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Buzz cut bullying: Ex-pupil sues prestigious Japan high school over 'forceful' traditions

The Kumamoto District Court is seen in this file photo. (Mainichi/Kazuhiro Toyama)

KUMAMOTO -- A former student at a prestigious municipal high school in this southwestern Japan city has launched a symbolic suit against the prefectural government for compensation totaling just 1 yen, claiming he was a victim of forceful treatment facilitated by the school's unwritten traditional rules.

In his suit against Seiseiko High School in Kumamoto's Chuo Ward, the boy describes conduct toward him including being made to get a buzz cut in the name of the customs of one of its clubs, and being left with no choice but to leave the school. The boy said, "The school allowed illegal acts committed on its premises to keep on taking place, leaving me a victim of emotional distress."

The first session of oral proceedings for the suit, filed with the Kumamoto District Court, were held on Dec. 2. During the hearings, the legal team representing the prefectural government were pursuing a withdrawal of the claims.

Seiseiko High School was founded in 1882. It has a reputation as one of the leading high schools in the prefecture, and a track record of sending its students on to good universities.

According to the complaint and other sources, after the boy attended a school entrance ceremony in April 2017, he and other newly arrived students were gathered to the roof of the school building by its cheering squad. They were then made to sing the school song at the top of their voices for over 30 minutes.

In the tennis club he joined, he and other first year students were forced to have their hair done into a buzz cut with electric razors used by a group of third-year students at the end of April 2017. They were told it was a tradition of the club.

In May 2017, he quit the club and stopped attending school after becoming depressed. Because the school would not allow him to progress to the second grade, he left in May 2018. He then entered a correspondence high school in Kumamoto Prefecture, and launched his suit in September this year.

The boy's legal team says the culture of forceful instruction by older students, which is called "shime" at the school, is deeply rooted in its unique culture developed from traditions over its nearly 140-year history. The defense team argues, "The school tacitly approves of and neglects to respond to the illegal shime. Even while knowing that it (shime) was the reason why the complainant had become absent from school, the school didn't take any countermeasures. This contravenes its obligation to provide safety."

The boy's legal representative added, "It's rare to have a court case where the unwritten rules of a school are under dispute; we want to raise questions about these traditions which are allowed to continue uncriticized."

Regarding the 1 yen in requested compensation, the boy's mother said, "The aim is not to receive financial redress. We want the school to reconsider its shime culture, and apologize."

In response to questions from the Mainichi Shimbun, the Kumamoto Prefectural Government's legal representatives indicated they intend to dispute the claims, saying, "As we see it, there was no causal relationship between the former student's claims and his absence and withdrawal from the school. The school's handling of the case was appropriate."

They added, "We are confirming the facts." Seiseiko High School stated, "We are entrusting the prefectural government with the handling of this case."

(Japanese original by Yuki Kurisu, Kumamoto Bureau)

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