From students' hairstyles to the color of their underwear, Japanese schools have famously boasted pretty strict rules for those under their watch. That was, until one lawsuit changed everything…
Around the World
Tokyo certainly isn't the world's only city to feature schools with unique rules. From dress codes to bathroom passes, endless institutions across the world have their own ways of keeping students under control.
However, Tokyo has a history of such strict rules in its districts that a few changes were in order. After their board of education asked schools, students, and parents how they felt about the policies implemented, their answers forced the board to rethink what were called the "black rules."
Some of our readers might be wondering exactly what "black rules" are - known in Japan as "burakku kōsoku," these rather extreme regulations were implemented by Japanese schools and applied to boys and girls alike. The goal was to turn them into better students - but the reasoning behind it no longer sits right with many...
See, the school system believed that enforcing "black rules" would prevent rebellious students - regardless of gender - from concentrating on appearances. Instead, the board of education hoped boys and girls at school would focus more on their studies. But recent events imply otherwise...
Their Strict Regulations
For decades, Japanese schools had certain visions as to how students should look and behave. So, a long list of rules and restrictions were announced that would prevent students from expressing their individuality and would even force them to conceal basic aspects of their identities.
From their hair color to the length of their skirts, students - especially females - were denied the option to choose how they wanted to look when attending school. So, without further ado, we present the list of school rules that, according to several students, parents, and teachers, has gone on for perhaps too long...
Skirts Need to Be Certain Lengths
First up: the school system's strict dress code. Although the concept of setting rules to determine what students are allowed to wear to school is pretty widespread across the globe, Japan takes it to a new level. Especially when it comes to what its female students are allowed to wear...
First of all, female students couldn't wear just any kind of skirt to school. "Skirt length was strictly regulated, and absolutely no skirt should be folded, and if it was above the knee, the students were sternly warned," Chise Iida, a graduate from Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School, told VICE World News.
More Layers to the Uniform…
She recalled how she had experienced the "black rules" when she was a student at school and how restricting they had been. Unfortunately for female students in Japan, it's not just the lengths of their skirts that are decided for them - the rules go a few layers deeper...
Some schools even required that students only wear underwear of certain colors. Undershirts were only allowed in beige, mocha, or other colors that couldn't easily be spotted under their uniforms. Also, underwear could only be worn in "monotone white, grey, navy blue or black," according to the rules of some schools.
No Ponytails Allowed
Next up: restrictions on hair. These included rules that decided the color, length, and style of students' hair. One survey, conducted in 2020 in the Fukuoka area of Japan, discovered that approximately 10% of schools had prohibited ponytail hairstyles worn by girls.
The school system's reasoning for implementing this rule was that "the nape of a woman's neck" distracted the male students attending the school. And although the purpose may have been to make these students concentrate on their studies, the schools ended up placing attention elsewhere...
Other Hairstyles Were Banned
But ponytails weren't the only hairstyle that was banned at these schools. They prohibited a wide range of hairstyles, including what is known as a two-block haircut - short on the sides and back but long on top - which is currently trending across several countries.
But it didn't end there. In fact, some of the rules were so strict that they even banned students from arriving at school in their natural look, forcing them to hide certain features that were part of their identity. The next rule was so controversial it eventually resulted in a lawsuit...
Straight, Black Hair Only
Here, we're talking about restrictions on hair color. And we don't just mean unnatural colors such as green or purple. According to a report by Japanese media outlet NHK, students were allowed to attend school with a head of hair that featured only one color: black.
As for those whose natural appearance did not comply with this rule - walking through the school's front doors wouldn't be as simple. Nearly half of Japan's public schools would require these individuals to submit proof that their hair was, in fact, natural...
According to NHK, schools would require these students to provide a childhood picture, which would also need to be accompanied by a certificate signed by a parent or guardian. These documents would then serve as evidence that the student's hair was not dyed or permed.
These rules were first introduced in Japan in the 1970s and the 1980s, as a way for educators to address the issue of bullying and violence in schools, and help students get a better education. However, according to Human Rights Watch, there is a "price to be paid for imposing conformity."
An Unspoken Understanding
As mentioned, these notorious regulations placed by the school system are known as burakku kōsoku. Hiromi Kuroi, a 39-year-old spokesperson from a non-government agency that investigates the school system's extremely strict rules, further explained the regulations.
"I think schools like these should disappear. In some schools, these restrictions are written down, but in many others, there's an unspoken understanding that you can't break certain rules," Kuroi explained to VICE World News in an interview on the matter.
To Stay Silent or Speak Up?
"To question a student's natural hair is like saying their identity is wrong. It's also clearly racist," she added, addressing one particular situation of an Osaka student who sued her school. "Recently, famous foreigners and hāfu [mixed race] have called out blatant discrimination, like athletes Naomi Osaka [below] and Rui Okoye."
But while it may be easier for such prominent figures to openly criticize the school system, for ordinary students, it's much more of a challenge. Not only do they lack the courage needed to speak out against such policies, but perhaps they also don't have enough influence to do so.
The Osaka Legal Battle
In the case of the student from Osaka, the restrictions she encountered during her time at one of the city's schools ended in a lawsuit against the institution. According to her story, she was repeatedly asked by educators at the school to dye her hair black...
At first, the young girl had no choice but to obey the rules of the school. So, any time her naturally brown roots began to appear under the black dye, she went to change the color again in order to meet school requirements. But she soon grew tired of dying her hair...
Facing the Consequences
After a long time spent complying with the rules, the student stopped dying her hair black. She had known there would be consequences to her decision, but the punishment the school decided on turned out to be much more severe than she'd ever imagined...
In response to her defiance of the rules, the school removed her desk from the classroom, erased her name from the school rosters, and banned her from joining her classmates on a school trip. However, the student didn't intend to let the consequences go without a fight...
Going to Court
The girl sued her school for more than $20,000, claiming that the frequent coloring led to significant damage to her hair and scalp. Not only that, but she also explained that the school's demand had caused her mental distress. But her lawsuit didn't pan out quite as she'd hoped...
Osaka's District Court issued an order to the local government to pay the student $3,100, which amounted to less than 15% of what she'd originally asked for. Unfortunately, the judge also ruled that such demands made by the school did not violate any laws.
"Not Black Enough"
According to her lawyer, the young woman, now 21, was dissatisfied with the court's decision and was looking to appeal. She claimed her childhood was ruined by the harsh requirements that Prefectural Kaifukan High School had apparently asked her to fulfill.
According to her, the situation was made even worse when she was banned from activities at the school after her teachers decided her hair wasn't "black enough," claimed her lawyer, Yoshiyuki Hayashi. But he revealed even more information that showed how dark the case truly was...
Haunted by the Memories
"She was hit very hard psychologically," Hayashi added. "At one point, it was so bad that just seeing herself in the mirror or seeing her hair caused her to hyperventilate." From what he described, people were finally convinced that these rules might be doing more harm than good.
The woman herself hadn't commented on the situation, but her lawyer explained that she had always wanted to attend university. However, he said, "she became extremely mistrustful of people" and didn't wish to interact with others apart from her family. "She has now started a part-time job, but she is still struggling."
Behind Closed Doors
But if the previous rules set by Tokyo's board of educators for students in the city weren't strict enough, it, unfortunately, didn't end there. If children refused to adhere to the strict rules, there would be consequences that were also perhaps severe when compared to other countries…
Schools in Tokyo used an unexpected form of punishment on their students. Instead of extra homework or detention, Japanese students in the capital were put under a kind of "house arrest." Guidelines also weren't always clear about what they expected from their high school students...
But the major shift in school policies brought all of that to an end, after the rules implemented by these administrations came under scrutiny this year. The policies were criticized, described as outdated, and forced board members to put together a new plan for their regulations moving forward...
The Osaka student's lawsuit shed light on the issue and began a conversation around what needed to be done to ensure academic regulations and penalties didn't negatively affect the students. Soon enough, others began to speak up about their perspectives on the matter.
Others Come Forward
"Our bangs couldn't grow past our eyebrows," revealed one student who's in her first year of college in an interview with VICE World News. "Also, if we were caught wearing above knee-length skirts, we had to write a statement reflecting on what we had done."
However, leading up to the big decision to abolish the regulations, there had been minor changes happening all over Japan. For example, last year in Mie, a prefecture in the western regions of the country, all public high schools put an end to rules that restricted hairstyles, underwear color, and dating.
"Relics" From a Different Era
Local officials explained their decision, calling these rules "relics" from a different era. A large part of the population, including students, parents, and educators, supported the decision and agreed that these were, in fact, different times, and regulations needed to be adjusted accordingly.
The support of grassroots movements and nonprofit groups that worked for children’s education and opposing bullying also urged the board to reconsider the rules. Their support helped pressure the school system into embracing individuality, inviting students to be themselves.
A Decision Is Made
The major shift in the conversation surrounding the issue, and calls from parents, students, educators, and organizations brought desired results. In 2022, Tokyo's board of education decided to abolish such strict regulations. And the new rules would go into effect pretty soon...
Starting April 2022, the school system would eliminate a total of five rules in nearly 200 schools across the capital city of Japan. These included regulations on hair and underwear color, as well as the former ban on "two-block" hairstyles that were popular among the younger generation.
A Major Step Foward
"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. The decision came after it was discovered that 216 out of 240 educational institutions still implemented the questionable rules.
A member of the board of educators named Yuto Kitamura praised the investigation of the issue and its potential negative impacts on students. "It is essential to respect an environment where students think proactively and make their own decisions. I find the move to be a major step forward," he gushed.
Playing By the Rules
Another member, named Kaori Yamaguchi, commented, "Although a wonderful effort, it is regrettable it took so long." She added, "Japanese people have been educated to believe that it is a virtue to simply abide by the rules," without questioning much whether they are reasonable.
The board member continued to express her optimism for current and future Japanese students, saying, "I hope this will be an opportunity for people to discuss what we should do to create a society where rules are observed in a manner convincing to everyone."
Battle of the Genders
Not only are the rules themselves being reevaluated, but the consequences of challenging them also appear to be less severe after the board's reinspection of the situation. Suspended students, for example, would be allowed to attend school - in separate classrooms - rather than stay home.
Not only that, but one school even plans to take the change a step further. A school in Ube, Yamaguchi prefecture, plans on introducing new, "genderless" uniforms to its students, where they will be allowed to choose between slacks and skirts, regardless of the student's gender.
Preserving Children's Innocence
The change is expected to bring a significant shift to some Japanese cultural norms that have historically brought about negative consequences. Kayoko Oshima, a law professor at Doshisha University who focuses on this issue, explained the sociological impact of such norms.
"In Japan, people have an impression that when someone stands out, they will be targeted or bullied," she said. "So people learn not to stand out, and young people see this as a survival method. Teachers talk about individuality, and yet people's uniqueness is crushed."
"Stop Extreme School Rules"
According to The Washington Post, the Osaka case enraged the vice president of one anti-bullying nonprofit so much that he launched a campaign called "Stop Extreme School Rules" in 2018. He managed to collect 60,000 signatures for a petition that he hoped would urge the government to intervene.
"Because of the rules, the children themselves exert peer pressure that everyone needs to conform, and this continues into adulthood like an obsession," he explained. "Children's self-esteem is plummeting, in some cases so low they are losing their will to live."
Challenges for Immigrants
Another person to speak up about the issue was Miyuki Nozu, a 32-year-old woman who now works with refugees. She explained that she had attended a private school that required students whose hair was not black and straight to carry certification with them at all times.
According to her, these rules made it difficult for immigrant and mixed-race children to find their place in society and feel like they belong. "Schools just assume without any thought that all Japanese people have black straight hair and girls should act a certain way," she said.
“Forcing an Outdated Ideal”
"But Japan is not a single-ethnicity nation anymore," she went on to explain. "Schools don't realize society has changed and that they are forcing an outdated ideal on students. This proves they have no intention or ability to teach about diversity."
The woman recalled how one of her classmates at school had been labeled a "troublemaker" because she found it difficult to follow the strict rules. However, she ended up graduating from Tokyo University of the Arts as top of her class. "There are plenty of people who are repressed and lose their creativity."
Good News, Bad News
Despite its controversial past, it appears Japan is making a positive shift when it comes to allowing diversity into its schools. But although Tokyo has the largest number of high schools in the country, it lags behind other prefectures in getting rid of the discriminatory burakku kōsoku.
In 2019, the prefecture of Gifu, located in central Japan, decided it would remove the controversial school rules for all of its prefectural high schools starting the following year. In March 2021, the southern Japanese prefecture of Saga abolished rules restricting underwear color.
A Better Tomorrow
And although most of the "black rules" are being banned in the country's hub, it looks like there's still a lot of work that needs to be done to meet students' demands. Some students have called to lift bans on make-up and hair products being worn to school...
Meanwhile, others have successfully campaigned for trousers to be permitted for girls at schools. Seeing that the demand for change has been ongoing since around 2018, it could be a while before more restrictive rules are lifted. However, we can definitely say that Tokyo took a giant step forward this year...