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Grade-schoolers, parents question mandatory short-sleeved winter PE attire

The short-sleeved shirts and shorts worn by elementary school students in both summer and winter are pictured in Tokyo on March 2, 2018. (Mainichi)

As snow and harsh temperatures hit Japan's capital this winter, elementary school children continued to wear the same short-sleeved shirts and shorts to their physical education (PE) classes as during summer months, prompting both children and parents to wonder why.

One 50-year-old mother of a sixth-grade student at a public school in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward felt it strange that her boy had to wear the same T-shirt and shorts for PE classes in both summer and winter. Her uneasiness only grew this winter when harsh cold waves hit the capital and her son was instructed to not wear anything extra under his shirt.

"Everyone feels temperature differently," she says. "If only they would allow them to decide for themselves freely."

"I want you to let us wear a sweatshirt over our short-sleeved athletic T-shirt," complained a fourth-year elementary school girl, 10, in Setagaya Ward to her homeroom teacher, unable to handle the cold on what was described as the "coldest day this season." At her school, the decision to allow students to don the sweatshirt during PE classes is up to the teacher, not the students. Despite the girl's desperate pleas, in the end her request was not granted.

Are there rules concerning winter dress code in the first place? When the Mainichi Shimbun contacted the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education, an official said no recommendation of short sleeves and shorts necessarily exists for winter months. However, the merit of the thin clothing is said to be the ease of movement for physical activity. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, also says there are no standards set by the government and the decision is left up to each school.

According to a 2015 survey of 600 parents of elementary school children nationwide carried out by major school uniform manufacturer Kanko Gakuseifuku Co. on the subject of winter PE clothes, those who said their children's school have athletic wear with longer pants and sleeves were in the minority, at less than 30 percent. Asked whether there was a need for these items, a total of about 61 percent answered either "yes" or "if given a choice, yes." When asked what was inconvenient about not being able to wear a long-sleeved top and full-length pants for PE classes, the most common answer was "It's cold without them in winter."

But are there any merits to having elementary school children out in light T-shirts and shorts in the middle of winter? Rintaro Mori, the head of the Department of Health Policy at the National Center for Child Health and Development, says there are no verified results pointing to thin clothes having health benefits, and states, "It's simply unknown whether it's good for their health or not." However, as the exposure to a certain level of stress is needed to train the mind and body, he added, "I think wearing thin clothes to an extent that doesn't cause stress isn't unreasonable."

Still, there are parents decrying the blanket T-shirts and shorts rule and protesting against it.

When Hiroki Komazaki, the head of NPO Florence -- a nonprofit group focused on child care issues -- heard from his first-grade daughter who attends a school in Tokyo that all the students had to wear a T-shirt and shorts for a school long-distance running event, he wondered how it was reasonable to make children with illnesses and disabilities comply with the blanket rule.

He called the school the same day, and when he asked why the students had to run in T-shirts and shorts, the teacher who answered his call said there was no particular reasoning behind it, but it was just the fact that PE classes were carried out wearing the PE uniforms. Komazaki continued to press the issue, reminding the teacher that it was minus 4 degrees Celsius outside and the flu was going around. The teacher promised to consult the principal and return Komazaki's call the following day. The next morning, he was telephoned by the principal, and children were allowed to wear sweatshirts over their uniforms for the event.

When Komazaki wrote about the experience on his blog last month, he received many responses. He said that there were also many who said they never thought of the PE uniforms as being problematic before.

"Because schools and parents have been blindly accepting across the board that wearing light clothing is the status quo, they have become unable to think about it themselves," he points out. "There is a need for parents to open a dialogue with schools to call attention to these issues."

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