Workplace bans on beards raise hairy questions

by Miki Nakanishi

Kyodo News

MAEBASHI, Gunma Pref. — The issue of men with facial hair in the workplace has recently prompted serious discussions as well as actual bans based on “decorum.”

In May, the city of Isesaki, Gunma Prefecture, banned all male municipal employees from sporting beards in the office on the grounds that public servants should look decent. The city took the action after some residents complained about its bearded workers.

In response to the news, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said it had never heard of any municipality introducing such a rule.

Isesaki’s move, however, is nothing new. A growing number of Japanese, including athletes, are being prohibited from turning up for work unshaven so they won’t “offend” the public.

Seven-Eleven Japan Co. is particularly strict about the appearance of its employees and says it won’t hire men with beards.

“We might fire workers growing beards regardless of whether they are regular staff or part-time workers,” a public relations official said.

Oriental Land Co., owner of the Tokyo Disney Resort, also bans beards, like its U.S. counterpart.

“It’s important that workers serving our guests maintain an immaculate image,” an official said. “But the rule doesn’t apply to the man playing the role of Captain Hook in our park.”

The manufacturing arm of razor maker Kai Corp. tests the quality of its products almost every month on its male workers. They grow facial hair until the monthly test date arrives and get back to work cleanshaven after the tests.

Some men take issue with the bans.

An employee of Japan Post Service Co. sued the firm to protest a pay cut imposed because of his beard.

In March, the Kobe District Court ordered the company to pay him ¥370,000 on grounds that a person’s appearance is a matter of personal freedom and a uniform ban on beards is unreasonable.

In sports, the Yomiuri Giants baseball club is well known for its ban on beards. When he left the Nippon Ham Fighters for the Giants in December 2006, infielder Michihiro Ogasawara made his fans gasp by shaving his trademark beard.

The baseball star said abiding by his team’s rules was a matter of manhood.

No regulations exist regarding facial hair in the world of sumo, the most tradition-bound of sports in Japan.

According to the Japan Sumo Association, some non-Japanese wrestlers have taken flak in the past because they tend to be more hairy than most Japanese and some fans found their bushy facial hair unseemly. By and large, not wearing a beard is a tacit rule.

The association, however, is rather flexible regarding the issue.

“We work in the world where luck counts a great deal, so some wrestlers don’t shave during a winning streak” because they fear it would change their luck, an association official said.

“It is said that growing a beard or not should be a matter of personal freedom and left to each individual to decide, but organizations fail to function well if they lack a certain measure of discipline,” said Mitsuru Yaku, a cartoonist and commentator on various social issues who himself sports a beard.

“A beard is a symbol that is the polar opposite of a virtue associated with a serious-minded adult, and many people equate beards with decadence or moral laxity,” he said.