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Gunma city does battle with beards

Local government's hairy-chin ban sets example for nation

by Jay Klaphake

I would like to draw readers’ attention to the outstanding work of the municipal government of Isesaki, Gunma Prefecture. After receiving complaints that citizens find bearded men unpleasant, Isesaki — just as all levels of Japanese government often do — took decisive action to address an important public concern: The city announced a ban on beards for municipal workers.

Isesaki deserves our thanks for recognizing that allowing beards is the first step along a slippery slope. If we let government workers get away with improper grooming, the next thing you know they will start being creative and ask inappropriate questions like, “If we are actually trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, maybe we shouldn’t make expressways toll-free?” or, “Why don’t we budget more to ease the national shortage of child-care facilities instead of giving parents a per-child payout every month?”

Allowing city workers who are able to grow beards to do so would also be unfair to those who cannot, and would undoubtedly cause widespread mumbling among workers of phrases rarely heard in Japan (and thus unfamiliar to most foreigners — hence the translations) such as “zurui” (unfair) and “urayamashii” (I’m envious). After all, as any foreigner in Japan knows, “Japan is an egalitarian society” (a phrase that’s heard almost as often as “You are very good with chopsticks”). As my colleague, a male tenured full professor with an M.A. from Tokyo University, said (upon returning from his recent sabbatical in Hawaii) to a gathering of limited-term foreign instructors with Ph.D.s (while being served tea by a Japanese woman contracted to work for no more than three years whose total annual pay is less than his yearly bonus), “Everyone must be treated equally.”

Of course, public servants are busy doing very important work, and beards are likely to distract them from providing essential services — such as formulating and adopting resolutions banning beards. In Isesaki, bureaucrats felt compelled to act when beard-related gripes unexpectedly shot to No. 1 on a list of residents’ grievances after the complaint form, which had several check boxes, was altered last year. At the time, the wording of the previous top complaint (“I don’t like to wait in long lines”) was scrutinized and found to be an overly leading question by the government division that regularly finds widespread public support for the death penalty. After careful examination, they proposed the more neutral-sounding “I would rather conduct my public business with energetic, attractive young workers than lazy, dirty, smelly workers with beards, because the latter make me feel slightly unpleasant.”

This antibeard bias is not a new phenomenon in Japan. Local rumor has it that the Colonel Sanders statue dredged up last year after 24 years at the bottom of the Dotonburi River in Osaka was tossed off a bridge by a Hanshin Tigers fan involved in a tax dispute with a bearded local government official. Tigers fans blamed “the curse of Colonel Sanders” for a run of bad form in the years following the statue’s much-publicized disappearance, reflecting a distrust of bearded characters that was particularly vehement in Kansai during the ’80s.

In fact, in the Isesaki Employee Empowerment Manual there is a section titled “How to Motivate Employees of the 21st Century” that includes a reference to McDonald’s’ and KFC’s relative success in Japan. Produced by the city’s economics section, the analysis is written by a man who has a bachelor’s degree in law from a famous (in Japan) university. A leaked copy of the report concludes: “Although I have never actually studied economics, since being rotated out of the sewage treatment department and into the position of chief of the economics section I have read the book ‘Freakonomics.’ McDonald’s’ greater success relative to Kentucky directly correlates with the fact that we Japanese prefer clowns to people with beards.” A recently addendum also cites McDonald’s’ “wacky Mr. James commercials” as further evidence of this trend.

On the subject of Japan’s real-life “Mr. Jameses” — its foreign community — Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara has been quick to point to surveys that show government workers with beards are more likely to be supporters of voting rights for non-Japanese residents than clean-shaven employees. Excessive facial hair could even be used to mask an individual’s foreign roots, meaning that many of the hirsute could be naturalized citizens or children of naturalized citizens.

At a minimum, they are probably friends with naturalized citizens, or know someone who knows someone who might be the cousin of someone who once had a conversation with a naturalized citizen. With this in mind, Ishihara is apparently watching events in Isesaki closely with an eye to introducing a “Cool-chin Biz” campaign in the capital, possibly followed by an all-out Metropolitan Government beard ban.

Looking beyond local ordinances, the Japanese government ought to establish one of its usual blue-ribbon advisory panels to formulate similar brilliantly conceived regulations for all of Japan. Care should be taken to limit participation to the same old Japanese men, who graduated from the same elite universities, in order to ensure nonbiased results. Because of the urgency of this matter, they should deliberate more quickly than usual. Let’s try for a lengthy report, for release to great fanfare in the media about two years from now.

Announcing the original beard ban last month, an Isesaki city official told Kyodo News, “Although people tend to accept beards these days, officials should look like the public servants they are.” The same official used similar language Monday as he unveiled a new resolution requiring municipal workers to have ’50s-style haircuts and wear white short-sleeve dress shirts at all times. Under the proposal, junior high school teachers would also be brought in each morning to check for earrings, dyed hair and loose socks at the main gate.

Opponents of the original resolution are decrying what they call “facial-hair fascism” and plan to form a nonprofit organization to support the so-called “right” of self-expression for government workers. Beard opponents can take comfort in the fact that the registration process to obtain approval for NPO status is overly complex and really, really slow. And, in the end, government bureaucrats (at least the ones without beards) rarely approve such requests anyway.

A legal defense committee led by human-rights advocate Debito Arudou (of course he has a beard) and law professor Colin P. A. Jones is looking into whether Isesaki used off-budget secret funds to operate a barbershop in the basement of City Hall and provided free haircuts and shaves to public employees. Arudou reportedly tried to enter the barbershop but was refused access because his beard didn’t look Japanese, even though he insisted that his beard did, in fact, become Japanese several years ago.

Professor Jones has apparently filed a freedom of information request for documents detailing whether, and how much of, taxpayers’ money was used for the secret project. In response, the city said that no such documents could be found, no such barbershop exists, and furthermore it would be a violation of the privacy of the barber to say anything more.

The whole truth may never be known, as those involved have since retired from government service in order to take up posts with private companies and quasi-public agencies that receive numerous large government contracts.

In response to the Isesaki ban, a Buddhist-Communist group of city employees who support beards and peace are planning to leaflet the public. We can all ignore them and relax, however, because the Supreme Court has our backs covered. Just as they did in the antiwar leafleting case, we can depend on the court’s willingness to trade away our freedom of speech in exchange for “tranquillity in (our) personal lives.” Perhaps these troublesome free-speech cases could simply be eliminated entirely by putting that portion of the Constitution, along with Article 9, to the vote in the upcoming referendum on amending Japan’s postwar charter?

And what about all the suspicious bearded foreigners? As part of the “Yokoso Japan!” campaign, visitors could be made to shave while being fingerprinted and photographed — just like in a Japanese prison. A brochure should be prepared in English and Japanese explaining that this is being done in response not just to the overwhelming number of recent acts of international terrorism in Japan, but also to make Japanese people feel comfortable. For those who don’t read Japanese or English, a kawaii logo of a prophet-like animation character having his beard cut off should suffice.

Fortunately, the National Policy Agency is already on top of this. According to NPA statistics, crime by men with beards is up 31.2 percent over last year, as compared to women without beards (note: data may include citations for homelessness). Bearded suspects are four times less likely to sign coerced confessions when falsely accused of a crime, foreign antiwhaling activists are three times as likely to have beards than traditional Japanese “dolphin conservation officers” in Taiji, and seven of Japan’s 10 most-wanted criminals appear on posters where the artist has sketched them with a beard.

Of course, a nationwide ban on beards would be ideal. But if that is not possible, some alternative measures should be considered.

On the domestic side, the education ministry could order all reference to beards to be removed from high school textbooks, and bearded schoolteachers could be forced to shave while singing the Kimigayo. And please don’t forget to airbrush that annoying mustache off the guy on the ¥1,000 bill.

As for the foreign community, beard trimmings could be embedded in a new DNA-based IC chip in lieu of fingerprints on alien registration cards. If Japan ever ratifies the Hague Convention on child abduction, they could include an exception denying redress to foreign fathers with beards. And Global 30 universities could be instructed to not only limit international teaching staff to five-year nonrenewable contracts, but to do the same for bearded Japanese as well.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama should, however, act cautiously, because if this whole beard issue isn’t handled properly, both he and the government could become a source of ridicule. Maybe top executives from the private sector — JAL or Toyota, for example (have you seen any of them with beards?) — could be brought in to consult on this matter.

After all, no man is an island unto himself — just like no island is an island unto itself, as Hatoyama has made clear to the people of Okinawa — and it seems highly unfair to expect the prime minister to shoulder the entire burden of providing creative leadership for Japan.

Besides, he doesn’t have a beard.

Jay Klaphake is an associate professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, where he teaches, among other things, U.S. politics and law. For readers unaccustomed to satire, it should be disclosed that the author had a beard in college. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp