If you’ve ever been to Japan, you may have noticed the distinct lack of facial hair pretty much anywhere you look. At first, I thought it was purely genetics, but maybe there’s some sort of cultural reason that explains why you never see beards in Japan.
Japanese people tend not to have beards because of historical connotations, a representation of laziness, and employers unwilling to tolerate anything less than a clean-shaven face.
To truly understand the reasons why Japanese people rarely have facial hair, we need to take a deep dive into the history of beards in Japan and their cultural significance throughout the ages.
The History of Beards in Japanese Culture
If we go all the way back to medieval Japan, 1185 to 1603 CE, and even a little way into the Edo period, facial hair (hige) and hairstyle (chonmage) were extremely important. We know samurai were high-ranking members of society, so the chonmage hairstyle became the mark of status among everyone.
Facial hair and topknots were also seen as manly symbols in such a militaristic society. However, as peace fell across the land, samurai were forced to shave their facial hair, and those who did not would be seen as completely barbaric.
Of course, just the act of not shaving your facial hair doesn’t actually mean you’re against the government and against peace, but that’s how it came across to the rest of society.
During the Meiji period of 1868-1912, the Meiji restoration saw huge amounts of western influence and as a result, samurai were forced to cut their hair short and disassociate with the conmage hairstyle altogether.
However, not all hope was lost. Though western influences had taken away the chonmage hairstyle, they had brought with them the return of facial hair. In Victorian England, facial hair was hugely popular with the elite class. It solidified their gender identity and showed off their masculinity.
So, as you can see from the photo above, this is something that found its way to the upper class of Japan. Though I must admit I don’t think everyone would be able to grow such a spectacular mustache as Nagaoka Gaishi, that thing is incredible!
Fact: Nagaoka Gaishi, who died in 1933, had his mustache cut off by his son after his death. It was then placed in its own box and buried alongside him.
What Do The Japanese Think of Facial Hair Today?
So why is it that you rarely see anyone with facial hair now if it was popular with the upper class recently?
Well, that’s partly because Japan loves its traditions and rules, and as we’ve seen before, people in Japan don’t really enjoy being the odd one out. There are many companies in Japan that require you to be clean-shaven all the time and if you’re not, it’s a fireable offense.
I’m not just talking clean-shaven for health and safety reasons either; financial companies, office Jobs, retail workers, it’s across the board. One reason for this is that many companies still believe beards look scruffy and that it shows a lot about the person and the company they’re representing.
The general consensus of most people in Japan is that if you haven’t shaved your face, you’re just being lazy. There may even be comparisons of it being barbaric, similar to the Ainu people who kept their mige (facial hair) at a time when being clean-shaven was a requirement.
That said, as with a lot of things in Japan, there are more and more people experimenting with beards (if they can grow them) than there have been in the past. Still, many people whether they want to grow beards or not, will not be allowed to because of their employer.
Can I have facial hair in Japan on my trip?
Let me tell you a story from about 7 years ago, the first time I visited Japan.
I would consider myself to be hairier than most people, I have a lot of hair on my head, body, and face. Living in England all my life, I’ve never really had anyone comment on it because it’s a completely normal thing.
Well, that all changed the first time I went to Japan.
I arrived at my partner’s family home in Saitama at the height of Summer and sat down in the front room to eat some food after way too many hours of traveling. At this point, I was wearing shorts, and my extremely hairy legs were on show.
My partner’s Obaasan (grandma), after only briefly welcoming me at the front door sits next to me and begins to ruffle her hands through my leg hair. Bear in mind this is the first time I’ve met anyone from this side of the family.
I can’t be entirely sure what the correct translation is of what she said next, but I think it was somewhere along the lines of ‘Hairy Monster‘. I take absolutely no offense to that whatsoever, in fact, I thought it was quite funny!
Not only does this show how having a lot of hair is somewhat alien in Japan, but also that Japanese people say how they feel. That’s not in a mean way, more just things they observe.
So even though it wasn’t directly my beard that was being talked about, it’s obvious that someone having so much hair isn’t a common thing to see in Japan.
After that complete digression, to answer your question, yes you can have facial hair in Japan, but be prepared for someone to strike up a conversation with you if you do.
The discrimination or societal disrespect you might encounter would likely only be if you were living in Japan and part of a community. Even then, I don’t have the facts to back up how often this would if ever, happen to you. Plus, if you don’t look Japanese, it’ll likely be far less of a problem.
Can Japanese People Physically Grow Beards?
We’ve talked about society’s problem with people growing beards in Japan, but what about genetics?
Well, according to Bear Resource, Asian men typically struggle to grow a fully-fledged beard because of a lack of the 5-a enzyme. This causes lower levels of the beard-building hormone, DHT.
That said, there are still a few famous Japanese men who sport healthy-looking beards, some of which you’ll know!
Sailor Fuku Ojisan
So it seems that your job and status in Japanese society will dictate whether or not you can have a beard. A fresh graduate out of university? Don’t even think about it. Creator of internationally renowned video games or the world’s most popular anime? You’ll probably be absolutely fine.
In fact, at that level, your difference from the majority of society will probably be something people admire you for. Unfortunately, that’s only because you’ve proved it won’t affect your success or work ethic, and younger people who aren’t so famous won’t get the same luxury.
Let’s be honest, beards have had a bit of a hard time in Japan. They were once a sign of manliness, then barbarianism, then wealth and status, and now laziness. Unfortunately, it’s no easy feat going against society or local community opinion in Japan, so until it becomes widely accepted, I doubt you’ll see many people sporting facial hair.