Cheap haircuts in Japan are real, still not enough

Today I will point out a minor error in a pundit’s description of Japan. This is sort of nitpicky, but hey that’s what we do here.

NPR’s Planet Money recently had an interesting interview with an author whose theory is that countries like Japan and Germany that grew rich after WW2 did so by selling exports to countries like the US who were willing to overspend (thanks to cheap credit provided to compensate for failing to provide good educations and hence good jobs to the people). This way, those emerging countries were able to achieve wealth and growth without subjecting their domestic industries to intense competition.

Japan, he says, has top-rate manufactured goods but a hopelessly inefficient domestic service sector. However, the example he gives is somewhat outdated. Basically, he says that haircuts in Japan are very expensive because the existing players banded together to keep out new competition by requiring that all haircuts require a shampoo afterward; to do otherwise would be unhygienic.

That might have been the case maybe a decade ago, but in today’s Japan Y1000 haircut places are everywhere. Just yesterday I got my haircut in Tokyo with no shampoo. I am not too clear on the history, but if memory serves the operator of QB House fought for more than a decade to liberalize the byzantine barber shop regulations.

Here’s the comment I left on their blog:

The interviewee’s example of Japanese barber shops is very outdated. Just today I got a haircut for about $12 with no shampoo. Until recently he would have been right, but there has been considerable deregulation since then. That isn’t to say there aren’t other occupations with ridiculous guild-based restrictions – Japan’s many dubious “qualifications” have recently come up as a subject of debate under the new government. It’s just that the particular case of haircuts doesn’t apply anymore.
Adam in Tokyo

That said, I think he’s got the right idea, even today. Even without special regulatory protection, many Japanese institutions have become massively inefficient thanks to successful attempts to keep out competition – think JAL, all those shuttered shotengai shopping districts, TV broadcasting, the music industry, you name it.

20 thoughts on “Cheap haircuts in Japan are real, still not enough”

  1. Actually, there’s a place in Shimbashi that does a cut *and* shampoo for 1,400 yen, and gives you a 200 yen coupon afterwards for your next cut (valid for 6 weeks or so). I have no clue how they pull it off.

  2. Compared to Australia at least, the level of service at Japanese hairdressers also tends to be higher, with massages, shaves etc. the norm even at sub-2000 yen shops. Australia you would be pressed for at least $50 before you could expect anything of the sort.

    And of course at least over the last 20 years there are also other examples of good competition in domestic services which results in good service at good prices – railways, for example.

  3. The genius of QB is that they lowered the bar for the mom and pop riyōshi in terms of price and time, so now there’s a realized consumer surplus for those of us want our perfect cut sans massage, sans shampoo.

    I just got my hair cut on the way home today, and paid more than I usually would — 4500 yen — but still got the perfect cut, shampoo, personal TV, decent conversation about politics, World Cup, and a back and shoulder massage. Every once in a while it’s worth it.

    Speaking of QB, I still remember the QB I went to in Singapore on Orchard Road. The shop was green, not blue, but the staff was “trained by the Japanese” according to the sign, and they shouted irasshaimase! as you entered the store. Surreal. Price: 10 Sing dollars, which even at the time was much less than 1000 yen.

  4. Yet another commenter on Japan who tries to justify some crackpot theory based on certain unique circumstances in Japan — that don’t actually exist.

  5. This is not to defend harrassing and self-defeating regulations on small businesses in Japan, but these things exist all around the world. You can literaly pick any country -including the U.S.- and find things like very limited hours of operation, overkill licensing requirements, inspectors closing businesses for minor reasons (when they don’t take bribes not to), labor restrictions that really don’t scale to small businesses, and so on.

    I don’t get the impression that these things are more common in Japan than elsewhere.

  6. The “including the U.S.” parenthetical remark was set off from the main sentence by two dashes. Apparently with this blogger software this translates to the remark appearing in the sentence with a line striked through it! The remark is not essential to the point at all, I’m just pointing this out as a warning to other commentators because I’ve seen phrases with lines struck through them on other posts on this site and now I know what produces that.

  7. In defense of the author, in my 3.5 years in Japan from 2001-2005 (semi-rural Tokushima-ken, and Nagoya) I never found a cheaper than 3000 haircut place. Now maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough, but that’s what the closest haircut joints to my house charged. The service was great, so I didn’t mind paying that much. Are there haircut chains in Japan now like Great Clips in the states?

  8. Hoosier, not sure about the places you lived, but a reliable place to look for a cheap barber is generally the Co-op (生協) on a university campus. The ones at Ritsumeikan and Kyoto U. charge something like 1500, which isn’t as cheap as QB, but I also don’t believe there is a QB anywhere in Kyoto.

  9. A big difference in Japan is between 理容師 and 美容師 — they are governed by different legal and health and safety regimes, and could almost be the subject of their own MF post. I can’t claim to have examined both in detail, but having spoken to both, I understand the difference is generally that:

    A 理容師, or barber, is generally much cheaper because their scope of work is limited — they can give you haircuts, shaves, perms and dyes, but that’s about it. You can work in this industry as long as you’re operating in accordance with the law, with minimal licensing requirements.

    A 美容師, or beauty salonist, is authorised to do a lot more, from nails to massages to hair extensions to whatever else (but they cannot shave your face), but this is more expensive because the required training prior to licensing is more expensive, and the scope of expertise is much broader.

    That being said, in Tokyo I have a favorite barber who gives me the whole haircut and shave for 2500 yen.

  10. I got 1200 yen haircuts at a riyoshitsu (not biyoin) back in 1996 or 1997, so the deregulation happened quite a while ago, I expect.

  11. 900 yen place around here. At least a dozen 1500 yen or less places that I can think of.

    “that countries like Japan and Germany that grew rich after WW2 did so by selling exports to countries like the US who were willing to overspend”

    This theory has been bandied about since around 1960. It is true to a point, but Japan’s domestic consumption has always been a bigger chunk of GDP than outside critics acknowledge.

    Also things like JAL seem like massively inefficient Japan plagues, but compare to other “national” carriers like Air Canada and it is the US that is the outlier.

  12. The Yomiuri link is now dead but I have this piece in full from summer last year:

    Cut-price barbershops are bristling at growing moves by prefectural governments that require them to shampoo customers’ hair–a service they do not offer for time and cost reasons. Nineteen prefectures have ordinances that require the discount barbers to install basins for washing hair, due to hygiene concerns. The Miyagi and Yamagata prefectural governments have submitted ordinance bills to their assemblies. Low-price barbers offer only haircuts without shampooing. Customers are often in and out of the chair in 10 minutes and pay only 1,000 yen. The barbers, which have mushroomed since 2007, have been a godsend for thrifty customers. “It’s great that they’re so cheap. I come once or twice a month,” a 59-year-old man, who lives away from his family because of his job, said one weekday afternoon at a barber in Sendai, where a steady stream of male company workers came in for a trim. Parents and their children often come in together at weekends.

    The Miyagi prefectural government says 75 cut-price barbers operate in the prefecture. The bulk do not have basins for shampooing customers’ hair, but instead use a vacuum hose to suck up hair clippings. However, the vacuum cannot suck up every stray hair, so staffers tell customers to wash their hair as soon as they can after leaving the shop. An association of hairdressers and other concerned organizations submitted a petition to the prefectural assembly in February calling for barbers and hair salons to be obligated to install hair-washing facilities. Association head Tsuneo Hino suggested hygiene was the main reason for this petition. “This matter affects our credibility at a time when many people are worried about the new strain of influenza,” Hino said.

    The prefectural government proposed the ordinance after gathering public opinions and confirming that most residents support the proposal. QB Net Co., a major Tokyo-based cut-price barber chain, has scoffed at the need for such ordinances. “We sterilize the mouth of the hose after each use,” a QB spokesman said. “We meet sanitary standards set by each local government. We want to know what the real reason is behind these ordinances.” The manager of the Sendai barbershop warned that requiring barbers to wash customers’ hair would end up hurting customers in the pocket. “Washing hair takes time and forces other customers to wait longer,” the manager said. “I’d have to consider raising my prices.” A barber in the Tokyo metropolitan area suggested that the ordinances appeared to be “undue pressure exerted by the governments at the behest of business operators.” But it has not all been one-way traffic. The Chiba prefectural government decided not to enact an ordinance after determining there was no difference in sanitary controls between cut-price barbers and regular barbers by checking the sterilization of scissors and combs. Seven other prefectures, including Iwate and Osaka, also have decided against such ordinances.

  13. 700 yen at the place on the way to my station and they do a good job. 3 cheers for shitamachi.

  14. woohoo, just got a cut and 2 washes and a massage for the equivalent of 197 yen, atleast there’s one good thing about your neighbor…

  15. I’ve been going to a great discount barber in Ochanomizu, Tokyo, for almost a decade — they used to charge 800 yen plus tax; now it’s 900 tax-in. They usually have baseball on the radio, too — the Giants, but nobody’s perfect!

  16. The Yomiuri piece from 2009, which I posted above, said local governments were considering moves to hobble discount barbers by obliging them to wash customers’ hair.

    The Asahi reports that Chiba is on the verge of passing just this kind of ordinance. It notes that existing discount shops will probably be allowed to remain as they are but any new outlets will have to meet the new requirements.

  17. Man, that would be lame. Not just for being anticompetitive, but I really have no interest in having some dude wash my hair while I’m getting a quick haircut.

  18. Funnily enough, Orix has just announced it will sell its shareholding in QB House. They bought over 70% from the founding family in 2006 and have now agreed a price with JAFCO.

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