On Wednesday, June 25th I asked a Japanese high school English teacher what his plans were for the summer. In gest I suggested that he could grow a small, groovy beard like mine, but I was surprised by his response.
“No, I don’t want to be impolite.”
“A beard is impolite?” I’ve had a beard off and on since I was able to grow one, and I’ve had my current short goatee for about three years straight. It’s purely cosmetic. I grew it to hide something and when the need expired I kept the beard. The visual effect of the beard somewhat offset the increasingly heavy appearance of my aging face which appealed to me.
I didn’t suspect a common sentiment against facial hair so much as I suspected a common inability to grow it well.
I had never, ever heard that before. I was surprised. At first I thought the “impolite” explanation might be a shallow excuse to rationalize a widespread inability among Japanese men even to grow a beard. I didn’t suspect a common sentiment against facial hair so much as I suspected a common inability to grow it well. Certainly there are some bearded Japanese men. Even some copiously, magnificently bearded ones. But generally Japanese male skin seems to be an inhospitable environment for facial hair. Generally speaking Japanese skin is very youthful and it’s quite easy to underestimate a person’s age. Maybe it has to do with diet, or maybe it’s genetics. Or a bit of both.
Upon further questioning the teacher explained that a beard was “dirty.” I understood - you know, the image of food crumbs and soup dripping from a man’s whiskers and all - and I immediately worried about how I was perceived by Japanese, especially my employers. No worries. It seems that because I am a foreigner a lot of my behavior is excused. I can easily get away with it. They don’t expect too much of me. Being universally consistently under-estimated here leaves me in a comfortable life situation.
In the past men sported beards in keeping with the fashion of the time: from the peasant to the emperor. In modern times, former Emperor Hirohito (Emperor Showa) had a moustache. So does his grandson, Prince Akishino. Moustaches are more common than chin or cheek hair, but even so they aren’t that common. I don’t think of a lot of facial hairiness when I think of Japanese men, but there is no paucity if you search for images on the internet.
But I could be wrong.