TOKYO – Natural hair used for extensions is imported in great quantities from China, but a surge in the popularity of extensions has created a dearth in supply, causing a surge in the price of hair from China.

The root of the problem is the quick discarding of these extensions by their users – young women – after short periods of use, though it takes years for Chinese women to grow the hair.

Tetsuya Oura, a 29-year-old executive of a trading company in Osaka that imports such hair, recalled a scene he once saw in a village in rural China.

The village is nestled in a mountainous region about an eight-hour drive from Qingdao, on the Shandong Peninsula. A small, beat-up truck trundled between poor households, blasting out warbling music. Suddenly a girl jumped in front of the truck, shouting, “Stop!” She wore no makeup and looked very young. On her head stood a great mass of black hair, arranged in a shape reminiscent of soft-serve ice cream. Her hair, when undone, almost reached the ground.

The driver got out of the truck and began to cut the girl’s hair with scissors. When he was done, he gave the girl a small amount of money. She was left with a rather masculine-looking hairstyle.

These hair cutters visit villages in China and hand collected hair to brokers. The hair is then bleached, dyed black or brown at processing facilities and then exported to Japan.

According to Finance Ministry trade statistics, Japan imported 178 tons of dyed hair from China in 2007. In 2002, the figure was only 26 tons. With about 50 grams of hair needed for one extension, enough hair was imported in 2007 to make 3.56 million extensions.

This surge in hair imports follows a spike in the popularity of hair extensions among young women, which can give a short-haired woman the look of years of growth in hours. The impact of pop singer Ayumi Hamasaki’s use of such extensions also has been cited as a reason for the surge.

More and more beauty salons tout hair extensions and the wide variety of hair styles possible with them.

A 24-year-old woman who works at a boutique visited a salon that specializes in extension services in Tokyo’s Harajuku district, where she got her hair extended down to her waist. “This will get my boyfriend’s attention,” she said.

She came from Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, traveling 90 minutes by train to come to this salon. Though her real hair comes down to her chest, “He’s always telling me it would be better if my hair was much longer.” The bill came to more nearly $100 in U.S. dollars.

Oura said the price of hair from China has gone up 50 percent from a year ago. “It’s completely a seller’s market. And prices are likely to keep going up,” he said.

The amount of hair that can be procured in China has already reached its limit, and supply has not been able to catch demand.

Hair grows about two centimeters a month on average. This means 65-centimeter-long extensions, the standard minimum, take nearly three years to grow. But fashion does not usually wait that long.

Natural hair extensions begin to deteriorate after about three months of use, meaning users have to dispose of them after a short while, resulting in a shortage of hair for extensions.

(c) 2008, The Yomiuri Shimbun.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-03-09-08 1732EDT

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