My first experience of Japan was in the countryside. The middle of nowhere. Not a foreigner in sight. And old Japanese ladies with purple hair roamed the lands.
While this may sound like some sort of twisted fantasy novel, anyone who has spent time in countryside Japan knows it’s reality. Chances are, since you’re on this page, you yourself have encountered it and are intrigued enough to Google it.
Known as obaachan, these charming old ladies often stroll around with a beautifully curled frizz of purple, or sometimes even blue hair, as if they were born that way.
Western Japan has a reputation for having a lot of these lovely purple-haired ladies, and it was actually a friend from that area whom I initially asked.
What I originally (erroneously) thought
He believed it was because they used cheap dye. Rather like toner in a printer, when the pure black stuff runs out the printer uses a mix of concentrated colors to recreate black instead. As the ink, or in this case dye, fades away, the base color is gradually revealed. That meant a lot of cheap dye was apparently based on the colors purple and blue.
But these purple-haired ladies were not poor – they were in fact completely aware of the fact that their hair was not black.
I eventually asked my hairdresser, before doing a bit of research on Japanese internet and coming across the actual reason.
The real reason why so many old Japanese ladies have purple hair
It’s because they want whiter hair. Seriously.
The thinking behind it goes like this: White hair, particularly Asian white hair, has a tendency to go yellow. You might have seen it before – especially with men – their balding, you can see their scalp through the few strands they have left, and the whole mess has this strange yellow tinge to it, as if they lost bladder control while doing a handstand.
While this definitely isn’t the case, and the phenomenon is perfectly natural, many Japanese ladies are not comfortable with having such a ugly sight perched upon their brow. Which is fair enough.
The solution that the kind hairdressers of Japan like to prescribe often involves a applying dye, or more often ointment, which negates the offending color. To combat yellowing hair, the opposite color is applied, in this case purple or blue. As the color fades, the hair becomes a brilliant shiny white – the holy grail of old lady hair.
In reality, the ladies spend much more of their time walking around with purple hair, and it’s probably mostly a scam by the hairdressers to keep them engaged into their old age, but at least it brightens up the landscape a little.
Don’t forget to give them a high five next time you see one in the neighborhood.