Hair Loss in Japan: Samurais and Laughing Buddhas




Much of’s audience is in the United States, but there are “hair challenges” around the world. Let’s take a quick look at hair loss in the beautiful country of Japan.

Modern Japan, of course, is one of the most celebrated countries in the world, a tourist destination that offers a wide range of attractions to people from across the globe. As welcoming and well known as it is now, this wasn’t always the case. For centuries, Japan’s “island nation” status made it a world unto itself, especially during the “Edo period” between 1639 and 1854, when Japan officially adopted an isolationist policy.

I bring up Japan’s long term “self-sufficient” policy because it is possible that this has some bearing upon hair loss in that country. If you do an online search about baldness in Japan, one of the most frequently cited statements is something to the effect that, prior to World War II, hair loss was extremely rare in Japan and that since the “Westernization” of Japan, hair loss has become increasingly more common.

Since genetic factors play a role in hair loss, the fact that Japan was largely isolated for many centuries could account for baldness being less prevalent; however, I have been unable to find any studies that verify baldness as being rare in Japan prior to World War II. It may very well be true, but it very well may also be a misperception based upon anecdotal observations.

Buddhists, Samurais and Sumos: Three champions of the bald look in Japan

Whichever is the case, there have historically been at least three groups in Japan in which some form of hair loss has been common: Buddhist monks, Samurai warriors and Sumo wrestlers.

While the requirements of head shaving vary from order to order, most Buddhist monks undergo head shaving at some point in their religious “careers.” Samurai warriors and Sumo wrestlers traditionally shaved at least part of their heads and grew their remaining hair into a “chonmage,” or topknot. (Modern Sumo wrestlers tend to keep the chonmage, but do not necessarily shave part of their heads.)

By the way, Samurais originally underwent the head shaving because they tended to wear very heavy helmets, and shaving reduced the heat caused by the headgear.

Japanese folklore also has its share of supernatural hairless beings. Three members of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods are frequently depicted as bald: Hotei, Jurojin and Fukurokuju.

Hotei, sometimes called the laughing Buddha, is the jolly god of happiness and contentment. He carries a large cloth bag that is eternally filled with food for feeding the poor.

Jurojin is the God of longevity and the scroll he carries records the life span of all living beings. He is sometimes shown with an extremely elongated forehead, as is Fukurokuju. The similarities between the two don’t end there, as Fukurokuju is known as the god of wisdom and, like Jurojin, longevity. The two, in fact, are said to be two beings that inhabit the same body. Fukurokuju’s scroll contains all the wisdom in the world.

There are also some bald legends that aren’t as pleasant to meet as these three figures. The Umibozu is an enormous, scary, hairless sea ghost with frightening eyes and is presumed to be a drowned priest. The hitotsume-kozo are bald one-eyed boys, kind of like goblins, who get a kick out of scaring people but are relatively harmless. And Oiwa, a staple of Japanese drama and art, is a female ghost with a bald spot who, disfigured by her husband, comes back to seek revenge.

Oiwa is a legend, but there is a group of Japanese women that have had some experience with baldness. Many geishas developed bald spots due to a combination of combing hot wax through their hair to create “sculpted” hair and the extensive use of sometimes heavy hair ornaments.

Japan: At the forefront of the hair loss treatment industry

As noted above, there is some feeling that baldness has been on the rise in Japan since the end of World War II, with some people attributing this to a change from traditional diet to a more Westernized diet and others positing that an increase in marriages with Westerners may be contributing to this rise. Perhaps as a result of having a growing market to service, Japan has become a leader in the hair replacement industry. As a matter of fact, the Japan-based Aderans group claims to be the world’s “#1 total hair loss treatments business group,” offering both ready-made and custom wigs, hair transplant surgery, hair systems, and hair growth and regeneration techniques. Reve21, a Japanese hair growth treatment supplier, saw its member base double in the last 5 years.

Certainly, the growth in the hair replacement industry in Japan suggests that baldness is indeed on the rise in that country. But the entire world has seen a growth in this industry in the last several decades, related to a variety of factors: greater availability of quality hair replacement options, more affordable hair replacement options, and an increased desire on the part of the general public to pursue hair replacement options. With that in mind, it may mean that Japan is simply following a global trend.

Whether there is indeed less hair loss in Japan or whether that is simply a misperception, baldness is still far from non-existent there. So those of us with receding hairlines or hair-free pates needn’t feel out of place on a visit. Just beware if you meet any Oiwa or Umibozu on a stormy night.