Settle down, InterTubes: “bagelheads” is NOT a trend in Japan

Photo from blogTO’s post on Gryfe’s Bagels in Toronto

At the best of times, it’s hard to find a decent bagel in Tokyo (trust me, I’m from Toronto, I know bagels); but, suddenly, the other day, there was nothing but bagel news coming out of Japan.

Unfortunately, it was not the fact that someone in Tokyo had finally built a wood-fired oven for Montreal bagels. Instead, it’s the insane notion that a very small group of people who happen to be into a particular form of body modification represents a “beauty trend”.

The Daily Mail’s headline declaring “bagelheads” a beauty trend

For its long-running Taboo documentary series, National Geographic came to Japan and filmed a small group of people showing a form of temporary body modification that consists of slowly  injecting saline into part of your body and creating a kind of protuberance that can be shaped by pressing on it. The effect wears off in 16 to 24 hours and the injection site returns to normal. Although the injection can be done on any part of the body, it’s usually done into the forehead and looks like a bagel or donut is under the skin, hence “bagelheads”.

Is it a beauty trend?

Is THIS a beauty trend in the U.S. – this is Erik Sprague, a.k.a. The Lizardman, he’s from Kentucky:

 

“Bagelheads” is as much a “trend” in Japan as Lizard Man’s body modification is a “trend” in the U.S.

Some of the articles online make an effort to note that the “bagelheads” procedure might occur at a gathering of body modification devotees once or twice a year. Somehow, this has blown up into: “OMG young people in Japan are putting saline in their heads as a kind of beauty trend”

A sample of random OMG tweets about “bagelheads”

 

Another interesting element is that the whole saline drip “bagelheads” modification blew up on the internet about 3 years ago, so when I first saw the headlines and the tweets and the OMGs the other day, my reaction was: “this again?”

3 Yen did a piece on it in 2009 citing a few places where the Western media and blogs had picked up on the “trend” and written about it:

Obviously, National Geographic choosing to feature it as a “new” body modification trend has a great deal to do with it turning up again in 2012, but I was instantly struck by the familiar faces and images – only the video was new.It’s not much of a “trend” if you can only find images of about ten people who’ve done it.

Anyway, after this latest story turned up in my Facebook timeline the other day and I commented on it being neither “new” nor a “trend”, one of the questions was: “but is it real – do people actually do it?” (as in, “is it just a Photoshop hoax or something?”). Yes, sure, people do it; but people do a lot of things. The questions people should be asking and answering are “who?” “how many?” and “how often?”

Clearly, this is something practiced by a very small handful of people very very occasionally in a very specific setting.

I can’t help but notice how part of the viral spread of this story being interpreted as a “crazy new trend in Japan” is deeply tied to the fact that, in general, people outside Japan want so much to view Japan as a crazy, wacky place where people do crazy, wacky things. Sure, as a non-Japanese person, I occasionally see things that make me do a double-take and shake my head, but, at the same time, those things tend to make perfect sense in a Japanese context. If you remove them from the context (i.e., if you are “reading” Japan from the outside) and you have no knowledge of the culture, there may be a complete disconnect and a tendency to view those things as “weird” or “wacky”).

Lisa Kitayama, who does the Tokyo Mango blog, wrote a great piece for Boing Boing a few years ago on this fetishization of Japan as “weird”:

Why do so many love to gawk at this mysterious, foreign “other” that is Japanese culture? There are plenty of strange things going on in the US too, but when it happens in Japan, it’s suddenly incomprehensible, despicable, awesome, and crazy. This fascination doesn’t just end with angry commenters, either. Over the last couple of decades, it has spawned a huge industry of magazines, blogs, and products themed around Japanese culture marketed to Westerners by Westerners who are also obsessed with Japanese culture.

So, when you look at the “bagelheads” thing as “OMG-WTF?-shocking-weirdness”,  rather than labelling it as “Japan weirdness”, it might be helpful to put it in the context of body modification devotees first; but, as Kitayama notes in her Boing Boing piece:

One thing was clear: Weird Japan sells. It’s an almost guaranteed success for book publishers and major traffic bait for blogs.

 

At least someone’s got a sense of humour about the whole thing:

[@nomadcat on Twitter‘s take on the bagelhead]
 

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If you want to read a bit more about the body modification scene in Japan, start with this interview in Vice from a year ago and search from there – ignore the hyperbole in the first paragraph.

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