In a country where concepts like uniformity and social cohesion are praised from kindergarten to retirement, and where those who seek out their own paths are considered quirky at best and troublesome renegades at worst, it is difficult for young professionals in Japan to stand out and make a name for themselves. For men especially, who more often than not must don the same black suit, white shirt and neutral-coloured necktie combo as their millions of peers, it’s easy to become just another face in the commuter crowd.
But a new generation of young businessmen has recently started bucking social trends in order to do precisely what they were always discouraged from: stand out and get noticed. Known as bijinesu neiru (“business nail”), thousands of men working in industries from pharmaceuticals to video game design are now paying hundreds of dollars a week to have their fingernails prettied up with gemstones, pastel-pinks, hearts and even company logos, with many claiming that, since getting their nails done, they have been rewarded with pay rises and promotions, and now have more friends and lovers than they could ever have dreamed.
It should come as no surprise to learn that, this being the land of miniature trees, origami and even one-grain micro sushi, the Japanese are incredibly dexterous people. Factor in the country’s fondness for cleanliness and fastidious attention to detail, and it stands to reason that fingernail care and beautification is big business here, and some of the nail art designs you’ll see young women wearing in Japan’s urban centres are nothing short of spectacular in their intricacy.
But now a new movement known as business nail could be about to change everything we thought we knew about not just fashion and personal grooming but also business etiquette, as young men in cities like Tokyo and Osaka are spending vast sums of money on elaborate nail art and treatments in order to make their mark on the world and stand out from the crowd in business.
▼ Office work meets chic with business nail
We spoke with a number of business professionals about how this new and unusual trend among young men came into being, beginning with self-confessed business nail aficionado and Tokyo-based advertising executive, 31-year-old Genki Tsuitachi.
“Back in the Heian period [794-1185], ninjas would paint the thumbnail of their left hand with their clan’s mark,” Tsuitachi told us over coffee in Shinjuku, his mobile phone buzzing every few minutes and his fingers – whose nails were painted with horizontal yellow and black stripes like those of a worker bee’s body – moving with startling speed as he typed out replies. “They used a mixture of cow dung and the blood of moths and other insects to create a paint-like substance that stained the nail. It stayed on for months, so it was easy to identify an intruder or spy, or someone who tried to leave a clan and deny their roots. So it’s not unheard of for Japanese men to paint their nails like this.”
“There are a handful of high-end nail salons that cater for us, often after hours”
“The concept of business nail has actually been around for a couple of years now,” he continued, “but within the last few months in particular the number of men getting involved has positively skyrocketed, and people in all kinds of industries are starting to take notice. I personally change my nail art two or three times a week if I can, and it always gives me something to talk about with my clients. It costs a lot of money, sure – sometimes half of my salary goes on hearts and fake gemstones – but it’s worth doing right, and there are a handful of high-end nail salons that cater for men like us, often after hours because we work late and can’t get there otherwise.”
▼The shade of a man’s nail varnish, Tsuitachi tells us, hints at his area of expertise
With a full set of professional nail art costing upwards of US$100 at a Tokyo salon, one might wonder why the men who have embraced the trend – particularly in Japan where the phrase “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” is all too familiar and tastes are decidedly conservative – are willing to splash out on something that might not go over well in all corners of the business world. But according to one man we spoke with, the pros of getting business nails far outweigh the cons.
“My boss saw my nails and struck up a conversation … two months later, I became his personal assistant”
Jin (an alias he uses to protect his identity), a 26-year-old employee at a major media enterprise based in Tokyo, spoke with us candidly about his experience of the new trend, telling us that it was specifically thanks to his fancy nail art that he has the comfortable and successful life he leads today.
“About eight months ago, I was pretty much just a data entry drone. No one at the company knew me, I was working 16-hour days making barely 120,000 yen (US$1,160) a month before taxes–life was pretty miserable. Once, when I made the mistake of spending too much money on my hobbies of video games and manga, I even had to eat cup noodles with cold water because I couldn’t pay my gas bill–I nearly choked to death on a freeze-dried prawn.
“But one day, my girlfriend – who’s really into nail art – asked if she could practice on me at home. I let her try painting my nails and glueing some stuff on, then just as a joke I asked her to do the logo of the company I work for. I actually kind of liked it, so I kept it on. The next day, in the company cafeteria when I was reaching for a bottle of Pocari Sweat, my boss, who was standing in line behind me, caught sight of my nails and struck up a conversation. He was really impressed with what he perceived as my dedication to the company. Two months later, I became his personal assistant and now make roughly 450,000 yen ($4,350), plus expenses.”
▼ Jin at his bi-monthly nail art session
Jin tells us that although he gets teased by some of his colleagues, he now routinely asks his girlfriend to keep his nails looking pretty for him and has elaborate art painted on them at a salon every couple of weeks. “They [my coworkers] sometimes make stupid jokes,” he smiles, “but whatever; I’m making three times what some of them do, so screw ‘em!”
But it’s not all glitter, logos, and smiles in the business nail world. As its name implies, this is after all business, and the men who have adopted the practice of getting their nails decorated as stylishly as possible do so purely to get ahead and make money, so there is intense competition and codes of conduct within business nail circles that must be observed.
“It’s like Fight Club – we’re not supposed to talk about it”
“I know it sounds kind of dramatic,” said one man who wished to remain nameless, “but it’s actually quite like that Brad Pitt movie, Fight Club - we’re not supposed to talk about it to people on the outside. The guys who do it all know each other, mostly through the online groups they belong to, but we make a point of never telling anyone else about the nail salons we use. Rule number one–and two–about business nail: you do not talk about business nail!”
It may seem like something of a paradox that men who opt for brightly-coloured, gem-encrusted fingernails should be so secretive about the establishments they visit and wish to maintain an air of secrecy, but when some of the biggest champions of the movement are themselves important players in the business world, it’s perhaps little surprise that so many, despite wanting to get ahead and show off their fancy digits, aren’t willing to discuss it openly.
“I can’t go into detail, but the president of a well-known multinational based here in Tokyo is actually a massive business nail fan. He shows off new designs every few days and he tweets photos of his nails all the time, but no one knows which salon he uses, and it’s for that exact reason we don’t ask–he’s either paying for home visits or, more likely knowing his character, he’s going to a chikane.”
Chikane, RocketNews24 has learned, is a phrase that practitioners of business nail use to refer to the numerous underground businesses that have sprung up over the last 12 months and exist predominantly in the red light districts of Japan’s urban centres, apparently seeing so much custom that other adult-themed establishments are struggling to compete. Coming from the words for underground (chika 地下) and nail (neiru ネイル), chikane are not dedicated salons but women who, along with offering services such as sensual massage, will paint and decorate a man’s nails for them, often charging twice that of an ordinary salon.
“The quality of the nail art done at chikane is rarely as good as what you’d get at a registered, everyday nail salon,” one 30-year-old banker with a striking Winne-the-Pooh design on his right thumbnail told us, “but the men who go there see it as a mark of their wealth that they pay so much to get their nails decorated. Some of the older guys even leave their own nail varnish at the club, kind of like a personal bottle of whiskey that no one else is allowed to touch.”
For the average businessman, though, business nail is less about status and more about being noticed and getting ahead. Especially amongst men who work with overseas companies, there is a desire to make business interactions as memorable as possible and to stand out from the crowd.
“I know I made a big impression – they were all smiling right the way through my presentation”
“There’s that old joke about how, to foreigners, we Asians all look alike,” says a 35-year-old web designer, “I know that’s kind of taboo to say, but some of our clients from the US and Europe genuinely do sometimes have trouble telling my colleagues and me apart, and sometimes I get my American colleagues mixed up too! So when I visit the US on business, I make it my mission to stand out and be remembered. Last month, for example, I had a big meeting with the board of directors at [name omitted] in New York. Before flying over, I got my nails done — lime-green on one hand, glitter-gold on the other. I know I made a big impression on everyone at the company because they were all smiling at me right the way through my presentation.”
▼ An Osaka-based systems analyst has fake diamonds added to nails decorated in his company colours of black and silver
What does the future hold for the business nail trend? It remains to be seen, but its supporters, such as Emi Warai who owns a salon that caters for many men’s nail needs, think that it has the power to change lives for the better and is only set to become even more popular.
“We currently have around 35 men who come in regularly to get nail art treatments,” Ms. Warai commented when asked about the growth of business nail, “many of whom credit their recent success at work to having spectacular fingernails–I’ve honestly lost track of the number of men who have received pay rises and promotions or won the respect of their peers simply by prettying up their pinkies.”
“Some day soon we’ll see Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg sporting a fine set of business nails”
Knowing Japanese fashion trends, business nail definitely has a chance to become mainstream, at least for a while. Whether it disappears as suddenly as it arrived or it will catch on in the Western world, however, is another matter altogether. Mr. Tsuitachi, though, seems convinced that it will only go from strength to strength:
“Just like in years gone by when Japan blazed a trail in the fields of technology and fashion, I genuinely believe that some day soon we’ll see CEOs and company presidents, even big names like America’s Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, sporting a fine set of business nails.”
A big thank you to everyone who assisted in the writing of this article.