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Movement against irrational, draconian school rules building up steam across Japan

Student handbooks from municipal junior high schools in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward for the 2018 academic year are seen at a ward office. The open handbook on the right lists a rule regulating the color of the students' underwear, while the one on the left contains no such rule. (Mainichi/Yuka Narita)

TOKYO -- If you have naturally brown hair, you must die it black. You are forbidden from drinking water while going to and from school.

These are just two examples of so-called "black" school rules," or rules that have no rational basis but are nonetheless used to regulate Japanese schoolchildren's behavior both on and off the grounds. Now, there is a growing movement to rethink these ironclad dos and don'ts, and do away with those that are at best nonsensical, and at worst harmful to the children they govern.

Each school sets its own regulations for students. In August, the education ministry received a petition with 60,334 signatures calling for an investigation into how prevalent noxious rules are across Japan. Meanwhile, some local governments are urging area institutions to make their rules public.

The group behind the petition is called "Black kosoku o nakuso! Project" (get rid of black school rules project), made up of volunteers including those related to the education sector. In a 2018 survey of people aged 15 to their 50s, some 25% of those in the latter group said there were rules on hair length at their junior highs, as did 27% of teen respondents. However, results for the teen group showed a surge in other rules, including bans on eyebrow shaving and even regulations governing the color of students' underwear, suggesting a widespread trend to increased control.

"There are rational, necessary rules, but there is no need for rules that simply prioritize making managing the school easier," said commentator Chiki Ogiue, a member of the school rules project group that conducted the 2018 survey.

The issue of overly severe school rules burst to the surface last year when a student in an Osaka prefectural high school was forced to dye her naturally brown hair black. In spring 2018, the prefectural education board requested all public high schools under its jurisdiction to publish their rules on their websites, or specify if they have no rules. All the schools had complied by July that year.

In Tokyo, Setagaya Ward's junior high schools began posting their rules on their websites in autumn this year, after Setagaya Ward Assembly member Yoshifumi Momono raised questions about some of them in the chamber last year. Examples he gave included mandatory white underwear, allowing sweaters but banning cardigans in cold weather seasons, and a requirement that students drink the entirety of their school lunch milk.

Ward Mayor Nobuto Hosaka told a news conference, "School rules should not just be formulated according to the principal's thinking, but released as public information and subjected to public debate and scrutiny. We need to re-examine (school rules) along these lines."

Attorney Mariko Mashimo, who also has a junior high school teacher's license and is an expert in education issues, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "There are some people advocating that social studies and other composite study periods be used to discuss school rules. The procedure for considering school rule changes is the same as thinking about how to reach a consensus position on any issue, based on a process of listening to everyone's opinions."

(Japanese original by Kenichi Mito and Yuka Narita, City News Department)

Examples of "black school rules"

- Students are banned from wearing sunscreen at school.

- Students with natural brown hair must dye it black

- Students are banned from wearing tights

- Students are banned from wearing colored or patterned underwear.

- On cold days, students can wear V-neck sweaters, but cardigans are forbidden.

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