Ai Nishida had never been punished for her brown hair before.
Like many other schools in Japan, her middle school required all students to have black hair. But having told her teachers of her mixed heritage, she was exempt from this rule. Besides, she thought, she looked the part of the mixed-Japanese and white girl, so it was unlikely faculty would forget her lighter hair color was natural.
But when she received her middle school yearbook just days after graduating, she was shocked to see her picture had been edited. Nishida’s hair was painted black, a thick slab coated over her locks. For the first time, she felt someone was telling her she looked wrong. She’s called the school’s actions “racist.”
Nishida’s experience is one of many other cases of students being penalized by Japanese schools’ long-standing strict regulations. But in recent years, activists and graduates have called for an end to draconian rules, coined buraku kousoku, in fear they inhibit diversity and students’ individual freedom.
One particularly high-profile case involving a student in Osaka prompted the current national debate over Japan’s rules. In October 2017, a high school student sued her school on grounds of mental distress after her institution repeatedly demanded she dye her naturally brown hair to black. Though she complied with the institution’s rules at first, she eventually stopped, leading the school to then check her roots, remove her desk from the classroom, and erase her name from its rosters.
Her case prompted the formation of advocacy groups, such as Buraku Kousoku, a non-government agency that collates information on draconian school rules. The group has petitioned and called for reform in the national education system.
In February, the District Court of Osaka ordered the local government to pay the high school student $3,100 in emotional damages. However, it ruled that the school had the right to impose hair regulations.
Nishida said that with the growing national discussion and increased reporting on buraku kousoku, she felt motivated to speak up about her experience, which happened in 2007.
Just in February, the bar association from Fukuoka Prefecture, where her middle school is located, collated and released official data demonstrating just how strict school rules were.
From a survey in Fukuoka city, the bar association found that 57 of 69 municipal junior high schools had rules on students’ underwear color and pattern. In some institutions, if a student disobeyed these regulations, they were required to take off their underwear, and guardians were informed of their actions.
Though Nishida’s middle school experiences occurred years ago, she was stunned to hear that students were still being penalized in this manner. “I wondered, ‘How frequently does this occur? Is this even allowed?’ That’s why I felt I had to share what I went through on social media,” she told VICE World News. Now 29 years old, Nishida works as a model and freelance writer.
At the time, she didn’t tell anyone but her mother about her edited yearbook photo. The graduates received their yearbooks a couple of days after their commencement ceremony, so Nishida felt it was pointless to take issue with an institution she was never returning to.
“I also remember everyone was so excited about receiving their yearbooks, they just started exchanging and signing them. There was no time to process what I had just seen in that frenzy,” she said.
When Nishida brought the yearbook home, her mother was furious to find her daughter’s photo had been tampered with. She called the school, Maizuru Middle School, a couple of days later, demanding an explanation. Nishida only learned about this recently.
“They admitted to my mother that they edited the photo. They didn’t apologize for their actions, nor did they feel they did anything wrong,” Nishida said.
In a phone interview, the current Maizuru Middle School principal Nosaka Karuyuki told VICE World News it was “regrettable that she was made to feel this way, but we can’t comment on what happened because the faculty in charge while she was a student have all gone.”
The school has since lifted rules on hair color, though Karuyuki could not provide an exact date of when things changed.
Draconian rules in Japanese schools are thought to date back to the 1870s, when the government began regulating education. The 1970s and 1980s saw growing protests against buraku kousoku, as educators were imposing increasingly harsher regulations to crack down on school violence and bullying. Despite a drop in school-related offenses, most kousoku, including regulations on underwear color, clothing and dating life of students, remained in place.
Nishida recalled that at her middle school, although some rules were enforced for both girls and boys, such as a ban on getting their eyebrows done, most were split along gender lines.
Boys could not grow their hair past their ears. Girls had to tie their hair, using only black or navy blue hair ties. Skirts had to reach below their knees, and female students were subjected to random inspections to ensure they were obeying the rules. They were lined up in the gymnasium and told to kneel; if their skirts didn’t touch the ground, they were asked to leave class and immediately buy a new, longer uniform.
Nishida also said that establishing black straight hair as the norm and requiring students to submit proof if their hair was naturally a different color or texture infringed on racial diversity.
“It enforces the idea that black straight hair, a stereotypically Japanese look, is right. Everything else was wrong. But this is what we’re born with—we can’t help it,” she said of her brown hair.
When asked why these rules existed and were still being enforced, educators at Maizuru Middle School would tell students it was for their own benefit.
“They’d say to us, ‘You don’t want to stand out and have all eyes on you for looking different, right?’ We were told we’d be the ones who’d lose out for sticking out. So many of us did what we were told because if you didn’t, you’d be asked to leave the classroom and that meant missing out on your education,” Nishida said.
With a Japanese mother and American father, Nishida was made aware she looked unconventional.
In middle school, boys would call her gaijin (outsider) to provoke her. She was using her father’s white surname at the time, and was made fun of for having a last name written in katakana (alphabet for foreign and loan words). Among the girls she was called cute, admired for her brown hair and big eyes.
“I feel like my mixed race identity invites people to ask me really personal questions. They’d ask how my parents met, or what my household was like. That’s not something you’d normally inquire about when meeting someone for the first time,” she said.
Stereotypes about mixed-race people also made Nishida feel like she couldn’t meet people’s expectations.
“Because I’m mixed, people would assume I speak English, or that I’m athletic and my family’s rich. But that was never the case. I can’t speak English, I’m horrible at sports and my mother is a single mom—we were really poor,” she said.
Such draconian school rules and severe learning environments were what Nishida said caused her to drop out of high school.
The overwhelming amount of coursework and the stress of trying to follow every minute rule caused her to spiral into depression. But despite feeling like the school system failed her, she acknowledged she was more privileged than some.
“Being half white means I don’t get racially profiled by the police. My skin has also never been an issue. People pull away when I say buraku kousoku are a human rights issue, but I want to use my privilege to speak up about what I’ve been through,” she said.
“People shouldn’t feel like they were born with the wrong things to make it in this society.”