Reflections on healing trauma, writing, and books by Tokyo-based memoirist
My Inability to Cope with Japanese Beauty

My Inability to Cope with Japanese Beauty

When I first moved to Japan, my beauty routine fell apart. A lot of the products I’d used in the US aren’t sold here, and even when I lived in the US, where I could read the labels, I struggled to find the right products. I wanted things that at least semi-delivered on their promises, I didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg, and I tried to keep my purchases as vegan and cruelty-free as possible. That’s a lot to ask for, but after years of experimentation and research, I had a few staples.

Japan is famous for its beauty products, so when I moved here, I expected a wonderland of cheap things that work well, but that hasn’t been my experience. Maybe I’m just an especially incompetent consumer, but I struggled. They use different words. I don’t mean that the words are in Japanese (because, duh), but I mean, they say things that don’t make sense to the English-speaking mind; like they use the word “emulsion” to mean moisturizer (perhaps? I’m still not sure) and sell products that address problems such as “horny care” and “bouncy care.” There’s also no indication of whether a product is vegan or cruelty-free.

For the first several years, I was just trying to survive here, so I stopped keeping up my appearance altogether. I let my hair get unkempt and frizzy, and I stopped shopping for skincare and clothes. I cared. I felt terrible about it, actually, but I felt helpless to do anything about it.

The first time I got my hair cut here, my hair had grown past my elbows, and I asked the girl to cut it to my chin. She was shocked and didn’t want to do it. I tried to explain that my hair wasn’t long on purpose. I’d just not bothered to get it cut, and I was tired of dealing with it. She did what I asked, and that bought me some time before I desperately needed another cut.

When I got my second haircut in Japan, the guy almost talked me into a Japanese straight perm. I didn’t want to get one right then, but I thought that maybe I would in the future. After all, if I took the wave out of my hair, it’d probably be a lot easier to deal with.

The third time I got my hair cut in Japan was just this past summer. I hadn’t intended to wait so long again, but the pandemic happened and nobody was getting their hair cut. I finally had an excuse for letting myself go. Anyway, I got my hair cut last August, and the first thing the guy said was, “Your hair is very dry.” And, I thought defensively to myself, “No! It’s not dry! It’s just not moisturized!” He then offered me a moisturizing treatment. I usually automatically refuse extra treatments at the salon because I hate feeling like I’m being upsold, but I had to accept that he was right. My hair was a disaster. So, I took the treatment.

Stylist number three didn’t try to convince me that a straight perm would solve my problems. As a matter of fact, as he styled my hair, he said, “I really like your wavy hair.” Since when did anyone in Japan find wavy hair was likable? That’s why they are such masters of the straight perm. Some Japanese people have naturally curly and/or wavy hair. You’ll just never see it on a woman (unless she’s a real nonconformist) because they consider it to be so unattractive. Also, it gets so insanely humid here that any amount of wave or curl becomes hard to tame.

After that last visit to the salon, my hair was greatly improved, and I didn’t have to do anything drastic, like get a perm. That opened the door for me. I bought myself some new shampoo, treatments, and conditioners. I was skeptical that any of it would work, but I finally felt like it was worth a try. My hair is in much better shape now, and I didn’t spend an arm and a leg. I have no clue whether any of it is vegan or cruelty-free, but I’ve been punishing myself for years by trying to be perfect in every regard. When I leave Japan and have easier access to ethical products, I’ll go back to them, but until then, I can’t torture myself anymore.

Once I found myself enjoying hair products, I got myself some skincare. I’m not really sure what these products are meant to do. I stick to things that say they’re for regular skin and avoid added fragrances and parabens. I figure that’s the safest bet. After my shower, I throw on a sheet mask. Before bed, I use three different moisturizers for my face and body. So far, I’m enjoying everything. Despite the humidity of the summer, the winters here are extremely dry, so moisture is needed.

So, that’s how things are going now.

My writer’s group meets this weekend, so I’ll download the submissions today and start reading. Every month, I’m impressed by how deeply the rest of the group reads the pieces, and I vow to read more carefully next time. Then, when I’m reading a piece, as soon as I run into what I consider to be a structural issue, I become less invested. My brain decides that there is no point in looking at the details because structural problems often lead to rewriting, so what do I care about that shaky metaphor? Anyway, I’ll do my best this time.

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