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Japanese Hige Mustache

Hige : Japanese Mustache and Beard

3 min read

Wearing a (neat) beard or mustache follows different trends in US and UK countries and this is perfectly accepted, even encouraged by hipster fashion, which is obviously not the case in the land of the rising sun. If you ever go to Japan, you will realize that almost all men, especially employees, don't have a mustache (or hair on the rest of the face for that matter). Although shaving your mustache can sometimes cause problems, having a mustache or beard can be problematic in Japan.

It doesn't look like much, but just making a distinction between beard and mustache is cultural. By the way, about the term "mustache", it was imported to the English around the 16th century and it itself derives from the Italian moustacio. This means that separating the mustache from the rest was not an obvious thing to do at the time. What about Japanese hige (ひげ) ?

Definition of the word hige and a little history

Hige can be written with three different kanjis. The first which is the most general is and refers more particularly in its narrow sense to the mustache. The graphic element 此 would indeed represent its "uneven" aspect. That said, we prefer to use kuchihige (口ひげ) for the latter to avoid confusion. The second kanji is 鬚 which is supposed to refer to the beard growing on the chin. The element 須 used to designate a beard that used to hang down. Finally, one can write hige with the kanji 髯 which refers to the hair on the cheeks.

Anyway, although there are several different kanjis, hige in its broadest sense means "hair growing on the face". My electronic dictionary thus gives several translations: beard/mustache/favourites/goatee. So it seems that in Japanese, the distinction beard/mustache has never been very clear. However, we know that the beard was very fashionable until the beginning of the Edo era (17th century). A beardless fighter was in fact ridiculed. One would have even found documents attesting the wearing of false beards for the less hairy !


tô_Hirobumi Ainu chief
It was then much decried because it was considered "wild" for more than two centuries before coming back to the forefront with the influence of the West (19th century). Having a pretty beard was indeed a way to highlight his social status. Nowadays, it is quite rare to see a Japanese with a beard. It is indeed rather badly seen at work and in everyday life. And beware of the one who does not maintain it under penalty of being accused of bushô hige (無精髭 "badly shaved/beard of several days"). And according to several polls, including a recent one conducted in 2015, Japanese women do not seem to be very attracted by bearded men.

Nowadays, although the trend of the hige is gradually increasing, to the point that there is now a popular Japanese hige dance. Popular manga characters wear mustache and beard, as can be seen on this Japanese t-shirt. However, there are still many more shaved Japanese men than those who have hige. Probably because the old mentality still persists in many minds. All over Japan, there is a general rule of employment that you should not have a hige.

In Japanese society and culture, the rules regarding the wearing of beards and mustaches seem very different from the rest of the world and especially from our US and UK countries: a bearded man is frowned upon. A man with a beard or a big mustache does not shock anyone with this fleece in Europe or United States, a long sculpted beard can even be a sign of virility (especially among hipsters with their fashion of the goatee cut with scissors) and everyone has his own style of beard or mustache. We can even mention the Movember movement ! It is obvious that Japanese standards are different. Although this tends to change, beard hair is still relatively unpopular in Japan, which is a good thing to know before you go there !
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