Nearly Half of Tokyo High Schools Request Proof of Students’ ‘Real Hair’

Japanese schools are notoriously strict about controlling students’ appearances, so much so that those with hair that isn’t black or straight need to submit proof.
February 26, 2021, 11:52am
japan, uniform, discrimination, hair, rules,s
School girls in Japan face unusual rules. PHOTO: AFP / KAZUHIRO NOGI  

Data released this week from the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education released showed that 44.6% of Tokyo’s 177 full-time high schools request “real hair certificates.” Students with hair that don’t adhere to the “straight and black” standard are asked to submit proof that their hair is natural. 

Some schools reportedly ask for childhood photos as evidence. The certificates must also be signed by a guardian. 

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In filing this form, schools can “prevent any misunderstanding about a student’s natural hair,” the Tokyo board stated. 

Japan’s school rules have repeatedly come under fire for being too strict, with guidelines often cited as infringing on a student’s freedom of expression. The color of students’ underwear and socks, eyebrow shape, and skirt length are among some of many restrictions. Hair dyeing and varied hair styles are also frowned upon.

Naturally, some have voiced concern over these forms, citing a violation of human rights. 

Hiromi Kuroi, a 39-year-old spokesperson from a non-government agency that collates information on buraku kousoku, or the school system’s notoriously strict regulations, said, “To say a student’s natural hair is wrong is like saying their identity is wrong. It’s also clearly racist. Recently, famous foreigners and hāfu (mixed race) have called out blatant discrimination, like athletes Naomi Osaka and Rui Okoye.” 

“But some ordinary students have no choice but to accept this discrimination. I’m worried about the negative effects on students’ mental health,” she told VICE World News.

Though the Tokyo Board explained that said documents weren’t mandatory, only 5 out of the 79 schools that require these certificates list the forms as voluntary. “Respect for human rights is a major policy of ours. We may need to rethink some of these guidelines with students and guardians every year,” the Tokyo board said.

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Yuma Someji, a first year college student, explained that in her high school, “our bangs couldn’t grow past our eyebrows.”

“Also, if we were caught for wearing above knee-length skirts, we had to write a statement reflecting on what we had done,” she told VICE World News. 

Sometimes, the rules differ based on gender. Mie Tanaka, an office worker who was a middle schooler in 2003, said that “if a student’s hair grew past her shoulders, she had to tie it up. The hairband also could only be brown or black.” Similar rules apply today.

“Dress codes should change. I think it would benefit some LGBTQ people who don’t fit stereotypical forms of gender expression. I myself hated wearing a skirt,” she told VICE World News. 

Though Japan’s history of strict school rules has been long debated, some indicate the laws date back to at least the 1870s, when the Ministry of Education became a part of the central government. In the following year, the “Education Ordinance,” the first systematic regulation of education, was established. It required that all children attend class, regardless of sex, parental jobs or social status. The Ordinance was later replaced by the Education Order, which is seen as the basis for Japan’s current national standards of education. 

Concerns over buraku kousoku heightened in the 1970s and 1980s. This period is often described as a time in Japanese education when rules became increasingly severe, in an effort to control rising cases of school violence and bullying. But according to Asao Naito, an associate professor of sociology from Meiji University, there was simply more discourse about social issues. 

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“During this period, bullying was increasingly discussed, just as domestic violence and child abuse were. People were treating it as more of a problem than before,” he told VICE World News. 

Strengthened efforts to end restrictive buraku kousoku by human rights and student activists helped ease some regulations in the 1990s. But in recent years, problems have resurfaced. 

In 2017, an Osaka student sued her school for mental distress, after her educators repeatedly demanded she dye her hair black. She complied at first, but later stopped dyeing her naturally brown hair. The school responded by removing her desk from the classroom, erasing her name from school rosters and barring her from a school trip.

On Feb. 16, Osaka’s District Court ordered the local government to pay her $3,100, less than 15% of what she originally sought, in emotional damages. The judge also ruled that her school’s enforcement of such regulations did not violate the law. 

Kuroi expressed her disappointment with the court’s ruling. “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,” she told VICE World News.  

Someji said that “It was only until high school that I became aware something was different. My understanding of the world was so limited before, so I just accepted those rules. When I started interacting with students from high schools in other prefectures, I remember being shocked,” she said. 

Tanaka meanwhile said schools should evolve to be less restrictive. “During my club activities at school, I wasn’t allowed to drink water freely. Every time I wanted to hydrate, I had to wait until we had breaks, or ask my teacher for permission. Really, it’d be nice if teachers could just trust students,” she said. 

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