Tokyo’s public high school students will no longer need to dye their natural hair black or wear undergarments of designated colors, often white, bringing an end to rules increasingly criticized as inhibiting pupils’ self-expression.
For decades, Japanese schools have defined how a student should look and act. Public school dress codes often dictate that pupils have black hair, wear white underwear and wear their hair down—schoolgirls remain barred from wearing ponytails in parts of the country based on the sexist justification that their necks could “sexually excite” male students.
But after repeated calls from parents and students that such draconian rules—known as buraku kosoku—were inhibiting students’ freedom and individuality, Tokyo’s board of education decided last month to abolish such regulations. Starting Friday, some 200 public high schools in the capital will now get rid of five controversial rules, joining a growing nationwide movement to end overbearing regulations of students’ appearance.
“It’s great that we’re finally catching up with the times,” Chise Iida, a recent graduate from Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School, told VICE World News.
Having experienced buraku kosoku at her middle school, she described how suffocating such regulations were.
“Skirt length was strictly regulated and absolutely no skirt should be folded, and if it was above the knee, the students were sternly warned,” she said.
In addition to removing the rules on hair and underwear colors, schools will also now allow a wider range of hairstyles, such as a two-block haircut—short on the sides and back while long on top. Pupils will also be allowed to attend school while suspended—though sitting in a separate room from their classmates—instead of serving their suspension at home.
Ambiguous language in guidelines on what typical high school students should look and act like will be banned.
These draconian rules emerged in Japanese schools in the 1970s and 1980s, when educators were imposing stricter regulations to crack down on school violence and bullying. Though school-related offenses dropped as a result, rules restricting student life largely remained to this day.
Schools faced scant objection to draconian regulations after offenses fell, but the issue of buraku kosoku once again prompted national attention when a high school student in southern Osaka prefecture sued her school in 2017 for mental distress.
The unnamed female student said her institution repeatedly demanded she dye her naturally brown hair black. She followed the school’s rules at first but eventually stopped, 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 her $3,100 in damages last February, but ruled the school has a right to impose hair regulations.
Grassroots movements by nonprofit groups supporting children’s education and opposing bullying also propelled education boards to reconsider rules.
Yuji Sunaga, the vice president of an anti-bullying nonprofit called “Stop Ijime! Navi,” which translates to “stop bullying navigator,” said much of the recent change was a result of action from the bottom-up.
After nonprofits gathered information on just how widespread these rules were, they started submitting them as proof to prefectural and city education boards, in the hopes they’d reconsider the regulations, Sunaga told VICE World News.
Growing backlash from parents and students also helped propel change, he said. Many called on institutions to hold school-wide discussions on how such regulations impact pupils’ lives, said Sunaga, who initiated a nationwide project into buraku kosoku in 2018.
The recent change by the Tokyo education board came after it found last year that 216 of 240 institutions in the prefecture still had buraku kosoku.
The board then asked schools to review whether the regulations were necessary. At each school, student council members and teachers held discussions about which rules to abolish. By December, all metropolitan public high schools had decided to get rid of five buraku kosoku.
But a rule that forces students to prove their natural hair color and texture has remained. The Tokyo education board didn’t explain why it kept the rule, but Sunaga speculated that it has to do with maintaining discipline.
“Hair is one of the easiest ways to control and enforce proper student behavior,” he said. “I think many teachers are still worried, even traumatized, that if they completely get rid of guidelines restricting students, they’ll lose all control.”
Though Tokyo is home to the largest number of high schools in the country, other prefectures have been getting rid of buraku kosoku before the capital.
In 2019, the central Japanese prefecture of Gifu said it would abolish draconian school rules for all of its prefectural high schools from the following year. Last March, Saga prefecture, in southern Japan, banned rules on underwear color.