Black hair, white laces: Japanese school rules under fire | Life

In this file photo taken on November 17, 2021, students wait for the after-school bus in Tokyo’s Ginza district. — AFP photo

TOKYO, March 18 – Every school has its rules, but the strict regulations of some Japanese institutions, which require everything from black hair to white shoelaces, are the subject of growing criticism and even lawsuits.

Toshiyuki Kusumoto, a father of two in Oita, western Japan, is asking for court intervention to protect his youngest son from regulations he calls “unreasonable”.

They include rules on hair length, a ban on styles including ponytails and braids, a ban on low cut socks, and a stipulation that shoelaces must be white.

“Such kind of school rules run counter to respect for individual liberty and human rights, which are guaranteed by the constitution,” Kusumoto told AFP.

Later this month, it will enter court-mediated arbitration with the school and the city, hoping authorities will revise the rules.

The change is already underway in Tokyo, which recently announced that strict rules on issues such as hair color will be scrapped in the capital’s public schools from April.

But elsewhere the rules are quite common and Kusumoto, who remembers being irritated by similar restrictions as a child, hopes his legal action will bring about wider change.

“It’s not just about our children. There are many other children across Japan who are suffering because of unreasonable rules,” he said.

Such regulations, which typically come into effect when children enter middle school around age 12, emerged after the 1970s, according to Takashi Otsu, an associate professor of education at Mukogawa Women’s University.

Rules ‘destroyed a student’s life’

At the time, “violence against teachers became a social problem, with schools trying to control the situation through rules,” he told AFP.

“Certain types of rules are necessary for any organization, including schools, but decisions about them should be made with transparency and ideally involving students, which would allow children to learn democratic decision-making,” said he declared.

The array of regulations was championed as helping to ensure order and unity in the classroom, but there were other challenges.

In 2017, an 18-year-old high school student who was repeatedly ordered to dye her naturally brown hair black filed a lawsuit in Osaka seeking compensation of 2.2 million yen (RM78,000) for psychological suffering. .

The case made national headlines and ultimately led the government last year to ask school boards to review whether school rules reflect the “realities around students”.

But in a sign of the difficult debate on the subject, the Osaka district and appeals courts have ruled that schools can force students to dye their hair black at their discretion for “various educational” purposes.

The student said she was regularly harassed about it even though she colored her hair to meet the requirements, according to her lawyer.

“This rule has destroyed a student’s life,” he told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect his client’s identity.

The student, now 22, did not give up and appealed to the Supreme Court in November.

‘Recipe for thoughtless children’

There are other signs of pressure to change the rules, including a petition submitted to the Department of Education in January by teenage members of the advocacy group Voice Up Japan.

They want the department to encourage schools to work with students to discuss rule changes.

“We started this campaign because some of our members had unpleasant experiences with school rules,” said Hatsune Sawada, 16, a member of Voice Up Japan’s high school division.

The petition gives the example of a girl who was humiliated by a teacher for growing bangs that, when flattened with one hand, covered the girl’s eyebrows – a violation of the rules.

In Oita, rules also include gender-designated school uniforms, with pants only for boys and skirts for girls.

The local education board says the rules “not only nurture a sense of unity among children, but also ease the economic burden on families of buying clothes”.

But Kusumoto disagrees.

“A feeling of unity is not something that is imposed, it is something that should be generated spontaneously,” he said.

Imposing these kinds of rules “is a recipe for producing children who stop thinking”. —AFP

Martha K. Merrill