Japan, school rules, Buraku kosoku, education, high school, uniform, underwear

From April 1, students in Tokyo’s public high schools will enjoy greater freedom in the way they dress and act. Photo: Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Public high school students in Tokyo will no longer need to dye their natural hair black or wear designated, often white, underwear colors, ending rules increasingly criticized as inhibiting students’ self-expression .

For decades, Japanese schools have defined a student’s appearance and behavior. Public school dress codes often require students to have dark hair, wear white underwear, and wear their hair down — schoolgirls still can’t wear ponytails in some parts of the country on base of the sexist rationale that their necks could “sexually arouse” male students.

But after repeated pleas from parents and students that such draconian rules – known as buraku kosoku – hamper students’ freedom and individuality, Tokyo’s board of education decided last month to abolish these regulations. From Friday, some 200 public high schools in the capital will now get rid of five controversial rules, joining a growing nationwide movement to end heavy-handed regulations on student appearance.

“It’s great that we’re finally catching up on our time,” Chise Iida, a recent graduate of Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School, told VICE World News.

Having experienced buraku kosoku in her middle school, she described how suffocating such regulations were.

“The length of the skirt was strictly regulated and absolutely no skirt had to be folded, and if it was above the knee, the students were sternly warned,” she said.

As well as scrapping rules on hair and underwear colors, schools will also now allow a wider range of hairstyles, such as a two-piece haircut – short on the sides and back while still being long on top. Students will also be allowed to attend school while on suspension – albeit seated in a separate room from classmates – instead of serving their suspension at home.

Ambiguous language in the guidelines about what typical high school students should look and behave will be prohibited.

These draconian rules emerged in Japanese schools in the 1970s and 1980s, when educators imposed stricter regulations to curb school violence and bullying. Although school-related offenses have decreased as a result, rules restricting student life have largely remained to this day.

Schools encountered few objections to the draconian regulations after violations dropped, but the issue of buraku kosoku again drew national attention when a high school student from southern Osaka prefecture sued her school in 2017 for mental distress.

The unnamed student said her school repeatedly asked her to dye her naturally brown hair black. She initially followed school rules but eventually quit, leading school officials to remove her desk from the classroom, erase her name from rosters, and check her hair roots. A court ordered the local government to pay him $3,100 in damages last February, but ruled the school had the right to impose hair regulations.

Grassroots movements by nonprofit groups supporting children’s education and opposing bullying have also prompted school boards to reconsider the rules.

Yuji Sunaga, vice president of an anti-bullying nonprofit called “Stop Ijime! Navi,” which translates to “stop bullying the browser,” said a big part of the recent change was the result of bottom-up action.

After nonprofits gathered information about the extent of these rules, they began submitting them as evidence to prefectural and municipal education boards, hoping they would reconsider the regulations, said Sunaga at VICE World News.

Growing backlash from parents and students also helped propel the change, he said. Many have called on schools to hold school-wide discussions about the impact of these regulations on students’ lives., said Sunaga, who launched a national buraku kosoku project in 2018.

The recent change made by the Tokyo Board of Education came after it was discovered last year that 216 of the prefecture’s 240 schools still had buraku kosoku.

The board then asked the schools to consider whether the regulations were necessary. At each school, student council members and teachers discussed which rules to abolish. In December, all metropolitan public high schools decided to get rid of five buraku kosoku.

But a rule that required students to prove their natural hair color and texture remained. The Tokyo Board of Education did not explain why it was upholding the rule, but Sunaga speculated it had to do with maintaining discipline.

“Hair is one of the easiest ways to control and enforce good student behavior,” he said. “I think many teachers are still worried, even traumatized, that if they completely get rid of the guidelines restricting students, they will lose control.”

Although Tokyo is home to the largest number of high schools in the country, other prefectures got rid of buraku kosoku before the capital.

In 2019, Japan’s central Gifu prefecture announced that it would abolish draconian school rules for all of its prefectural high schools starting the following year. Last March, Saga Prefecture in southern Japan banned underwear color rules.

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