A Lesson in Fear and the Facial Hair of the Samurai Warrior

The Samurai were the legendary knights of medieval Japan, an elite, fierce, and highly skilled warrior class that held the reins of power for over 700 years. Trained to kill from the age of three, they gained competencies in a multitude of weaponry; they were skilled archers, martial artists, and swordsman.  Not only did they have total control over these deadly instruments, but they were also masters of a less visible and perhaps more potent weapon: fear. They learned techniques not only to overcome fear themselves but also determine how to use it effectively against their opposition. Fear and the mastery of it were part of every aspect of the Samurai culture.

THE HIGE: The Beards and Mustaches of Samurai Warriors

A significant outward expression of fear was the “Hige” or facial hair, and in Samurai culture, every warrior was expected to grow it. If you were a Samurai and couldn’t produce a big “Hige” you were potentially viewed as being weak or inexperienced. In fact, to avoid potential shunning, those who could not grow a big “Hige” felt pressure to use a false one. The well known 15th-century Samurai “Hideyoshi Toyotomi” alluded to the fact that he wore quite a large fake “Hige” during his reign. Social importance aside, lets examine the “Hige” in a more anatomical light.

samurai-infographicIn the Japanese language, all facial hair except for eyebrows is called “Hige” A mustache is called “Kuchi-Hige”; hair grown on the chin is named “Ago-Hige,” and hair on the cheeks is “Hoo-Hige.” Of course, there were also variations and combinations of ‘Hige.’ One notorious style was a combo of a mustache and a goatee. This style is aptly named the “Yagi-Hige,” translated as “Goat’s Beard.”

Mempo, Displays of Intimidation, and Horsehair ‘Hige”

mempoPerhaps one of the most beautiful and admiral qualities of Japanese culture is how seamlessly duality is given to everything. Samurai armor was a perfect example of this. It acted as both a defense mechanism (protecting the body) as well as a psychological weapon(scaring the bejesus out of the enemy). This armor was downright terrifying, and more to the point, it served as a spectacular example of the weapon they mastered best – fear. On average, this armor weighed 60 pounds less than the clunky suits of their European counterparts but was as equally effective in deflecting flying arrows and slashing swords. Chest plates called "Do” were
embossed with forbidding underworld dragons; helmets called “Kabuto” were adorned with demonic
spikes.Yet, perhaps the most impressive and most formidable piece of this armor was the face portion, called the “Mempo.” “Mempo” again functioned with duality; it held the often weighty helmet in place with a series of well placed straps and hooks, but was also the focal point in staring down the opposition. Further, the “Menpo” was, more often than not, garnished with a “Hige” made from horsehair. Some of the more well- known and well-preserved ones had straight-up mustaches, and some had beards or combinations of both.

“For centuries the Samurai used the ‘Hige’ both on and off the battlefield. It was a defining element in telling the difference between a regular citizen and a Japanese warrior.”

old-warriorFor centuries, the Samurai used the “Hige” both on and off the battlefield. It was a defining element in telling the difference between a regular citizen and a Japanese warrior. What put an end to the Samurai and the “Hige” was an extended period of peace at the end of the Edo period. In fact, a very famous shogun of this time named “Nagakura Shinpachi” shaved the mustache he had grown for years, and his loyal samurai followed suit. In this period of peace, the “Hige” soon became a sign of aggression and rebellion in this new modern era and was outlawed. Sadly, as the samurai lay down their swords and faded into other societal roles such as teachers, the great “Hige” faded with them as the Japanese entered the modern era. The samurai may be a thing of the past, but their spirit can live on. Now, you know how be fearless, master fear, grow a “Hige” and wear it with honor, and be a samurai.