Bagel head trend is a big distortion

September 29th, 2012 by Rebecca Milner

La Carmina with two hosts from Fuel TV, who featured – and received – bagel heads on camera. (photo courtesy of La Carmina)

It would appear that the Western media have, yet again, conjured up a “Big in Japan” trend.

If  ”bagel head” means nothing to you, here’s a recap: “Taboo,” a show on National Geographic, ran a segment earlier this week on a kind of extreme body modification that has been happening in Japan’s underground for years. It involves injecting saline into the forehead and then sometimes putting a depression into the bulge in a way that comes out looking like a bagel or a doughnut.

Predictably, U.S. media outlets such as the Huffington Post, CNN and Mashable, and the U.K.’s The Sun and Daily Mail quickly turned out attention-grabbing stories that insinuated that this was the latest Japanese trend. “Japan’s hot new beauty trend?” asks the HuffPo headline, for example.

People outside of Japan seem to be taking the “news” at face value. A tweet from @OMGFact about the “Japanese trend” has been retweeted hundreds of times.

Most observers in Japan, however, know better. @SublightMonster tweeted ”Bagel heads: hot new trend, or yet another lazy journalist turning in yet another ‘wacky Japan’ piece?” @Mulboyne, a British Twitter user based in Tokyo, wrote that he was surprised to run into some bulging foreheads at an underground party in 2009. He told us the hardcore body-modification fans there simply called it “seerin durippu” — saline drip. “One reaction was ‘Kimochi warui!‘ (gross!). It looked a bit unsafe,” he said. “There was a lot of amusement, too, of course.”

To set the record straight, we spoke with La Carmina, a well-known subculture blogger and TV host. Her team, La Carmina and the Pirates, actually did the legwork for National Geographic. They hooked the producers up with Kerropy Maeda, the man who brought this type of saline injection to Japan in 2007 after seeing it in Canada. La Carmina and her crew even supplied the show with its models. (To learn more about Maeda and the Tokyo scene, read this excellent interview in Vice  published last year.)

Nevertheless, La Carmina takes issue with how it ended up being exaggerated, not on National Geographic, but on the coverage that followed. “It is not a trend even among the most hardcore body modification types,” she said. “It’s expensive. It takes specialized equipment. Most Japanese people don’t even know about it.”

Indeed, some Japanese media are hearing about it for the first time.

A reporter for Excite News wrote: “Having never heard of ‘bagel head’ I was as surprised as anyone to see these pictures of young people. A perfectly cute forehead transformed by a grotesque swelling. It looks quite like a space alien. I shudder to think, but according to news sites all over, this is Japan’s latest trend?”

La Carmina said she had been blogging about bagel heads  (and other, arguably more extreme, forms of body modification) for years. “There’s a strong, supportive subculture in Japan who are into trying new things. It’s just another method of expression, like piercings or tattoos, but it is certainly not a trend,” she said, adding for clarification: “It is absolutely not permanent. It lasts for a night and then you pee it out.”

Her friend John, who got his bagel done for the National Geographic show, thought it would be great if all this attention led to a greater understanding of underground cultures. Sadly, though, as he points out, “if you say something on the Internet about Japan, people tend to believe it.”

Naturally this isn’t the first time. Remember the last wacky “new Japanese fashion,” the LED mouthpieces reported on by the New York Times Bits Blog? That story was amended when it turned out to be born out of an ad campaign.

Think we’ll see corrections for this wave of stories, too?

[Postscript: We're now a footnote in the meme.]

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10 Responses

  1. Finally, some sanity restored. What a joke. Underground movements and subcultures are fascinating but often precisely because they are *not* mainstream. But any kind of lazy labelling of this as a “trend” is not only naive, it’s disrespectful to original pioneers.

    Still, if it had been me, I would have steered way clear of a channel like National Geographic in the first place and not put my reputation (and network) on the line. Remember the way they screwed over Jake Adelstein recently with their Yakuza documentary?

    I wonder if this happens in other places other than Japan?

  2. There is an interesting pro and con discussion about this post on the media monitoring site, MediaBugs (http://mediabugs.org/bugs/big-hole-in-bagel-head-story-).

  3. Writing about trends that don’t really exist in Japan is the real trend.

  4. Love LaCarmina.. she’s amazing

  5. This article really doesn’t say anything all that different from the Huff Post piece that it criticizes (and misquotes – punctuation matters, omitting the question mark turns the HP headline into a statement of fact that it never was). It even includes the exact same link to the “excellent interview in Vice” that originally appeared in the Huff Post article. If you read the Huff Post article beyond the headline, it says the injections are “part of the Japanese “body modification” art scene” and nothing more. Even the word “trend” itself is surrounded by quotation marks to indicate that it is not a trend.

    To quote the MediaBugs post cited in a previous comment, “The Japan Pulse article accuses Huffington Post and other media outlets of taking the Nat Geo story at face value and misguiding its readers. You have to dig deep if you want to get to the heart of any story. You can’t judge a book by its cover and you can’t judge a news article by its headline either which is unfortunately exactly what Japan Pulse has done.”

  6. “if you say something on the Internet about Japan, people tend to believe it.”

    Not just about Japan…

  7. I have to disagree with JTC. The question mark in the title of the Huff Post piece seems to be raising the question: could this be the new trend in body modification? The treatment in non-Japanese media elsewhere (I even saw an article in the Bangkok Post) gives the impression this might catch on outside of Japan and should be discussed as something controversial. So, I think Japan Pulse got it right. It’s a matter of journalists trying to create a story where there isn’t really much of one.

  8. Thank you for your comments. I shouldn’t have singled out HuffPo (as it wasn’t the worst offender), and I’ve amended the story to acknowledge the question mark. Still, if you can’t judge an article by its headline, then what function does a headline serve? And I don’t think the National Geographic clip suggests at all that this *could* be a trend, so even asking if it could be (as the HuffPo headline does), in my opinion, is grossly misleading.

  9. @Rebecca Milner

    Yes, you hit the nail exactly on the head! A question mark is even more insidious in this case.

  10. @Rebecca Milner

    Thanks for taking time to respond to this reader’s comment and for preserving the punctuation! That’s journalism at its best in my book. I wish more media outlets, Eastern and Western, would take note and get on the same page.

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