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Lawsuit by ex-student forced to quit Japan school for breaking dating rules stirs debate

This file photo shows a building that houses the Tokyo District Court in the capital's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Kazuo Motohashi)

TOKYO -- A former student at a private high school in Japan has sued the institution for allegedly forcing her to drop out of school on the grounds that she dated a fellow student, raising debate over school discipline versus students' rights.

    The woman filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court against the private high school, seeking around 3.7 million yen (about $33,400) in damages. While the enforcement of school rules that go to extremes has been recognized as a social problem, litigation has unfolded as the former student and the high school clash and both claim their rights.

    According to the former student, the issue in question occurred in 2019, when she was called into a meeting room by her homeroom teacher at around 2 p.m., before the sixth period started. Her teacher asked, "Aren't you dating a male student in your grade?" and pressed the woman for an answer.

    The private school is known for its strict rules, one of which is a ban on dating between male and female students, out of consideration for the teenagers to "fulfill their roles as students." The high school requested students and others to provide information on school rule violations via a smartphone app, which is designed to report on cases of bullying. The school was informed about the dating by another student who filed a report through the app.

    Numerous teachers, including the head teacher of the grade, demanded the former student to show them her smartphone. Although she initially resisted, she gave in after being pressured with words including, "You can surely show it if you insist that there's nothing going on," and "Just admit it right away." A photo of the male student she had been dating at the time was found in her phone. She was then interrogated about when she began dating the student and how close they were, and the Q-and-A session apparently lasted for about four hours.

    Not long after, the former student was called in with her mother, and was advised to drop out of school. Although she could not understand why such measures had to be taken, she said she had no choice but to accept them as she was told that she'd be unable to earn enough credits to graduate unless she took immediate action to switch schools.

    The former student has insisted that the school ban on dating is "unreasonable and invalid in light of social norms."

    High school students are in their later stages of puberty, and it is natural for them to develop romantic feelings for the other sex. Dating is a manifestation of such feelings. The freedom to date relates to the essential nature of humans and is included in the right to the pursuit of happiness, which is guaranteed by the Constitution of Japan. The former student claimed that imposing a sweeping ban on dating, including even serious relationships, puts extremely strong restrictions on individuals' rights, and that the counsel advising her to voluntarily quit the school was excessive and illegal.

    Meanwhile, the high school intends to fight back. In September 2020, before the lawsuit was filed, the school issued a document to the student's side explaining why it banned dating, and outlined the series of events that led it to advise her to drop out of school. The school's views can be partially gauged from the document.

    In the document, the school stated that private schools proclaim that they conduct educational activities based on their original traditions, school climate, and policies, and that students would have agreed to them while opting to receive such an education. The school explained that the dating ban is in place so that students who are physically and emotionally immature will not suffer serious mental or physical setbacks, and will be able to devote themselves to their academics and other duties as a student. The school claimed that it made the decision to advise the former student to drop out voluntarily taking comprehensive points into consideration, including it repeatedly gave out warnings on dating and dying hair, and that she dated the male student for an extensive period.

    So, in terms of litigation, which party's claims stand stronger?

    In the past, there was a lawsuit in which a judicial decision similar to that of the former student was made. An entertainment agency demanded compensation against a former female idol and her partner for allegedly violating regulations prohibiting romantic relationships, which were in the terms of a contract signed by agency members when they joined the company. In a January 2016 ruling, the Tokyo District Court indicated that "dating those of the opposite sex is a form of freedom to pursue happiness, and banning them from doing so is excessive even when considering the characteristics unique to idols." It is said that limitations on benefits indispensable for the establishment of the individual requires careful consideration.

    However, for the case in question, the fact that the conflict happened at a private school seems to be an additional factor at the center of debate. As schools are communities with rules different from those of regular society, it is possible for judicial courts to consider schools' discretionary power in providing an education.

    In a separate case, a former student who was advised to leave school for getting a perm, which violated school rules, demanded compensation from a private high school. In the July 1996 ruling, the Supreme Court stated that "schools have an education policy of maintaining an air of cleanliness and modesty, as well as ingraining attitudes of not pursuing trends and not being swayed by luxury," and concluded that the school's actions could not be deemed unreasonable.

    Another ruling was handed down in February this year, regarding a case where a woman who was repeatedly instructed by a teacher to dye her hair black stopped going to school. The Osaka District Court recognized that the prefectural school's instructions were "reasonable in light of social norms, as they are specified for the purposes of offering a proper education to prevent misconduct."

    Koichi Nakatomi, professor at Hiroshima Shudo University specializing in the Constitution, pointed out, "It may be seen as common sense in society that school rules banning dating are taking things too far, but private schools can promote their original school climate."

    He added, "The focal point will likely be how the court will view the issue of balancing private schools' freedom to educate with students' right to self-determination and right to the pursuit of happiness."

    In response to an inquiry, the high school sued in the dating case commented that it intends to "reveal specific claims during the trial hearings."

    (Japanese original by Kazuhiro Toyama, City News Department)

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