The grass is always greener on the other side.
It’s a maxim that people are familiar with on both side of the Pacific, and it tends to come up whenever there is some discussion of hair.
Depending on the weather, my hair is anything from wavy to straight with exaggerated upwards curls at the ends to a massive head of fluff, but “curly” is not the first word I’d use to describe it, because I don’t typically have a lot of hair that follows a corkscrew shape. Geez, I wish it could all pick a shape and stick to it.
I’ve heard a lot of different things about Japan and curly hair throughout the years. My first Japanese teacher, who was from Okinawa, had a natural wave and mentioned how much her brother made fun of her for it when they were kids, since having curly hair was considered ugly. Shortly before moving to Matsue, I was told by someone who had lived in Japan a long time ago that I should consider straightening my hair as curls are considered a sign of mental weakness.
Not for those reasons, but yes, I do frequently play with the idea of permanently straightening my hair, though I’d likely never bother. Although I’ve left it to professionals to deal with for traditional Japanese hairstyles for kimono dressing contests (see those fun photos here, here, and here), I’m always anxious about what to try to force it to do to stay neat for tea ceremonies. In everyday life I’ve learned to embrace my hair for what it is and accept that people love it a lot more than I do, but that doesn’t change that I’ve always wanted straight, sleek hair!!
However, it’s people with the straightest, sleekest hair I’ve met here–of all ages–who sigh and say they wish they had hair like mine. I get more compliments on my hair on the days I give up with it and allow it to look a poor attempt at afro-meets-80’s-music-video, or on the days when it is at war with itself over whether it wants to be curly or crimped or simply fluffy. I’ve been asked many times, “Oh, Buri-chan, did you perm your hair?”
In which case I always respond, “天然パーマ (tennen paama)”–that is, ‘it’s a natural perm.’
And the conversation more often than not continues, “いいなぁ～” (‘Must be nice, I wish I could have a natural perm.’)
No! You don’t want a natural, unruly perm! And don’t bleach your beautiful, smooth, naturally wispy hair I wish I could have!
But such is the way the grassy maxim works, isn’t it? Such passing conversations about hair usually end with nodding in agreement about how true it rings, and both parties feel pleased to have received a compliment.
However, to say that everyone in Japan has the same natural texture–or even natural color–of hair is ridiculous. I have plenty of friends who also have fluffy hair with natural curl, including one of my naginata teachers. It was so gratifying one day to pass by her in June, during the rainy season and sporting my terrible Tsuyu-Style Hair, and she asked if I had it permed. When I told her I hadn’t and it was just because of the humidity, she grimaced and nodded, saying how much she and her daughter always dreaded Tsuyu Style as well.
Compliments are great and all, but sometimes it’s just more gratifying for someone to agree with your complaints.