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November 2018

Cultural Article

Movember in Japan

by Mamiko Kim

( Hugh Jackman by Eva Rinaldi is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 )

This summer, a colleague returned from a long vacation with a full beard. It was neatly kept, trimmed so that no hair strayed out of place, and suited him nicely. If you picture a Japanese Hugh Jackman, you may be imagining my colleague. When I complimented him on his new mane, he replied a little sorrowfully that he would be needing to shave it soon, as it wouldn’t be appropriate in the work environment in Japan. I was taken aback by this, because in the United States there has been a boom the last few years. Austin, Texas hosts the annual World Beard and Mustache Competition, and every November there is a movement called Movemember (or Mustache November) that encourages men to stay unshaven during the month to bring awareness to men’s health issues. Because this month is Movember, I wanted to explore the facial hair culture of Japan.

( Ewok samurai armour by  Ruth Hartnup is licensed under CC BY 2.0 )

Historically, Japan has had various trends and connotations of facial hair. Samurai often sported facial hair, which invoked power and manliness. Supposedly Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a shogun during the Sengoku warring period, made the effort to put on a fake beard because he was unable to grow one naturally. Looking at Samurai armor, you can even find examples of facial hair added to helmets to complete the overall look. During the Edo period, when stability was established and prized, facial hair went out of vogue, as it became linked to the aggression of the previous period. While there have been times since then when a resurgence of facial hair has occurred, with the spreading of cheap and easily accessible razors after WWII, it has become an endangered trend.

This ad for a bear trimmer states “Ah, it’s hot! Summer, and you too.”

( Ad for a beard trimmer on the Tokyo metro. Shockingly pink. by  Marco40134 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

What about modern Japan? What is the current mood towards facial hair? I asked a few of my Japanese colleagues these questions. While no one was outrightly opposed, they warned that particularly in a work setting in Japan, those with facial hair may be considered “brazen” or “rebellious.” In fact, there have been court cases between employees with facial hair and their companies, such as a 2004 case where Noboru Nakamura sued for his right to keep his mustache after the Japan Post created strict grooming regulations.

Not everyone is anti-beard, however. Since 2007, Japanese artist Takao Sakai has created fake facial hair for people to wear out of azuki red beans and other candies. His azuki beards have gained popularity, and were featured in the New York City Fair in 2014. Since even Hideyoshi was unopposed to a fake beard, I look forward to seeing how these azuki beards spread in Japan. Happy Movember everyone!

( アズキ bean beards, by Takao Sakai V by antjeverena is licensed under

CC BY-NC- ND 2.0 )

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