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Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001

To hide or not to hide - the balding man's dilemma


Staff writer

For most men, the mere mention of going bald provokes a quickened pulse-rate and the onset of hyperventilation. To say the thought of hair loss scares most males is to dramatically understate the case.

In Japan, an estimated 11.5 million adult males -- almost one in four -- are bald, or balding. Eventually they'll have to make a decision: Either accept the hand dealt by their DNA, or take damage-limitation steps to delay or disguise it.

They may try hair-regrowth tonics, daily head massages or a change in diet (since oily and high-calorie food are believed to contribute to hair loss). But if all that fails, they may turn their thoughts to a wig or hairpiece -- both of which are covered by the Japanese word katsura.

According to Japan's leading katsura manufacturer, Aderans Co. Ltd., around 700,000 men in this country are believed to be sporting hair pieces.

Furthermore, wig-wearers appear to be getting younger. In fact, the same company reports about 60 percent of its new customers are now in their 20s, compared with just 35 percent in 1990, and that its sales last year totaled 50.7 billion yen -- 14 billion yen up on four years before.

Sociologist Fumio Sunaga, who wrote "Hage o Ikiru (Living With Baldness)," insists that having less than a full head of hair is nothing to be ashamed of or concealed and that "the public should change its attitude." However, although Sunaga argues that "it is socially acceptable to make fun of balding men," the reality runs counter to that.

This may help explain why the wig business is much bigger in Japan than in Europe where, for example, hair loss affects far more men: around 38 percent in the Netherlands, 39 percent in France and 41 percent in Germany.

One of Japan's most famous wig-wearers certainly appears to bear out the social difficulties facing less than fully hirsute men. In his book "Katsura no Himitsu (The Secret Life of a Wig-Wearer)," sports writer Nobuya Kobayashi observed last year that "your masculinity is questioned simply because you're balding." said that when he started losing his hair in his late 20s, he didn't want others to tease him, and so started to wear a wig.

"If you have a strong inferiority complex about your hair, and it affects your personality and behavior, you can wear a wig. It is a sure solution to such hair-related problems," said Kobayashi, who has worn one for more than 12 years.

For anyone seriously thinking of buying a wig, however, there are some sobering facts to confront. First of all, men's wigs are really expensive. At Aderans, for instance, the price of a custom-made wig is determined by the area of hair loss, and ranges from 70,000 yen to more than 700,000 yen.

Even though many customers visiting a wig company's salon for the first time area surely shocked to hear the price, most find it hard to leave without buying one. As Shigeru Inoue, wig-wearing spokesman of German wigmaker Svenson, candidly put it: "Visiting a wig company itself is a very stressful and frustrating event for many men. They have no energy left to go to different companies and compare the price and quality."

To make matters worse, the wigs themselves can "go bald." With time it not only gradually changes color but also hairs begin to curl and fall off, revealing the wig's foundation.

"How long a wig stays in good condition depends on how the person uses it," says Inoue. "If he is not exposed to the sun much, he may be able to use it for nearly four years. But the wig of a professional scuba diver won't last a year. Overall, I would say the average usage period would be 2 to 21/2 years."

In addition to these factors, the wig-wearer's woes can include the psychological burden of constantly hiding the fact he is wearing one, as Kobayashi detailed in his book.

For many years, the author says, he wore wigs that were attached to his remaining hair by metal clips on the hairpiece. Wearing these wigs, however, made his life stressful and miserable. For fear they would fall off or be dislodged and expose his secret, he avoided sports, going to hot springs (where not washing his hair would seem odd), or even nodding off on the train.

For him, all that changed a couple of years ago, when he found a wig that can attached far more securely. With this particular wig, a man's remaining hair is first braided into a band around his head and then the wig's hair is woven into the braid. As a result, even the wearer himself can't take off the wig.

Of course, there is a high price to pay for such a wig.

Kobayashi said that, ironically, after he found this improved wig he felt able to publicly reveal his secret, to write his book, and even to appear wigless on television and in photos.

"I used to be so self-conscious when I was wearing a 'bad' wig," he said. "I always believed I would be ridiculed if I showed my bald head. Strangely, since my baldness has been publicized, I don't care much about how other people regard my appearance."

Nowadays, he still wears a wig -- simply, he says, because he likes the way he looks with one. But he has firm advice for anyone thinking of doing the same.

"First, you should not choose a wigmaker because of their ubiquitous advertisements or name value. Big companies are not necessarily good wigmakers.

"Second, if possible, don't conceal the fact you are wearing a wig. It will certainly relieve you of a psychological burden if you can tell others about your secret."



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