A school in Japan has apologized for what it called an “inappropriate” way of checking students’ undershirts, suspending a decades-old practice in Japanese schools that is increasingly criticized as intrusive.
As a new semester began last week, first-year students at Yamato middle school, in the southwestern prefecture of Saga, were asked to line up to undergo a check confirming they were wearing undershirts as required by rules. Teachers of the same gender went down the line, asking female students to lift their shirts up by a couple of centimeters, while male pupils unbuttoned their shirts.
The practice is common in Japanese public schools throughout the country. But students and parents have increasingly pushed back against it, among other notoriously strict regulations for students, known as buraku kosoku.
On Friday, following news reports that uncovered how the school checked its students’ undershirts, principal Kenji Koga apologized to his students and sent their guardians a letter of apology.
“I understand we made many feel uncomfortable, and we didn’t show enough delicacy for each students’ individual rights and privacy. It was inappropriate,” he told VICE World News.
The board of education of Saga city, where Yamato middle school is located, received complaints following local news reports of the school’s practice that prompted national coverage and debate.
“Guardians, as well as city residents, have been calling to say this undershirt check is an example of power and sexual harassment. It’s an example of infringing on students’ individual rights, and we’ve advised the school to stop such methods immediately,” Katsuo Yonekura, a representative of the board, told VICE World News.
After he publicly apologized, Koga said the school had suspended undershirt checks.
During the 70s and 80s, buraku kosoku were introduced to curb growing cases of student violence and bullying. But even after offenses dropped, many restrictions have remained in place. Rules can dictate students’ hair length, sock and underwear color, and uniform length. Explanations for such strict regulations can vary, from respecting tradition to concerns over students’ health, such as at Yamato middle school.
According to Koga, the school doesn’t want students to sweat through uniforms and make their clothes “sticky and sweaty.”
“If they wear something that absorbs their sweat, it can also help regulate their body temperature, and helps them avoid getting sick,” he said. Undershirts are a popular summer garment in Japan, where the heat and humidity can leave clothing stained with sweat.
Checks to see if the students are following the undershirt rule are not frequently conducted, Koga said. Second- and third-year students rarely undergo inspections as they’re assumed to know the rules, but first-year students, many of whom never wore uniforms before entering junior high, were more likely to violate rules, he said.
“We also just came back from summer break, so that’s why the faculty checked for their undershirts. Though I just became principal in April, I’ve heard that it’s routine to conduct these checks about once every few months,” he said.
Although severe penalties are rare, students can be reprimanded for breaking the rules.
But, Koga said, infrequent checks and lack of punishment when rules are broken don’t make such undershirt checks permissible. “Since these reports have been made public, we’ve had a number of students come to us saying they were deeply uncomfortable,” he said.
“Usually, female students are asked to raise their shirts by about one to two centimeters, but sometimes that isn’t enough to really see. We’ve had complaints that some students were asked to lift their shirts even higher, which is really regrettable,” he said.
Koga added, “Some rules need changing. We don’t have to be set in our traditional ways, and we want to make sure the educational environment meets the needs of this generation.”
Yamato middle school holds a student council meeting every October to November, during which students are encouraged to raise any questions they have about other school rules. According to Koga, that’s how a former restriction on the length of hair fringes was lifted.
Should the students ask, Koga said he’s open to lifting the underwear rule entirely.