How Not to Get a Haircut in Japan

moving illustration of a dark haired white man with blue eyes having his hair cut by a japanese barber. the white man has a frazzled expression and there are two text bubbles that appear over his head one says "#1?" and the other says "#9?"

 TripSavvy / Joshua Seong

After living in Tokyo for several months, I wasn’t a tourist anymore. I was a well-seasoned traveler, an expat. I was practically a local.

Let’s consult the facts. I’d been around. A week in London and Paris as a teenager. Study Abroad in the UK. Teaching History and Literature in Korea for seven months. Several lessons in the Japanese language with a corresponding vocabulary of at least 40 words. I was a world-weary adventurer and expert linguist—Noam Chomsky to the power of Marco Polo.

My Tokyo adventure this time was deceptively simple: get a haircut.

You don’t think that qualifies as an adventure? Well, let me tell you a secret. Come closer. Now, don’t tell anyone, but...I’m afraid of haircuts.

Not afraid of getting stabbed with scissors or having an ear snipped off. No, just afraid of getting a terrible haircut. I’m not sure why, but I can’t express myself effectively with barbers. I mean, I have a Ph.D. in English, I’ve studied Semantics and Communication, I’ve taught Public Speaking, so why can’t I speak to the person cutting my hair?

Before a haircut, I tend to stare into the mirror for a good hour. Not in a weird way. Just to collect information, analyze the situation, and make decisions. Next, I search for words. This is what I want. Therefore, this is what I need to say. I parse the grammar and diagram sentences the way I was taught back in elementary school. I come up with a perfect script. Memorize it. Close my eyes, breathe deeply, visualize a decent haircut. I can do it! I deserve it! I’m worthy of love and respect! I buff my self-esteem with the wax and chamois of nurturing words. Then I drive to the barbershop, trip over my tongue, and stare in horror at the results.

You know the disturbing hairdos that Johnny Depp sports in each of his films? I wish my hair looked as good as Willy Wonka, Captain Jack Sparrow, or Edward Scissorhands but instead I end up looking like someone who self-administered a haircut with a butter knife and pruning shears.

So now you know my dirty little secret. I have an obscure cognitive disorder known as “short-term, single-context aphasia,” STSCA for short. There’s nothing wrong with my brain or tongue, until I get into the barber chair. This is undoubtedly the result of childhood trauma induced by the bowl-cuts Mom inflicted on me. Or the times Dad brought me to Bob’s Barbershop and asked for a regular boy’s haircut.

As you can imagine, if a regular coiffure was a little scary, a haircut ordered in a foreign language was downright terrifying. But I was ready. This time was going to be different. I was a world traveler now. I was strong, experienced, and fearless. I’d moved to Japan, flying across the Pacific for 13 hours without sleep. Nothing could stop me now. I made an action plan and was determined to prevail: I would speak coherently to a fellow human being.

It was difficult, but I buckled down, made flashcards, learned all the relevant Japanese words:

Barbershop

Toko-ya
Barber Riyoshi
Haircut Katto
Blow-Dry Buro

Admittedly, not all the words were difficult:

Perm Pama
Shampoo Shampu

I wanted to be prepared so I went so far as to learn sentences. In their entirety.

How much is a haircut? Katto wa ikura desuka?
A haircut, please!  Katto wo onegaishimasu!

I also brushed up on clipper jargon. I was going for a buzzcut, where the barber uses clippers instead of scissors. Buzzcuts are ordered by number—the smaller the number, the shorter the hair. The longest is #9, and the shortest is #1. I’d get a #9—short, but not too short.

What could go wrong? My plan was foolproof!

The third element of my plan: make an appointment, get there early, flip through magazines, and find a picture. If all else fails, point to the magazine, point back at myself: Kore wa! Kore wa! Meaning, This! I want this!

I practiced all week. My wife and I role-played. She was the barber. I came in and asked for a haircut. She tripped me up by asking “distracting” questions—such as “How are you?”—and creating unforeseen “diversions,” such as asking me to sit down.

Finally, I was ready. I arrived 30 minutes early, took a seat, and flipped through the magazines. A few were in English. Cat Fancy? No. Consumer Reports? No. There was one more. Sports Illustrated. The all-hockey Issue. Hockey players aren’t really known for their fashion sense. Maybe I’ll just—

“—Tsugi!” Next!

I turned. The barber was waiting. He was about 80 years old, had thick glasses, and his eyebrows needed landscaping—the hairs grew wild, nearly covering his line of sight. Suddenly, I wasn’t so optimistic about the haircut.

“Konichiwa,” he said.

“Konichiwa.”

“An-do-ru?” he asked.

“Hai, so desu.” Yes, I’m Andrew.

“Dozo. Suwatte kudasai.” Please. Sit.

I sat and stared at the black combs swimming like goldfish in tanks of blue barbicide.

The barber said...something. I asked, in English, if he spoke English. He answered, in Japanese, something…I couldn’t understand.

Without language, I was lost. Scared, rattled, confused, panicking, infantile. I was sweating uncontrollably. What am I supposed to say? I can’t remember. #1? Yes, that’s it.

“Ichiban, dozo.” #1, please.

“Hai.”

I took off my glasses.

He switched on the clippers and took a few introductory swipes at my hair.

The barber stopped and pointed to my head. “Anata wa sore ga sukidesuka?” Do you like it?

I put my glasses back on and looked. Oh no. All the hair was gone.

At first I was too stunned to speak, move, or blink. What just happened? Oh, right. #9. I was supposed to ask for #9. Not #1.

A few minutes earlier I’d had a thick head of dark hair, but now I was essentially bald. And not in a good way. You see, I have a big, square, Frankensteinian head. I need a thatch of hair to cover it up and not look like such a freak. Especially since I had a job interview coming up in a few days.

I don’t know how many of you suffer from STSCA. Neither the American Medical Association nor the American Psychological Association has recognized it yet, but our time will come. It’s a serious, chronic, debilitating, tonsorial-specific condition. After the Japanese incident, my fear was so crippling I didn’t get another haircut for more than two years.

Eventually, I recovered, the hair grew back, and my baby daughter stopped being scared of me. I spent another few months in Tokyo, a year in Okinawa, and a decade in the Middle East. I saw Africa, Australia, Latin America, and visited unlikely places such as Oman, Tunisia, and Malta. I climbed the Great Wall of China, saw the Pyramids, spent summers in Tuscany, and got lost in the labyrinthine souqs of Fes.

Travel has taught me many lessons. Patience, preparedness, tolerance, respect. Always carry a handkerchief—and a roll of toilet paper. Travel can be wonderful, strange, and humbling. It often filled me with awe and wonder, but other times it was simply awkward and embarrassing. 

I also became quite proficient in Japanese. I learned to speak and, to some extent, read the language. My favorite phrase is Chōdo torimu. It means: Just a trim.

I can say it in 23 languages, just in case.

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