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Dude Under the Radar: From Hairdresser to Healer

SNA (Yamanashi) — In the sleepy Tokyo neighborhood of Shimo, Kaz Taira ran “Dude”—a one-man hair salon. It felt more like a coffeehouse, with art on the wall, cool décor, and chill beats. Kaz wore a slouchy beanie and a square bronze stud in one ear. It was summer, 2017.

“You caught me just in time,” he said. “Soon there will be no more Dude.” He was closing down. “Running your own business is nice because you’re your own boss and you have a lot of freedom, but it’s a 24-hour job. Too much bookkeeping, too much stress.”

I was in the chair, swaddled in cape and collar, hair already washed, and he was ready to start cutting. Then, interrupting our conversation, he told me something no hairdresser or barber has ever told me: “Okay now I’m going into the ‘creative zone’ for the next twenty minutes, so you can meditate or listen to the music.”

The website explained: “No personal questions. We concentrate on our job and let you relax.” Refreshing: an artisan focused on his craft, not gossip.

When Kaz was in university he wanted to travel. In order to travel, he needed a skill; a means of survival. If he could do something with his hands, he could earn money anywhere. Debating whether to design hats or design hair, he chose hair, reasoning he could cut hair for people anywhere, even on the beach, in any country of the world. But he couldn’t see how he could practically make money making hats on the beach.

Quitting university, he ended up at a hairdressing school in London. Ironically, because of his visa situation, he wasn’t able to travel much. When the visa eventually expired he had to return to Japan.

As a hairdresser trained in England, he had a problem. He could cut caucasian hair, but he didn’t know how to cut Asian hair—an obvious prerequisite for a hairdresser practicing in Japan.

Fortunately, his brother who was (and is) also a hairdresser, retrained him to cut Asian hair. With that skill under his tool belt, he was ready to start his own international salon in Harajuku called “Panorama” with a partner.

Primarily serving foreign customers, they soon realized there were two kinds of foreigners living in Japan: English teachers and expats. English teachers were fine, while expats were arrogant. Before the Lehman Shock, the 2008 financial crisis, expats were of a different quality. They didn’t want to live in Japan, they came just for the money. Kaz was annoyed by the expats and wondered how to get rid of them.

At the same time, his partnership was fraught with creative differences. His partner was into retro 50s and 60s music and aesthetics, whereas Kaz wanted something new like electronica (which was new at the time). Inevitably, they broke up. His ex-partner opened a new salon with a similar name.

Kaz could have sued him. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity in disguise, a wake-up call. Panorama wasn’t really him. At best, it was only half him.

So he wanted to start from scratch with a new name and everything. He asked his American customers the definition of “dude.” It meant a range of things to different people. Some said a dude is like a skateboarder or DJ, or he smokes pot. Others, especially west coasters said, “No, no, dudes are like surfers who just hang all day. They catch the best moment, the best wave, and they get on. So they’re not stupid. They are slow movers. They’re not uptight, take it easy, laid-back. But they’re not stupid.”

“Oh that’s really me,” Kaz realized. “That’s my concept!”

Kaz started Dude in 2002, which he considers the true beginning of his hairdressing career, having finally assumed his true hairdressing identity.

Incidentally Dude filtered his expat customers. Most people didn’t care about the name, but conservative uptight people stopped coming. They were scared at the sound of it. “Dude? No, no way,” they thought. Most conservatives thought Dude was a barber, not a salon. Kaz was happy to let them think this.

Despite the name, many women still came because he was trained as a women’s hairdresser. 60% of his customers were women. (Yet the name Dude is certainly male-friendly for a salon.) After the Lehman Shock many expats left Japan anyway. The remaining expats were more humble. They lived in Japan because they wanted to.

Kaz was happy running Dude. He had several staff, who were slow, relaxed.

“We’re all dudes, thereby we give you a relaxed atmosphere and we don’t ask personal questions,” Kaz explains. “In Japan, hairdressers think it’s part of the service to make up conversation, to talk to you. They feel guilty not talking to customers.

‘You’re Japanese is good.’

‘Do you like sushi?’

“No. I didn’t want to do all that crap, I just wanted to give a good haircut.”

After a while he recognized he was working very hard, six days a week. He had lots of business debts, lots of staff. It wasn’t him again. It wasn’t Dude anymore.

After the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, people seemed a little more laid-back. Businesses were saving electricity, so people went home early. “This is nice,” Kaz thought. “Maybe this is a chance to move out of Harajuku, to a more hippy area.”

He downsized to just one assistant and moved from bustling, gentrified Harajuku to the quieter backstreets of Shimo. Things went well again the next three years, the length of his lease.

At renewal time, Kaz saw another opportunity for reinvention. “I’m here on this planet,” he reflected. “I can do more than just give haircuts.”

Some years before he had a conversation with a scientist at a party. When Kaz said what he did for a living the scientist replied, “You’re a doctor.”

“Yeah, I’m hair doctor.”

“No, you’re a real doctor. I study beta-endorphins. Normally your body produces these enzymes when you’re on runner’s high, but it can also create them when you get a new hairdo or makeover. Besides making you feel good as a natural pain and stress suppressor, it also stimulates the immune system and can be helpful in fighting diseases including cancer. So you are healing your customers, unconsciously! Did you know that?”

Kaz was astonished. He became a hairstylist simply because he liked fashion and design; he didn’t realize it was such a good cause.

Remembering this revelatory encounter, Kaz wanted to do something more than just cut hair. In his free time he studied various schools of energy healing: reiki, laughter yoga, and most recently, BioGeometry.

Then his last assistant moved away. Yet again, Kaz saw opportunity. It was another chance to downsize. He closed the public company, and Dude went private.

Kaz was alone the last two years. Without an assistant, business was harder than ever. He wanted to focus more energy on energy healing.

Finally, in mid-2017, he closed completely. All business debts were paid, but he still needed income. So his brother welcomed him back to Harajuku, giving him two seats at his salon, Fabris.

Now Kaz doesn’t have to worry about managing anything. He just cuts hair and pays rent. He cuts only four days a week. With the other days he spends one playing music (he fronts a UK rock cover band, Mini Miracles, with a concert series—Planet Dude), one with his wife (which used to be impossible because they were both working), and one practicing energy healing.

Although he keeps the energy healing mostly separate from hair cutting (doesn’t want to weird out his customers), he has fixed the room’s energy field and plays energy collecting music every morning.

Kaz retained his persona as Dude—“under the radar” because Dude doesn’t legally exist anymore, but it still has name recognition from over the years. He kept the old Dude street sign and installed it inconspicuously under the sign for Fabris. He took down the website, but kept the Facebook fan page so people can find him through friends. He has enough customers left from Shimo, so he’s content to hang low, under the radar.

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