Short Back and Sides

My barber never shuts up, yet he’s not the sort of guy who regales you with funny stories or little anecdotes about his dog : I could live with that, or even stoic silence. No, he pries without ever asking a question (yet never remembers a thing I tell him, so our “conversations” are an endless loop), is friendly without being amiable, and reveals so little verbally about himself that after five years I have no idea what his name is (I know his mother has a yappy, heel-nipping, carpet-sample dog because he brings it to the shop whenever she goes somewhere. I don’t know where). He and another guy run this barber shop in Namba, not far from the Takashimaya intersection. I don’t think they particularly like each other, and behave like an old vaudeville act who’ve been on the road together for far too long, but with no other option. However, they charge a cheap ¥1000 for a standard short-back-and-sides, and (unlike many old barbers in this town) they don’t automatically try to give a comb-over to every balding man who walks in , for which I am grateful. Their clientele is mostly older businessmen who work in the neighbourhood, and me. Any man under 30 goes to a hairdresser.

The partner looks slightly younger ( they’re both probably in their mid-50s), but is in fact more crotchety. The few times he’s cut my hair (very well, I admit), he goes on unsmilingly about how impolite kids are these days, just like American kids; or how sumo isn’t interesting anymore because there are no Japanese champions – just Mongolians, or Samoans or whatever, a sign that the young generation is too soft; or how Canada is a good country (his one concession to my presence in the chair), much safer than America, perhaps if Japan is lucky it will end up like that – at any rate, it will never be like old Japan again, not without love of country, which the teenagers don’t have…well, you lose a war that’s what happens, I guess…still…and on and on. You can comment if you like, but it doesn’t register. He talks like this to all his customers, getting varying degrees of sympathy (Osaka businessmen are notoriously conservative) and I’m sure he’s quietly delighted at the more nationalist pronouncements of the new prime minister.

My barber (I notice they make it a point never to scoop each other’s regular customers) goes about things differently. He looks somewhat like Roy Orbison gone to seed (complete with dark glasses), and has not changed his own style of haircut since Saturday Night Fever came out (query: all Japanese barbers, good or bad, have remarkably inappropriate haircuts – why?). Any session starts off with “Atsuidesunee,” (hot, isn’t it) or “Samuidesunee,” (cold, isn’t it) or some seasonal variant – as any Japanese conversation or letter does. Then a neutral statement which is in fact a question – for example, “no doubt you’ve been to the beer gardens this summer.” If I answer that I have, he will reply, blandly enough, “yes, foreigners love beer,” and observe that I probably drank at least a dozen glasses. Any denial of this will be ignored. If I mention that I’ve eaten sukiyaki, he’ll respond, “yes, foreigners love beef,” and muse that I probably never eat fish. Every other visit I mention how much I love sushi, but he somehow doesn’t retain that fact. If mention that I went to see the cherry blossoms with some women from the office, he’ll say, “yes, foreigners love Japanese women” (this remark often elicits a silent look of distaste from the other barber). This goes on mindlessly for the 20 or so minutes he takes to cut what hair I have left. I realise he’s not a bad old fellow, but we have been having essentially the same conversation every three or four weeks for five years.

It’s driving me up the wall.

Although I’m inadvertantly doing it all the time, I have a real aversion to deliberately offending anyone. Too polite? A bloody coward? Probably a bit of both. I also don’t have the guts to buy clippers and cut my own hair, like many of my other follically-challenged friends do. At any rate, I sometimes put off getting my hair cut for weeks at a time because after work I just can’t face the Groundhog Day routine. I realize now why so many men in Japan get their hair cut while fast asleep (or a reasonable facsimile). I’ve tried it: it works. But to do it every time would be a bit obvious.

Anyone else would just go to another barber. In fact, last month, I tried just that. I had put off a trim for as long as I could and felt shabby. I made my way to Mr Orbison’s. Full up! Two chairs occupied, four people waiting. Possibly payday (most companies in Japan pay their workers on the 25th or 28th of each month). I was in a hurry. I decided to try the QB (Quick Barber)”10-minute shop” behind Nankai Station. You put your money in a machine at the door, get a ticket, wait your turn. Impersonal shop, white and metallic, something 1991 about it. Young barbers, probably doing this dog-work to save up for a shop of their own. There I sat, and other than, “how short? 2mm? 1mm?” the barber barely said a word to me the whole session. In-out, 10 minutes. It looked fine. I was happy.

Last Friday, I went back to the 10-minute shop. Had only a ¥5000 note in my wallet. The ticket machine took only ¥1000 notes. Could they make change? Oh no, we can’t handle money, came the reply from the three unoccupied barbers. A chain: rules are rules. They suggested I go buy something at a nearby store and come back (with all the counterfeiting of the past few years, almost no shop in Osaka will break a high denomination note without a purchase). Instead of doing that obvious thing, I gave an indignant look and left the shop (I use the bad cold I’ve had all week as a feeble excuse for my bad manners). That left one alternative in the neighbourhood: my usual barber’s. I went in. No one there, except Mr Orbison (later, his partner came in and passive-aggressively turned off the radio and flicked on his usual cassette – I like to think it’s an 8-track – of movie themes from the 60s; I think if he were my regular barber, I’d have moved on years ago). It had been two months since my last visit. He gave the usual cut, but other than the usual remarks about the weather (“Suzushiidesunee,” it’s cool isn’t it), he was rather quiet. My disloyalty had been noted, but went unremarked. I tried to think of small talk, but gave up, said I had a bad cold, and feigned sleep.

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