MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan -- It’s the early 1970s and long lines of disgruntled Marines wait their turn impatiently, some on old chairs and others laid on the hair draped floor, as the Japanese barbers they would come to know so well scramble nervously to keep the lines moving.
Tomie Shigemura, along with Hisato Murakami and his wife Chieko, had just begun cutting hair for American service members. The change is huge. It’s a struggle going from the straight, longer hairs of their fellow locals to the more rigid, disciplined cuts of the Marines.
Through their passion and dedication, they transformed from novice workers to the experienced veterans they are today.
After nearly half a century, these three barbers have whizzed their clippers through the hairs of countless Marines. From the dog days of the Vietnam War to the ongoing War on Terror, they’ve buzzed their way through time at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, while watching it flourish and grow from a set of huts and old buildings to its own little city.
They began as confused young barbers who found themselves in a tense atmosphere. Back in those times, Marines were frequently on-edge, knowing that one of the deadliest wars in American history was being fought a relatively short plane ride away.
“It was very busy in those times because of the Vietnam War,” said Shigemura. “When I first walked into the barbershop there were many Marines lying on the ground waiting to get their haircut. The Marines here today should appreciate the current situation. When I started working here the people were rigid. Some of them would throw the money at you after you were finished with them and go. Right now, it’s totally different.”
Although Mr. and Mrs. Murakami paint a similar picture, the three of them insisted that they not only understand why some Marines may have acted aggressively, but that they sympathized with their behavior.
“It wasn’t a problem for me,” said Shigemura. “I was young and many of them were my age, so I understood why they acted the way they did. They were being sent off to war.”
Overall though, Shigemura said most Marines didn’t make bad impressions during those times.
Shigemura, who began working in 1970, is currently the oldest employed barber at the air station. She had already been a barber in Hamada City for over a year before she went to Iwakuni City, dreaming of one day buying and owning her own home with her husband.
Shigemura found a working environment she would come to love and one that offered a larger salary at MCAS Iwakuni. It allowed her and her husband to build the home they dreamed about just a few years later.
Hisato Murakami, known by many as “Papa-san,” and his wife Chieko Murakami, appropriately nicknamed “Mama-san,” joined Shigemura in 1971.
Papa-san – recognized by many as one of, if not the best, barber on the air station – was recruited straight out of the previous barbershop he worked in. He brought his wife along after accepting the position, and the two have been working together ever since.
In a span of 48 years, they’ve witnessed the station undergo various sets of growth spurts. Back then, a village of Quonset huts served as sleeping quarters, shops, offices and more, while concrete barracks were just starting to be built.
Along with the barracks, construction was constant around the air station as it underwent a series of modernizations, very similar to the situation of today.
Papa-san recalls the vast changes that occurred all around him throughout the years, while Mama-san only vaguely noticed it all.
“Everything has changed, but I can’t really say where or how, because it changed gradually,” said Mama-san. “At first I didn’t know anything about the base, and I may not have seen the buildings. All I wanted to do was learn and get used to my new job.”
For them, the biggest struggle was adapting to the on-base environment, which Mama-san describes as being totally different than life off base. From the language barrier to the way people behaved, things were unusual and confusing.
“Right now I’m really used to the job, and I’m able to communicate with the Marines,” said Mama-san. “It wasn’t like that at first.”
Shigemura shared a similar dilemma. Fear and nervousness were unfortunately a part of her earliest experiences.
“The first time I cut a Marine’s hair my hands were shaking,” said Shigemura. “I was very young, and to be honest with you, I was scared of the Marines. I had never seen an American service member before.”
The guidance and reassurance of their older coworkers allowed the three of them to adapt to the environment and become one of the better parts of the community.
“I had some anxiety when I started here, but now I’m better and am constantly improving my skill and customer satisfaction,” said Mama-san. “Today’s Marines can speak at least some Japanese – like ‘arigato’ or ‘sayonara’ – and it seems like they’re trying more to learn the language. So when I cut their hair we can at least have little talks. But in the old times, Marines didn’t know any. They knew one or two words, but today’s Marines are better with Japanese. And I’m better with English as well, so I can communicate much better with service members.”
Making the local population feel welcome, particularly those who work here, is a vital function to making military operations on the air station run smoothly. It contributes to gaining the support of one of America’s most important allies in the Pacific and around the world, and it helps convince the local Japanese government and its people that having American bases on their soil is not only beneficial for their defense but for their community and economy as well.
Shigemura and Mr. and Mrs. Murakami have stated they plan to work to the day they retire and probably beyond.
“I don’t know when I’ll stop,” said Shigemura. “But I’ll continue to work here as long as I’m physically able.”
So long as the air station and the Americans who live here provide a respectful and humble environment, people like these three veteran barbers will have an opportunity to work in a place they love, while providing an invaluable service to their friends from across the seas.