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Sunday, Oct. 15, 2006
HAIRCUTS ON HIGH
Top trimmer styles two leaders in a row
By YOKO HANI
Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has declared he will continue his predecessor's reform policies. That's hardly a surprise, as Abe was Chief Cabinet Secretary under former leader Junichiro Koizumi, and before that was secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party when Koizumi was its president.
What may come as a surprise, however, is the fact that Abe shares another crucial bond with Koizumi -- their hairdresser.
"Koizumi's hairstyle has a strong impact, and I thought it would definitely be a talking point when he became prime minister," Tadashi Muragi, both men's hairdresser, said in the small basement shop in Tokyo's political hub of Nagatacho where he started working with his father about 25 years ago.
"But that's probably not the case for Abe. He has thick, dark hair but the style is conventional."
Nonetheless, for Muragi, 48, it is a remarkable distinction to look after the locks of two consecutive prime ministers -- with lion-maned Koizumi having been a regular for about 30 years, and Abe a customer for the last 13 years.
Certainly, Koizumi's permed look distinguished him from the mass of his lookalike fellow politicos, and seemed to gel perfectly with the "maverick" qualities he displayed during his five-year tenure. So will Abe follow the same strategy of using his head to appeal to the public? Permed long hair, perchance?
Muragi smiles and says, "I think it's difficult to have a big change in his hairstyle now, because he has already set his image as it is."
For Muragi, though, any link between Koizumi's hair and his popularity is far less important than performing his professional duties properly. To that end, as a prime minister's hairdresser, he believes the most important thing to keep in mind is "maintaining 'the style.' "
"Koizumi is the type of man who comes here every two weeks, so it's not hard to maintain the style. But Abe will probably not be able to come so often -- once in three weeks maybe -- and I'll have just 40 minutes or so to do his hair. In that circumstance, it will be hard to take care of his hair properly so that it appears to stay unchanged. That is the issue."
Going to the hairdresser and leaving with no apparent changes may sound paradoxical, but it is a professional skill for which Muragi is well known and appreciated by other politicians, including former Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki and former Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama.
In fact, he is so skilled in that respect that there has even been speculation that his classic-style, five-seat shop may actually have been used for secret meetings by big wigs only pretending to go there for a haircut.
Muragi laughs away any such suggestion, saying only, "It's impossible."
However, since his 83-year-old father Tamotsu opened Muragi Barber Shop in 1963, it has been staunchly favored by both Japanese and foreign VIPs -- while even before that, Tamotsu had given a haircut to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who summoned him to his residence from the PX barbershop in Ginza where he worked after World War II.
Now, though, the family tradition of tending to top folks' hair at the shop almost next to the Prime Minister's Office and just a five-minute walk from the Diet may be about to falter. That is because the Capitol Tokyu Hotel -- in whose basement the shop is located -- is to be reconstructed starting in late November. While that work is going on, Muragi plans to move to his other shop in a Shinjuku hotel.
Wherever he is located, though, Muragi admits he will always feel nervous looking after a prime minister.
"Of course, I feel especially nervous when I shave a prime minister," he says. "But I try not to think too much about the responsibility, as I couldn't work properly if I did."
In fact, he tells of a barber friend who had Zenko Suzuki, a former prime minister, as a customer. His friend, he said, was told not to shave Suzuki for security reasons during the time Suzuki was in office from 1980-82.
"I thought I might have been told the same thing, but no, they didn't say that to me."
Meanwhile, compared with Koizumi, who has often expressed his love of music and kabuki, Muragi says that Abe is a bit difficult to find a topic to chat with. "Besides, I have no time to have a casual talk with him, as I have to get my work done in only 40 minutes."
During our interview, as Muragi watched Abe on a small television in his shop, he observed: "Ten days have passed since he was chosen as the head of the LDP, but he has yet to turn up. He must be too busy to come. He is a smart man like Koizumi, but probably he is too busy just now. I've been waiting for him.
"Koizumi, on the other hand, has been twice in the last 10 days. He phones here himself to make the appointment, not getting a secretary to do so, as is normal."
For readers concerned about Abe's tonsorial well-being, it may come as some relief to learn that the day after this interview he finally turned up and spent about an hour having his hair done. Nothing changed, Muragi said; Abe requested the same style and sat there quietly with his eyes closed.
Outside the shop, too, it was business as usual -- with security service minders around the door and in the hotel. No short cuts there, for sure.