In Japan, Students Have Underwear Rules. Their Parents Say ‘No More.’

Japanese parents are pushing back against draconian rules on what their children can wear under their uniforms.
March 15, 2021, 12:56pm
Japan, school, education, discrimination
Recent findings show a number of Japanese schools have strict rules regarding students' underwear. Photo: Martin BUREAU / AFP

From their hairstyle to the color of their socks, Japanese school children have a lot of rules to follow. But recent allegations of sexual abuse and privacy violations have put pressure on schools to reexamine their strict rules about what pupils can wear under their uniforms.

Earlier this month, the board of education of Nagasaki Prefecture found that nearly 60 percent of the region’s public high schools and junior high schools require students to wear white undergarments. To check if students were following the rule, some teachers made them line up in hallways and undo their shirts, the NHK reported.

In Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, some elementary schools demand that schoolchildren take off their undergarments before changing into gym clothes, saying that sweaty undergarments are unhygienic. If students feel uncomfortable and wish to wear underwear, they must get a teacher’s approval, Nippon TV found.

In some cases, male teachers were accused of sexually harassing female students by checking their breast size to determine whether to allow them to wear supportive bras, the report said, citing parents.

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These reports have raised concerns among parents that decades-old school rules on undergarments may lead to sexual harassment and violation of privacy.

“When I heard my kids had to strip their undergarments, I couldn’t believe it,” said Koto Nomi, a 29-year-old mother with two daughters. 

“Right now, my children strip before gym class because their friends do too. But when they enter middle school, I’m going to make them wear underwear. I don’t care if they’d be breaking the rules,” she told VICE World News.

In December, the Fukuoka bar association found 80 percent of the prefecture capital’s junior high schools required students to wear white underwear, and asked schools to reconsider these rules, calling them a violation of human rights.

Draconian rules in Japanese schools, called buraku kousoku today, date back to the 1870s, when the government began regulating education. Protests against these rules have increased in the 1970s and 1980s, when educators made even stricter rules, including those on underwear, in an effort to crack down on school violence and bullying. Many of these rules have remained even as school-related crimes fell.

Kazumi Uchida, a retired elementary school teacher, used to work at a school in Aichi Prefecture that enforced the no-undergarment rule during gym class. 

She recalled how if a student was caught wearing underwear, teachers would “send the child back to the classroom to take it off,” she said. “When the teachers themselves were younger, they had to follow the exact same rules. For that reason, they didn’t find it strange,” she told VICE World News. 

Kyoko Kimura, who volunteers for a non-government agency that collects information on buraku kousoku, said the strict rules hinder a child's freedom, and prevents them from focusing on their education.

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She spoke up about some of these outdated rules in 2010 and successfully pressured the school to change them.

Kimura’s daughter attended an elementary school in southern Osaka that required students to wear the school’s gym uniform whenever they weren’t at home, such as when they were at restaurants, shopping and going to the doctor’s. Undergarments, including bras, were forbidden. 

The school told Kimura that this was done so that teachers can more easily identify school children when they get into trouble and that it would deter them from committing crimes, she said.

When Kimura’s daughter hit puberty, she began feeling uncomfortable wearing gym clothes in public spaces. Wanting to help her daughter, Kimura consulted parents with influence in the region’s educational board and explained how “strange” she thought the rules were, she said. 

After getting a band of 10 parents together, the guardians spoke collectively to their children’s teachers, who then spoke to the principal. In the following year, the rule was abolished. Now, school children only need to wear gym clothes during class, as well as to and from school. 

Hiromi Kuroi, who works with Kimura, applauded Kimura’s actions, but felt frustrated about schools’ resistance to change. “Many say students and parents need to act in order for rules to change. But the reality is that if you don’t have influence, nothing gets done,” she said. 

“It’s upsetting that you need power to change injustice. But hopefully schools feel more pressure to update buraku kousoku,” she said. 

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