Men who are bald or have thinning hair often find themselves the butt of jokes in their workplaces and even sometimes on comedy shows in Japan, although there is growing awareness that such humor so-called good humor is a form of discrimination.
There’s even a term for it: “capillary harassment”.
“Making fun of others about their appearance has long been seen as an icebreaker in conversation,” said Shojiro Kotegawa, associate professor of phenomenology at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo, explaining Japan’s propensity to make fun of people who stand out.
“The ability to turn offensive behavior like this into laughter, even when laughed at, was seen as an indicator of a person’s openness,” he said.
Observation is not lost on a 33-year-old man who works in the financial industry and started going bald after graduating from college.
“Looks like we don’t need any lighting,” another participant heard joking in reference to his shiny bald head during a meeting with a partner company.
The comment sparked laughter among the other people present. Even after the talks turned to serious matters, the man was repeatedly teased about his looks. He simply smirked every time, but was irritated nonetheless.
“Why should I be laughed at just because I have almost no hair?” asked the man.
Japan Public Relations Institute Inc. (JPRI), a think tank behind advertising campaigns, defines jokes and teasing about baldness as “hair harassment.”
In May last year, JPRI conducted an online survey to gauge perceptions about baldness. A total of 20,000 men and women from all over the country between the ages of 30 and 60 responded to the questionnaire.
In the survey, those w8,067, or 40.3% of those surveyed, said they “felt” or “feel somewhat” tormented by thinning hair. Among them, 3,317, or 41.1%, said they had heard others “talk about or make fun of them” because of their hair or lack thereof.
The survey also asked 11,933 people with full hair if they had ever “teased” bald people. Of these, 3,515, or 29.5%, said they had done so.
Of this figure, 2,191, or 62.3%, said they “agreed” or “somewhat agreed” with the idea that making fun of baldness can “liven up and liven up the mood”, when they were asked what impact they thought their jibes had.
Analyzing the results, JPRI concluded that the difference in perception is a source of anxiety for many people with hair-related issues.
“Making fun of people lacks a sense of guilt, which highlights the gap between them and those being made fun of,” a JPRI official said.
Takashi Inoue, the head of JPRI, has called for hair harassment to be considered a serious social issue that needs to be addressed.
“Despite their discomfort, it’s hard for those with hair issues to raise their voices due to peer pressure,” Inoue said. “The time has come to consider the issue of hair harassment society-wide.”
TV NETWORKS UNDERSTAND THE MESSAGE
Fewer television programs poke fun at baldness these days, although the topic was a staple for many years.
Veteran comedy duo Unabara Haruka Kanata made it a habit for Kanata to blow thinning hair on the side of Haruka’s head during performances.
Another duo, Trendy Angel, won the prestigious M-1 Grand Prix stand-up comedy competition in 2015 by poking fun at the fact that they both have thinning hair.
It’s a tactic a lot comedians employed to make the audience laugh.
Recently, however, iThe okes not only about baldness but also about other physical attributes led to numerous complaints being posted on social media by those who felt “uncomfortable” with such jokes or simply found them to be in poor taste.
“We get a lot more complaints from viewers now,” a TV insider said. “Our sponsors sometimes tell us to be careful. Very few jokes of this nature are broadcast these days.
Masanori Honda, who writes gags at leading talent agency Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., said artists have adopted “a different way of thinking” these days. He had previously advised bald comedians make full use of their looks when trying to get a laugh.
“Baldness is the best way to get a laugh at the start of a show,” Honda, 63, said. “It was common to make the public laugh by drawing attention to a physical feature that is the first thing people notice.”
Still, Honda admitted that poking fun at baldness, even as an act of self-mockery, is taboo these days. Even though comedians may insist that they’re purely joking, he said jokes about someone else expenses are no longer acceptable.
“Thinking about what kind of joke can make people laugh without taking a low blow and hurting someone will help comedians hone their skills,” he said.
Commenting on people’s physical attributes is increasingly seen around the world as discrimination on a par with racial discrimination.
In South Korea, a candidate for the presidential election to be held in March has pledged to introduce a system of care for bald people through public health insurance this year.
The Japanese are also gradually realizing that making fun of hair loss constitutes discrimination and is increasingly seen as a form of harassment.
“By noticing this trend in society, some comedians may have started to realize that teasing people about their looks is really tantamount to insulting them,” Kotegawa said. “To make fun of other people’s appearance is to make fun of them in a one-sided way. It can never be justified as a means of communication.
Commenting how a person trying to make the conversation lively is frivolous, Kotegawa added.
“People need think about how they talk to others without being offensive,” he said.
(This article was written by Shuhei Shibata and Natsuki Edogawa.)