Japan’s Epic History Of Discrimination Against The Mustache

If you ever go to Japan, you’ll come to realize that almost all men, especially salarymen, don’t have mustaches (or facial hair for that matter). Although shaving your mustache can sometimes cause trouble (watch Koichi’s emotional song about a pitiable soccer player who was suspended because of his shaving cream), having a mustache can be problematic in Japan. If you decided to go to work with a mustache your boss might not just give you a simple slap on the wrist, he might actually fire you. Sad, but true.

But how can this be? In a modern country such as Japan, shouldn’t it be a society in which one can look past another’s facial hair without judging (or firing you?). I’d like to take you on a mustache-canoe journey through the river that is the history of how facial hair functions in Japan, past and present. I’d also like to educate you on mustaches in general in Japan, just in case you end up in a heated mustache-related argument. Nobody is going to be teased about falling flattop on your facial hair on my watch.

Japanese Mustache Vocabulary


Unlike English, Japanese has only one word for each type of facial hair, excluding the eyebrows: HIGE. Lucky you! You’ve just learned how to say mustache, beard, sideburns, and whiskers in Japanese, all at once. If you found it to be more confusing than “lucky”, don’t worry, we use a different kanji for each hige: 髭 for mustache, 鬚 for cheek hair, and 髯 for the chin. Furthermore, you can also say 口髭 (kuchi-hige/mouth-hair), 頬鬚 (hoo-hige/cheek-hair), and 顎髯 (ago-hige/chin-hair), if you prefer to specify.

Just as a note, to save some word-space in this article, from here on out I’ll use “hige” to quickly refer to mustaches, beards, sideburns, (and whiskers). So, please don’t get confused whenever you see the word “hige”. Memorize the meaning right now!!!

Let’s break down the words for each HIGE style: Mustache a.k.a. kuchi-hige is facial hair grown just above the upper lip and is the most common type of hige. For this popular mustache, there are three main styles. In Japanese, the “handlebar mustache” a.k.a. the “Kaiser mustache” is カイゼル髭(kaizeru-hige), toothbrush mustache is ちょび髭 (chobi-hige), and the pencil-thin mustache is 泥鰌髭(dojou-hige).

There are other types of hige out there besides these, of course. Let’s take a look at some of the more interesting ones.

Ago-hige is the collection of facial hair grown on the chin, upper lip, lower cheeks, and neck. The most famous style of this is most likely to be the “goatee” and is translated into 山羊髯 (yagi-hige/goat hige).

This can be taken a step further, too. Nothing says “I love Japan” more than trimming the hair on your chin into the shape of Mt. Fuji. Not surprisingly, this is called 富士髯 (Fuji-hige).


Hoo-hige is facial hair grown on the sides of the face and in front of the ears. It’s not exactly the same thing as sideburns, however. In Japanese “sideburns” get separated into two different categories. (Remember, “hoo” means cheek so hoo-hige is the part of the sideburn that starts extending outward over your cheek.) The part of the sideburn that is directly beside your ear is called もみあげ(momiage). It’s difficult to distinguish exactly where momiage end and where hoo-hige begin, so some people just call them 長いもみあげ (nagai-momiage), which means “long momiage.”

Another very common hige style is the combination of the mustache and the goatee, which is called ラウンド髭 (round-hige), 囲み (kakomi), or カールおじさんの髭 (karl-ojisan-no-hige).


And finally, if you have hige that isn’t trimmed at all and just looks like messy stubble, it’s called 無精髭 (bushou-hige/laziness-hige). Additionally, the “5 o’clock shadow” is called 青髭 (ao-hige/blue-hige). As you can see, for any variation or combination of mustaches, beards, and/or sideburns, we say “hige” and use “髭.”

Japanese Mustache History


Photo by mils-cfg

In Japan, from the medieval period to the beginning of Edo period, if you were a Samurai, you had to have hige. A Samurai without hige was made fun of. Thus, those who couldn’t grow much hige or had thin ones, such as Hideyoshi Toyotomi, used fake hige.

When the Edo shogunate entered a calm stage and became a “civilian government” called 文治政治 (bunchi-seiji), showing a fighting spirit came to be regarded as having the intention of rebelling. Since hige represents the samurai’s fighting spirit, feudal lords started shaving off their hige and left only their 髷 (mage) which is the long hair at the back of the head tied into a knot or bun. Another symbol of a samurai, the 月代 (sakayaki) which is the shaved part on the top of the head, remained during this period. This style was used until the middle of the 17th century. The government ended up banning people from having hige for the reason that hige could corrupt public morals, so all samurai had to shave off their hige, as well. They made one exception, however. People who had scars on their faces were granted permission to grow hige in order to hide their scars. Thus, Morihito Yamayoshi (a.k.a Shinpachirou Yamayoshi or Shinpachi) shaved his hige, though he doesn’t have his hige in the moe-anime game called “ChuShingura46+1”, since all Samurai characters are girls in the game.

In the second half of the 17th century, having a clean-shaven face became the standard among Japanese civilians. Meanwhile, in Hokkaido, Japan’s indigenous group called Ainu still had hige but didn’t have mage (the knot at the top of the head). Therefore, during the Edo-period, the homeland of the Ainu, 蝦夷地(Ezo-chi/Yezo), was regarded as a land of savages, in large part due to them having hige. This “hige discrimination” is considered to be one of the initial reasons that people started to harbor contempt for the Ainu.

There is also an offensive and insulting term for foreigners, 毛唐(ketou), which was created to spite foreigners with hige. 毛 means hair and 唐 means Tang Dynasty. The word 毛唐 was originally intended for Chinese people thought later it came to denote Westerners.

Speaking of Westerners, in and around the 18th century, hige became really popular in Victorian England and spread throughout Europe. That influence reached men of high status in Japan during the Meiji-era (that’s after the anti-mustache Shogunate was overthrown, 1868-1912 AD) and so they started growing their hige again. Gaishi Nagaoka, an officer at Military Staff College in Tokyo, was one of them and he grew his mustache to an astounding 70cm (27.5inch) from end to end. His mustache was called the プロペラ髭 (propeller-hige) and Nagaoka was very proud of it.


During the Taishou era (1912-1926 AD), some people still wore the toothbrush mustache or the Ronald-Coleman-like mustache called コールマン髭 (Coleman-hige). However, a new style without a mustache called MOBO (Modern Boy) became popular and the hige fever cooled down all the way until the militaristic Shouwa era (1926–1989) when the hige-boom came back (but didn’t last that long). After the wars, safety razors spread around the country and shaving hige became the respectable, and respectful, style for salarymen all through the post-war reconstruction period.

Hige In The Contemporary Japan

Nowadays, though the trendiness of hige is gradually increasing, even to the point that there is now a popular Hige Dance, there are still far more clean-shaven Japanese men than those with hige. I guess it’s because the old “Hige=Bad” mentality still lingers in many minds.

Across Japan, a general rule of employment stipulates that you must not have hige. This is particularly evident in the following industries: banking, investment, insurance, railway, airline, bus, taxi, retail, restaurant, and hotel. Companies make such rules because the firing, suspension of, demotion of a person, or reducing their salary for having hige is an infringement on personal rights. An employee must be given fair warning that having hige is against company policy.

In fact, some incidents have even gone all the way to the court system. For example, a postman named Noboru Nakamura had to hire a lawyer to fight for the right to keep his hige against Japan Post’s 2004 grooming regulation. Nakamura wasn’t the only postman who felt troubled by the regulation. Another postman named Hideki Shiba brought his case against Japan Post to court and won because the regulation was introduced after he had started working there. A taxi driver won his case that he took to court, as well. Those cases (裁判/saiban) are called 髭裁判(hige-saiban).

This means one very simple thing: it’s very possible to get fired for having facial hair. Oh, and don’t forget to lawyer up.

It all sounds far too serious for something as little (and natural) has hige, but as the saying たかが髭、されど髭 (takaga hige, saredo hige) goes, “it’s just hige, but it could be very important, as well”. And indeed it can be. As I am a female, I don’t understand how men feel about their hige. If I found a thick hige on my face, I’d remove it immediately. However, while writing this article I’ve learned about how difficult it was to have hige from a historical context. I’ve also learned how important hige can be for some men, and I’d like to learn more. I’d love to hear the passionate opinions of the “Hige-man”. I guess we all want to, so keep an eye out for the next article in which I interview a Japanese salary man with a doozie of a mustache. What made him start growing his mustache? Did he need to fight his boss in order to keep it? It’s him against society. You don’t want to miss it!

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  • PeteEllis

    Speaking of, while I was stationed on Guam and getting ready to go to Afghanistan we were allowed to grow full beards. Frankly, there was no way I would have passed for an Afgan but I wanted to grow it out anyway because I could.
    So, for about a month I walked around Guam with my white blond beard. All the Japanese tourists wanted pictures with me. It was unnerving the number of people that wanted to touch my beard. After they would touch it I would say “don’t touch my mustache”. Everyone thought it was funny.

  • cacique437

    I do not think a war is required, just a personal decision to grow a mustache, or not.

  • Cory

    Another very interesting article. Without Hige I’d look like a teenager so I need to look closer to my actual age of 32. But if I had to shave it to keep my job I would.

  • Cory

    That’s absolutely awesome!

  • Mami

    Arigato, Cory♥ ( ˙灬˙ )

  • Mami

    Wow, that’s very interesting and funny story♥ ( ˙灬˙ ) Thank you for sharing that with us!

  • Mami

    ♥ ( ˙灬˙ )

  • John Thomas “Jack” Ward III

    I like my Kuchihige (Mustache), and I’m trying to grow it “Handle-Bar” style (Like Hulk Hogan. I usually wear my Hoohige (Sideburns) long, like Elvis (Yeah that Elvis). And in Winter, I always let my Bushouhige (Beard) grow out all scraggly; it keeps my face warm. Jawamax 8<{D}

  • John Thomas “Jack” Ward III

    The only problem is, my top hair grows a LOT slower than the side hair, so I can’t grow a “Mullet”. It must’ve been because my dad used to cut my hair every few weeks when I was a kid. But at least I’m not going bald…Yet… Jawamax 8<{D}

  • Y.

    Whenever my brother / my friends come to the US, they always grow out their facial hair, but as soon as they go to Japan they’re clean shaven again.

    On a somewhat related note: A 23-year-old school clerk was caught with tattoos on her ankle and left arm. Since she’s a government worker in Osaka (where there’s an anti-tattoo policy), half her pay was taken from her for a month, and she must get them removed.
    I know tattoos have a huge history, and can be really serious in Japan, and visible tattoos are still unwelcomed in many professional settings but still… An anti-tattoo policy that includes hidden and visible tattoos…?

  • slim_69

    Mami – my first visit to Tofugu. Fun article!
    I live in Japan, have for 13-14 years. I had a goatee once, but when I got a new job, the boss told me to shave it. I wasn’t really attached to it (itchy), so it was OK. He said he was afraid that customers would feel intimidated by me with a beard…. (He used to have a big beard, too, but shaved it when he became the boss.)
    Personally, I love photos from the Meiji era of men with huge, eccentric beards and mustaches, in Japan, America and Europe! I also think it’s strange how people turn it into a moral issue. For example, did you know that the one big American church “photoshopped” pictures of its beloved founder to take off his beard?! That seems odd.
    Sometimes I dream about growing a big mustache or something when I’m a grandfather. Seems to be a fun image, grandfather with a Meiji-style mustache!

  • slim_69

    Oh, and about men’s feelings: I think it’s like women changing their hair. It’s fun to try something different, a different style or image. Also, it’s a manly symbol (like women’s long hair), so it makes us feel manly. I definitely noticed people treating me differently when I had a beard, especially men seemed to give me more respect or something. I sensed people felt more “impact,” which was kind of cool.

    These days, (in Japan and America) a lifestyle where you CAN have a beard (freedom) is attractive, so guys also grow it “because they can,” meaning they are independent or something. Interesting psychology, right?

  • demonstrable

    I learned another new and interesting thing.

  • Dorotheus

    Ha! I never heard a name for it before! Its sort of like that, but much much, much thinner.

  • red*razors

    I am Irish and have never experienced this discrimation at all! Certain professions like the police say you must be either clean-shaven or have full hige. Only because the inbetween stage looks too messy. So many men grow hige in their holidays or time off, and this is allowed. There is a charity here which promotes awareness of men’s cancers called Movember, and many men grow funny kuchi-hige for the month of November. The only reason I can think of that hige is not very common is that it is just not customary. Many men prefer to be shaved. But men are much more interested in growing beards and having stubble these days, it is becoming quite popular! There is even a national beard and moustache club :)

  • http://HipsterApproved.net/ Hipster Approved

    Some people would say ‘At least you HAVE hair’.


  • Lava Yuki

    Ya ive heard of that charity thing. I just never really see many bearded young people. I do see middle aged and old men, but really people in there 20-30s. just know my college bans it for some reason lol. I remember one guy was scolded for it. But i guess maybe there isnt discrimination, more so slagging perhaps?

  • PeteEllis

    Another time six girl friends game to Guam for vacation. My friend who speaks Japanese invited them to sit at our table in a beach bar. The girls spoke English fairly well. Two of he girls thought that asking me questions about hamburgers and hotdogs was really funny. All the Japanese in the area thought it was hilarious as well and everyone was laughing and drinking and seemed to be having a good time. However, the questions went on and on. I don’t understand what was so funny. They asked me questions about if I thought hamburgers were better than hotdogs and why hamburgers were made into patties and hotdogs were in tubes. Might you know why they found that funny?

  • red*razors

    Which college is it, if you don’t mind my asking? It’s extremely unusual for any third-level institution to have a dress code or grooming code. On work placements within certain courses, well, that’s different.
    I think a lot depends on how young the men are. At around 15 you see a lot of fuzzy stuff on young boys who are trying to look grown up. Then they get a few years older and realise they can’t grow proper hige, so they shave.
    I think moustaches are still seen as a little bit naff, but beards are becoming very popular. I am really happy about it!

  • red*razors

    Ps these are general comments, not entirely directed at you specifically :)

  • Mami

    I guess that they were very drunk so everything was funny to them??

  • Mami

    Oh, cory. Maybe you told me before, but I kept thinking that you were a woman with the purple hair like your profile♥ ( ˙灬˙ ) picture haha

  • Mami

    I see:P

  • Mami


  • Mami

    Welcome to Tofugu! I’m glad to hear that you enjoy my article(^^)/ and Thank you for sharing your experience. I personally want you to try that huge mustache too! :P

  • Mami

    It’s a very reasonable explanation. Thank you. ♥ ( ˙灬˙ )

  • Mami

    Yeah, I agree that it’s too much. People are over reacting to the invisible tattoos. :(

  • Mami

    Aha, I’ve never thought that hige could keep men’s faces warm.♥ ( ˙灬˙ )

  • Jonathan Harston

    I’ve got to that age where if I see somebody with Russell Brand-type facial hair, my immediate thought is: get a shave, you scruff!

  • Xeramon

    It reminds me a big of the hige history from my homeland (Russia). Hige was forbidden in the past and you had to pay taxes like for every millimetre of your hige.

    I don’t have a quite big hige but I feel pretty naked without it (and I also feeling a little bit rebellious due to the fact that not much people have a hige).

  • Lava Yuki

    I go to medical school at the Royal College of Surgeons. Maybe cuz it’s a medical school. They also have a strict dress and hair colour code too, like no short skirts, pink hair, visible body piercing and tattoos etc.. I don’t think thats for other colleges tho since I see other college students in Dublin dressed however they want, while my class looks like bunch of business ppl lol

  • Farah Hisham

    Hehehe! I love that “hige” emoji lol!
    Thank you! That song is very catchy, Iol


  • Farah Hisham

    So adorable!!!!! (((o(*゚▽゚*)o)))

  • Cali Pellegrini

    Very interesting article, I had no idea about this! Mami, I have a full beard. Unlike the picture, I usually keep it trimmed and off the neck. What would this exactly be called in Japanese and would I have any trouble because of it?

  • PeteEllis

    I was told by my friend who was there and follows my posts on Disqus that although I missed their point it was obvious to everyone else. Apparently, Japanese think that hot dogs and hamburgers are ridiculously easy to prepare. The joke was that I thought I was telling them something they didn’t know. My friend reminded me that they also asked what my mothers recipe for hamburger was and I said ground beef, egg and some garlic salt. That for some reason got the biggest laugh. However, I am sure the alcohol made it seem funnier. However, am still at a loss to understand why its funny.

  • red*razors

    that totally explains it. yes, med students will generally be held to higher grooming standards as it looks more professional. in saying that, a lot depends on the med school. i work in an another university’s anatomy department, and those regulations don’t really hold until students begin to go into the hospital. our first years are as sloppy-looking as all the other students. in general, universities and colleges have no rules whatsoever about how students should look.

  • Lava Yuki

    Ya it was kinda like that in the first two years where we just had lectures, but they atill didnt allow visible tattoos, piercings and brightly coloured hair. But clothes, we cud wear anything. Now in hospital its rly strict, so to look professional and respectful to patients.

  • Cory

    I’m a guy, hahaha! Used this picture years ago because I was watching an anime with this character at the time and never changed it. Also I am lazy!

  • Fabio Sosa

    Congratulations! Your text is very good.

  • http://dennyaryadi.com/ Denny Aryadi

    Oh, I can’t imagine if Senjougahara Hitagi could grow a hige haha ^^

  • Eriol

    I’m just surprised to see a mention of ChuSinGura46+1, and from Mami no less, even though it was probably one of the most popular games of its type last year. Gave me a good chuckle.

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