s not surprising that largely women and young men who have yet to enter the corporate world so readily embraced a novel hairstyle against the social norm. Furthermore, the expression ‘nai-mono nedari’ best sums up the Japanese obsession with occidental looks — ”to want something you don’t have.” Moreover, in a trend-setting nation, fear of being left behind on Japan’s fashion revolving door sees many just following the leader, in which most imitated their idols.

The irony of seeking individuality and being different among trend-conscientious Japanese is that they ended up as the majority looking the same. Maybe, that is one of the causes for the dwindling interest in dyeing hair.

In addition, the waning of the craze has much to do with the media touting black hair as “natural beauty,” hyped in numerous fashion magazines and in the hit commercial advertising Asience shampoo with a catchy phrase — “Hair that is the envy of the world.” Furthermore, international Asian celebrities with silky straight black hair, such as Choi Ji Woo of South Korea and Zhang Ziyi of China, added to the media’s big push for natural hair color. More significantly, people whose tresses have been damaged from dyes over the years now want to restore the luster of natural black hair.

Still, some fashion enthusiasts, unsatisfied with plain black hair, use black coloring treatments that include highlights of other hues. With these treatments, the black hair reveals other shades (pink, blue, or dark brown) when it reflects light. Black with highlights has surged in popularity, for it simultaneously gives the joy of coloring hair and the appeal of natural oriental hair.

Perhaps, the fading Japanese trend of coloring hair other than black will spill overseas. Only time will tell if black hair will regain its ubiquity throughout Asia.

(First published on, April 1, 2006)