Japanese hair maestro Shunji Matsuo passed away Mon (Oct 9) after battling pancreatic cancer in his hometown in Kobe, Japan. He was 67.
His death shocked many, as most did not know that he had discreetly fought both pancreatic and liver cancer. According to reports, only his close friends knew about his illness.
His career spanned over four decades, and included coiffing household names like Madonna, Cindy Crawford, Jackie Onassis and our own Romeo Tan. He opened his first Singapore salon in 1996, and later expanded to its current 10 outlets.
Based here since 2003, Shunji was actively involved in his annual Makeover Magic shows, which he started in 2011 to “celebrate the beauty of age” for elderly women and gives hair makeovers to cancer survivors. “I want to make 60-year-old customers look young. I love cutting women’s hair and making them feel beautiful. That’s my life’s work,” he once declared to us.
He had travelled to Kobe for his show and was seeking treatment there at the time of his passing.
He was one of the gifted hairstylists who elevated his craft into art, literally, in the form of elaborate wigs. We first met him back in 2014, at his Ngee Ann City salon, when he was staging an exhibition of his personal artwork called Artistic Impressions.
“Since I was a child, I like to paint,” he explained to us with a serene smile. “This is my first exhibition so I feel a bit shy about showing my works in public, and scared about how people will judge! But the first thing I always do is try. Some people might say ‘Oh, Shunji doesn’t think. He just do.’ I think doing is better than thinking.”
In person, Shunji radiated peaceful, good vibes, and we think it was because he had dedicated his life to making people beautiful. From our 2014 interview, we have included five things we learnt about the legend below.
Rest in peace, Mr Shunji Matsuo. You were a talent gone too soon.
On Shunji’s early roots
“I grew up in Kobe in a middle-class family; my father owned a Japanese restaurant in a Daimaru department store, and my mother was a housewife. We were a middle-income family, neither poor or rich. I moved to New York at 23 to work for [Japanese celeb hairstylist] Suga Yusuke. I didn’t know any English then, but I was inspired by how he was able to make US$5,000 ($6,550) a month cutting hair for people like Jackie Onassis Kennedy.”
On why he avoids driving
“I don’t have a driving license. I’ll never get one! I take taxis. I was hit by a motorbike when I was nine, and was in a coma for three days. I’m not sure if I can avoid accidents on the road when I drive, so I just [refrain from] driving.”
On his approach to money
“About four or five years ago, I started reading books by [Japanese businessman] Hitori Saito. In it he wrote about appreciating money, and how we must respect money by keeping our cash neatly. I want to make good money. But it’s not just about money. You have to enjoy your life.”
On doing business
“I’m now grooming the younger generation to take over my business. I always tell them, ‘Never overcharge our clients.’ It’s more important to provide our clients with good service so they’ll come back. I once opened two beauty academies in Singapore and Malaysia ’cos I was passionate about the beauty industry. But I had to close them about seven years ago, after my accountant told me that I had lost $900,000. It’s natural to make mistakes and learn from them while pursuing my passion.”
On his approach to work
“I hope to gradually reduce from working five days a week to two a week. Maybe I can even take a holiday for a month! I want to buy a house and retire in Okinawa, Japan. I tell my clients they can stay at my guest room there and I’ll cut their hair (laughs).”
MAIN PHOTO: WILSON PANG