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STYLE SNAPSHOT: JAPAN

Women find solidarity in basic black

July 16, 2006|Bruce Wallace

TOKYO — When it comes to hair color in Japan, the new black is black.

Riding the swell of patriotism in Japan, Shiseido Co. has rocked the market for women's shampoos and conditioners by introducing Tsubaki -- Japanese for camellia blossom -- with a marketing campaign that has some of Japan's hottest entertainers telling women that the route to beauty is to be, well, true to your roots.

Ethnic roots in this case. Camellia oil is clear and light and has traditionally been used in Japan for everything from sculpting the hair of sumo wrestlers to cooking tempura.

It also works wonders on 21st century women's hair, judging by the way the product has flown off the shelves since it was introduced in March. Tsubaki is now the top brand, supplanting Kao Corp.'s Asience (given the comb-through on TV ads by Chinese actress Zhang Zi) and Unilever's Lux shampoo (which was using Jennifer Lopez in its ads to push a Western look and has just replaced her with silken dark-haired Japanese runway model Ai Tominaga).

Of course, Tsubaki's camellia oil had a little grease. Shiseido launched the product with a massive $50-million ad campaign that featured six of Japan's leading actresses and singers. The slogan: "Japanese Women Are Beautiful."

The company also used the latest hit from the incredibly popular if rapidly aging Japanese boy band SMAP. "Dear Woman," the pop song at the top of the charts as well as being heard on the ad, is a paean to Japanese women.

"The truth is that you're very beautiful," the hunksters sing. "Welcome, welcome to Japan."

All of which marks a notable change in aspirations in a country obsessed with hair. For Japanese in the 1990s, one way to show rebelliousness against Japan's suffocating customs was to dye your hair brown, rejecting the genetic black-haired look. The style, known as chapatsu -- literally, brown hair -- caught on and was soon joined on Japan's urban landscape by much wilder hair colors.

Chapatsu remained radical only until it became fashionable. It's hard to use your colored hair as a calling card for your free spirit when everyone else is brown or blond or pink-haired, and even women in their 70s have gone purple.

So Japan was ready for a change in style when the Korean culture boom hit three years ago, spurred by a fascination with a Korean TV drama called "Winter Sonata." The show's popularity swiftly broadened into a fascination with Korean music and food.

It wasn't long before the marketing types at Kao Corp. figured the Japanese were ready for a pan-Asian look. That was the thinking behind making China's Zhang Zi the face of Asience in Japan. The Spirit of Asia, it was called. The company sold music CDs around that shampoo as well.

Now it's come full circle. The appeal to traditional Japanese looks comes at a time of national assertiveness in Japan. "Tsubaki is for Japanese women, and we'd like them to be proud of themselves," says Hiroko Ozeki, a spokeswoman at Shiseido.

Or, as the boys from SMAP sing:

"If you were to clad yourself in a mismatched, mis-sized beauty that you borrowed from somewhere else, I would be lonely."

Bruce Wallace

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Naoko Nishiwaki of The Times' Tokyo bureau contributed to this report.

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