Surviving art from the Edo period often features samurai in poses or scenes of battle, and one prominent theme among the various pieces is the samurais’ notable facial hair. But did samurai actually have facial hair, or was that just a case of the artists taking artistic liberties?
Samurai did have facial hair, at least during the Edo period of Japanese history. Facial hair was a sign of masculinity and virility, and the longer, bushier, and more impressive the hair was, the more intimidating the samurai was to his opponents. Samurai without facial hair were often mocked.
This article will talk more about samurai facial hair, including outlining some of the most frequently seen styles. It’ll also discuss the odd phenomenon of Japanese samurai masks with facial hair and whether there’s any truth to the adage that Japanese men can’t really grow mustaches and beards.
Also see Did Samurai Have Long Hair? to learn more.
What Kind of Facial Hair Did Samurai Wear?
Today, facial hair – hige in Japanese – isn’t very popular with Japanese men. Perhaps that’s why there’s only one word to describe all the different types of facial hair. In Japanese, hige could mean:
However, during the Edo period, facial hair was very popular, especially among the samurai class.
Samurai often had all three prominent types of facial hair: beards, mustaches, and goatees. The thicker and more unruly the facial hair, the more powerful people assumed the warrior to be. Some had shaggy mustaches and full beards; others had exceptionally long goatees.
Unlike the samurai’s hair, which was so distinctive and precise that it had its own name (chonmage), facial hair among the samurai wasn’t a uniform thing.  While most samurai shared the same hairstyles, their facial hair choices were unique and personally chosen.
One thing remained true for all samurai concerning facial hair: the more of it there was, the better.
Facial hair was such an essential part of the samurai’s overall look that those who couldn’t grow it were mocked and made fun of mercilessly by other warriors. To cut down on the mockery and disdain, these samurai would wear fake facial hair. 
One notable warrior who did this was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, also known as “Japan’s second unifier.” While Toyotomi was one of the most well-known samurai to have fake hige, he wasn’t the only one. Apparently, it was better to look ridiculous with fake hair than not to have facial hair at all.
Also see Did Samurai Wear Masks? to learn more.
Did Samurai Masks Have Facial Hair?
Samurai masks had facial hair because that made them look more realistic. Furthermore, like the genuine facial hair on samurai, the hair on samurai masks was a symbol of power and looked more vicious and war-like than masks without hair.
Samurai masks are one thing that Hollywood usually gets right. The ones used in movies and television shows featuring samurai probably looked very similar to the real thing. Samurai painted the masks red, especially on the inside, as red – the color of blood and fire – was more representative of war than any other color.  They usually gave the masks gold-colored teeth, as well.
Typically, they made their masks from metal, and wearing them served a dual purpose:
- It made the warriors look more ferocious, and they hoped to see them would strike fear into their opponents’ hearts.
- On a more practical note, the masks would protect the samurais’ faces while in combat.
The overall appearance of the masks was animalistic or even demonic. Though the facial hair gave them a slightly humanoid effect, everything else about them was angrier, eviler, and sometimes grotesque. They were very detailed.
Most masks were also designed with strategically placed holes so that sweat wouldn’t pool inside them while the men were fighting.
Also see Did Samurai Invade China? to learn more.
Is It Easy for Japanese Men to Grow Facial Hair?
It’s just as easy for most Japanese men to grow facial hair as it is for men from any other race, ethnicity, or culture. While it may be harder for some individuals to grow facial hair, there’s nothing specific about Japanese men as a whole that makes it more difficult.
So why, generally speaking, are Japanese men more clean-shaven than men in other countries?
The answer to that is simple, but it has to do with Japan’s complicated history.
As mentioned above, during the Edo period, all samurai had facial hair; it was as much a mark of status as anything else. Later, though, when Japan transitioned from a feudal government to an imperial-style one, mustaches and other facial hair were associated strictly with the samurai – the warrior class.
In this new government, Japan was living in a time of peace, and they didn’t want any reminders of their warrior history. In an article for Tofugu, Mami Suzuki notes that hige “represents the samurai’s fighting spirit” and goes on to say that that fighting spirit “came to be regarded as having the intention of rebelling.” 
No one wanted others to see them as potential rebels, so they became a largely clean-shaven race of people. Eventually, the government began requiring men to shave their facial hair. They claimed that displaying facial hair could “corrupt public morals.”
The only exception to the rule was for people who had facial scars or disfigurement. They were allowed to keep their hige to hide those marks.
Although the government no longer regulates the average Japanese citizen’s facial hair, the stigma associated with hige still survives. Many companies forbid their employees from growing beards, mustaches, or other facial hair. This is especially true for those working in the following fields:
- Investment firms
- Public transit
- Insurance companies
- Retail environments 
Outside of these occupations, though, and with the youth of Japan, facial hair is seeing a resurgence in popularity.
It’ll probably still be a while before facial hair becomes mainstream once more in Japan.
Also see Did Samurai Have Squires? to learn more.
Both samurai and samurai masks had facial hair to intimidate the samurais’ enemies. Hige isn’t as popular in modern-day Japan, though.