From the length of students’ socks to the color of their underwear, Japanese schools are infamous for their strict requirements on what pupils can wear. But one rule has drawn criticism for not just its absurdity but also the reason behind it.
Motoki Sugiyama, a former middle school teacher, said school administrators told him that girls must not wear a ponytail because exposing the nape of their necks could “sexually excite” male students.
“They’re worried boys will look at girls, which is similar to the reasoning behind upholding a white-only underwear color rule,” Sugiyama told VICE World News, referring to how most schools require girls to wear white undergarments so that they won’t show through their uniforms.
“I’ve always criticized these rules, but because there’s such a lack of criticism and it’s become so normalized, students have no choice but to accept them,” he said.
There are no nationwide statistics on how many schools still impose a ponytail ban, but a 2020 survey suggests that about one in ten schools in the southern prefecture of Fukuoka prohibited the hairstyle.
Sugiyama had taught at five different schools across 11 years in Shizuoka prefecture, about 90 miles southwest of Tokyo, that all banned ponytails. And he has made it his personal mission to expose unreasonable demands on students, joining a growing call on schools to drop rules that are dated, outright sexist or that inhibit a child’s self-expression.
In June, outcry from students and parents over these rules prompted the Japanese government to ask all prefectural boards of education to revise draconian school rules. Some institutions have indeed changed their ways, but many decades-old practices are slow to fade.
A ponytail ban is just one of many draconian rules, known as buraku kosoku, imposed on students in Japan. The laundry list of restrictions also dictate the shade of students’ underwear and socks, skirt length and eyebrow shape. Hair color is another contentious issue—some schools demand photographic proof from students of their natural hair color if it isn’t strictly “black and straight.”
Sugiyama, who makes videos on TikTok about Japan’s education system and buraku kosoku, said students were seldom given an explanation for such rules.
Often, the reasons behind imposing such rules were arbitrary. For example, schools that ban ponytails often allow bob hairstyles, even if they expose about as much of the neck as ponytails do.
But other times, it was ostensibly to prevent a domino effect of wild hairstyles. The undercut, a hairstyle that shaves the sides but leaves the top long, is similarly prohibited.
“Because if the two-block (undercut) is OK, then some students might start saying the mohawk should be OK,” Sugiyama explained.
Buraku kosoku dates back to the 1870s, when the Japanese government established its first systematic regulation of education.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, rules became increasingly restrictive in an attempt to reduce bullying and violence in schools.
Exactly what gets banned differs from school to school and generation to generation, but the desired effect is the same—no one stands out, said Asao Naito, an associate professor of sociology from Meiji University.
Naito recalled his days in elementary and middle school some 40 years ago, when long skirts were worn by sukeban (delinquent girls). “For that reason, long skirts were banned and made shorter,” he told VICE World News. “But now, schools don’t allow short skirts and are lengthening them.”
Critics of the rules say the restrictions give students the impression that their bodies are subject to policing.
“Sexuality becomes not something that belongs to the individual, but an item or thing that can be controlled,” Naito said.
Sugiyama, the retired teacher, said he constantly receives complaints from students that their schools simply ignored the Japanese government’s request to change their rules.
“Many schools ignore notices that aren’t legally binding or that don’t have penalties,” he said.
But some schools did take heed.
A spokesperson for Hosoyamada Junior High School, in the southern prefecture of Kagoshima, told VICE World News it changed its rules on pupils’ clothing last year after students complained.
Ponytails and pigtails are still prohibited, but their underwear doesn’t have to be white anymore. It can be gray, black, or navy blue.