'Charismatic hairdresser' starts over from zero and clips his way to the top

March 25, 2012

By ETSUSHI TSURU / The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

The fashionable Tokyo thoroughfare of Omotesando invariably bustles with hordes of young people, but turn away from its rows of Zelkova trees and head down one of its back streets, and peace and quiet prevail.

This is where it all started for hairdresser Hideaki Iijima, 61.

He is the founder of Soho, the second-largest chain of hair salons in Brazil. Soho has 28 locations in Sao Paulo, and serves more than 700,000 customers annually.

On Jan. 10, during a brief trip to Japan, Iijima visited hair salon 'imaii,' where he learned his trade. It was the first time he had returned there in more than a decade. Despite dredging through his memories, he had a hard time remembering exactly where the place was. Suddenly, he came to a standstill in front of a leaning power pole, rubbing his hands as he spoke.

"This is it, right here. I was brought here several times a day to be scolded beside this power pole in front of the salon."

Imaii, which has a floor space of only six tsubo (just under 20 square meters), is now located in a fashionable building that stands diagonally across from the power pole. Its proprietor, Hideo Imai, trained at the Vidal Sassoon salon in the United States in the 1970s, and is responsible for popularizing the innovative "Sassoon cut" in Japan.

Before joining Imai's salon, Iijima had already worked at several other establishments and become a competent hair stylist, but was troubled by a lack of confidence in his skills. Then one day he saw a magazine article about Imai who had just returned to Japan, and wasted no time in asking him for a job.

"Mr. Imai was strict, but I acquired the kind of skills and theory that I could be satisfied with, and I gained confidence in my abilities," Iijima says.

Before he knew it, he had become a popular hair stylist.

There was no end to customers requesting Iijima's services, and in one month alone he cut the hair of 760 clients. His days off were spent traveling the country to give seminars for hairdressers, and magazines and industry shows eagerly sought his expertise. Eventually, his monthly wages topped 1 million yen ($12,000).

"He brought us more business not only with his hairdressing talent, but also his cheerful conversational skills," Imai recalls.

However, after about five years, Iijima called time out on his career as a "charismatic hairdresser." He accepted an invitation from one of his former trainees who was managing a hair salon in Brazil, and emigrated there with his wife, 4-year-old son, and infant daughter. He was 28.

"I had dreamed of moving overseas since I was little," he says. "If I had stayed where I was, I thought I'd most likely end up regretting it."

* * *

Adjusting to life in another country wasn't easy.

He found himself at odds with his former trainee, and was fired after two years. The 10 million yen he had saved in Japan soon ran out. He borrowed three mirrors, and decided to test his mettle by working at a local salon.

For him, it was like a battleground.

The most senior hairdresser took the position closest to the salon's entrance, and newcomer Iijima was given the spot farthest back. Even if a customer came in without an appointment, they rarely made it into Iijima's chair. Names of non-existent clients were written in his column on the salon's appointment board, as well as other tricks intended to prevent him from gaining actual business. It was the underhanded work of his colleagues.

"I live off my daily income. I wish I had the stability of a fixed salary, like office workers do," Iijima lamented to his neighbor, Kenichi Shiomi, who worked for the local subsidiary of The Bank of Tokyo (currently Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ).

Shiomi, now 64, remembers it so well because Iijima wasn't the type to feel sorry for himself. His oldest son, Dai, 37, agrees.

"At the time, my father didn't understand much Portuguese," Dai says. "I think he couldn't communicate well with his customers, which must have really bothered him."

One day, Iijima came up with a plan. The shampoo sink was at the rear of the salon, so every customer had to pass by him. He carved his name into an eraser and made a stamp, then used it to add his name to the salon's business cards that he handed out to customers. Each time he would make a pitch for himself in broken Portuguese, saying, "I'm Iijima from overseas."

In order to make himself stand out while cutting a client's hair, he deliberately exaggerated his movements, clicking his fingers and flattering customers by saying things like "Fantastic!" to put them in a good mood.

To make allies of the salon's assistants and coffee-making staff, he gave them money on the sly. This used up a third of his wages.

* * *

When Iijima began to consider striking out on his own, he remembered a certain prophecy: "Your life will change when you turn 32."

It had been told to him by a client who read his fortune soon after he came to Brazil. Believing it, he opened a hair salon in an office district on his 32nd birthday, which attracted a clientele of businessmen. He opened at 9 a.m., and stayed open for as long as he had customers. Some days he even worked until 1 a.m. Within seven months, he had paid back the $90,000 he had borrowed from his friends and was eventually able to expand to a chain of shops.

Two days before his 40th birthday, in September 1990, Iijima awoke to discover that he had lost his sight. He had no idea why, and even wondered if he was about to die. After much agonizing, he came to accept that his fate was still his own, even if his luck had abandoned him.

When he made the decision to retire from hairdressing and just manage his Soho shops, he regained his sight, but only in his right eye.

"Maybe it was because I'd taken a load off my mind," he says.

Three years later, thieves broke into his home. A gun was pressed against his temple and his neck was slit with a knife. He barely escaped death by handing over his money and valuables.

After this string of nightmarish incidents, Iijima came to regard his life beyond the age of 40 as a bonus.

At the time, Brazil was wracked by inflation and the price of living escalated rapidly. The government froze savings accounts, which caused cash flow problems. While several of his rivals gradually went out of business, Iijima raised his prices almost every week and just managed to stay afloat.

Training his 1,100 staff members also posed difficulties.

"Many Brazilians don't think ahead, so it was difficult for them to understand what I meant when I talked about having dreams," he says. "It was a near-impossible task to improve their skills on an ongoing basis."

But Iijima himself has an awkward side and maneged to turn his complex into a driving force. He is aware of how others feel when they fail to accomplish something. Gradually, people began to flock to him.

"If you stay true to yourself and have a purpose, it gives you the courage to confront adversity," he says. "I'll keep doing things the Iijima way until I die."

* * *

Hideaki Iijima

Born in 1950 in Saitama Prefecture. Graduated from Kodama High School in Saitama, and gained his hairdressing license in 1970. Worked for several salons in metropolitan Tokyo before joining Hideo Imai's studio in Harajuku. Received acclaim for his hair-cutting techniques, becoming a popular stylist. Described as one of the first "charismatic hairdressers." Emigrated to Sao Paulo in 1979. Opened salon Soho in Sao Paulo in 1982, and turned it into Brazil's second-largest hair salon chain.


Family: Iijima divorced six years ago, and is currently single. He lives with his eldest son, Dai, and his wife, to whom he handed over the management of his salon business five years ago. His eldest daughter, Ai, also lives in Sao Paulo. His two children were born when he was still living in Japan, but he had the intention of moving overseas one day, "so I gave them names that could be easily pronounced by non-Japanese."

Motivation: Iijima's father ran a barbershop in Saitama that his eldest brother eventually took over, so he became a hairdresser to avoid becoming a commercial rival. He always used his favorite Japanese-made Tenyo scissors, which he sharpened himself.

On weekdays from 4:30 a.m., for an hour and a half, Iijima helps clean a park near his home. He has never missed a day in the past 15 years.

By ETSUSHI TSURU / The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE
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Iijima considered returning to Japan during the worst period of his career, "but I didn't want to become a loser." (Photo: Yoshinori Toyomane)

Iijima considered returning to Japan during the worst period of his career, "but I didn't want to become a loser." (Photo: Yoshinori Toyomane)

  • Iijima considered returning to Japan during the worst period of his career, "but I didn't want to become a loser." (Photo: Yoshinori Toyomane)

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