On both sides of my family lineage, I am British. Way, way, way, way back kind of British. There’s enough family trees and ancestry tracing in my family to tell you that. I’m very generic in that blue-eyes, blonde-hair Australian stereotype way, and it always felt nice to fit in with that narrative in an easy way. While I’m not a sun-kissed surfer babe, as I grew up in the country, hours away from the nearest beach, it felt like I belonged in the typical Australian backdrop.
When I was young, I had white-blonde hair. My mum had the same mousy-brown colour I have now at 23, but always brightened it with a blonde toner. My dad is a ginger, who has been slowly greying. And while my brother had a lighter brown colour when he was young, his hair and beard are now dark brown, almost black, and has been since primary school.
My brother used to tease me for my blonde hair, saying I had to be adopted because my hair colour was so different. My mum was obsessed with it, but had it cut short because I refused to let her brush it. That’s why the last time my hair was cut short was over 7 years ago; I have it long now to make up for all those years of constant haircuts.
Years of people obsessing over my own hair led to me to become fascinated with it in general. But I’ve always been drawn to light hair, like the original golden blonde colour I had in my youth and that no amount of hair dye will ever recover. To me, that is what I, and what I assume others, picture as an ideal style.
The experience of going through Japanese hair stylists and influencers and really investing in the trends valued by another society was incredibly eye-opening to me. It forced me to look beyond my own comfortable expectations and aspirations when it came to hair and try to understand why certain styles were idealised.
Firstly, when it came to colour I noticed that a lot of the looks were natural colours, but often lighter than a natural, all-over block black. Not light enough to be considered blonde in most cases, but that lighter brown and red hues were being picked up.
Because black hair is at one extreme level of pigmentation it’s incredibly hard to change the colour, as you must first remove the dense pigment by oxidising it, and then the hair will only go to the next colour in the spectrum: red (Gray 2004, p. 43). This process is by no means easy, as lightening black hair requires a whole lot of bleach which can be painful and burn the scalp and the hair (Chen 2017).
I have never been so thankful for the little amount of time I need to spend at the salon to touch up my locks than I was reading Chen’s horrific account of what Asian women must undergo to dye their hair blonde. It is very clear why lightening only to browner or redder shades was so popular on the Instagram feeds – it’s no easy or desirable process to change colours.
The general styling theme present throughout my experience was that of a longer bob haircut. I found that girls were often having their hair cut shorter into a shoulder-length or higher cut and almost always featured a fringe. This style appears to be a trendier, updated version of the school-girl ‘okappa’ haircut.
The okappa look has historically been a very popular and traditional haircut, particularly for school girls, featuring straight bangs and the hair cut to neck length. It is named after a mythical half-frog, half-human creature with a fringe which lives in river areas and is often friendly towards people (Yamada 1997, p. 108).
The okappa hairstyle seems to have had an update, with a more modern and fresh look being adopted throughout Japan. While I certainly had a similar haircut growing up – a fringe and a bob – I have no desire to return to short hair any time soon, but Japanese women seem much less afraid to chop off their adolescent fuelled long-grown hair when they become adults.
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I found that hair accessories were popular in Japan. Rakuten had thousands of accessories available, and many of the Instagram photos featured accessories in the hair styles.
I discovered accessories have been an important aspect of Japanese life for centuries, through both practical uses and symbolism.
Hair pieces have historically been used to accommodate and allow for both elaborate and everyday hairstyles, for example using obi to tie back long hair in the Kamakura period (1185–1333) (Choi 2006, p. 76). Hair combs may also act as a secondary symbol to the fertility and sexuality associated with long hair in Japan, signally that they can overcome wild unruliness with order and control (Ebersole 1998, p. 93).
This example shows again that modern Japanese society is still connecting with historical influences and beliefs, using hair accessories as a cultural tool of expression.
The way I feel connected to Australian culture is by adopting and aspiring to the trends that are most popular and signal my background of a ‘blonde Aussie’ to others. Though I have not been conscious of this fact up until now, I can recognise the importance of following in the footsteps of the style guide created by the media and my family.
The same can be said for girls in Japan when they head to their local salon to update their hairstyle. Subtle ways can connect us to our idea of who we are and how we fit into our society.
With the challenges that are presented by having a different genetic hair colour and strand type, and the symbolism of hair that is weaved throughout Japanese culture, I am beginning to better understand why certain trends are popular in Japan and why people are going to idealise different styles throughout the world.
Choi, N 2006, ‘Symbolism of Hairstyles in Korea and Japan’, Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 65, pp. 69-86.
Ebersole, G L 1998, ‘”Long Black Hair Like a Seat Cushion”: Hair Symbolism in Japanese Popular Religion’, in Hiltebeitel & Miller (ed), Hair: Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures, State University of New York Press, United States of America, pp. 75-104.
Gray, J 2004, The World of Hair Colour, Cengage Learning, United Kingdom.
Yamada, H 1997, Different Games, Different Rules: Why Americans and Japanese Misunderstand Each Other, Oxford University Press, United States of America.