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High schoolers in Japan push changes to 'unreasonable' rules on skirts, relationships

Members of the student council and others at Anesaki High School in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, discuss proposals to change school rules, in December 2021. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

TOKYO -- Why can girls only wear skirts? Why are there rules about the color of students' underclothes? Why are romantic relationships banned? With "black rules" at schools seen increasingly as a societal issue, high school students have also begun calling for changes to what they see as unreasonable limits on their freedom.

    In mid-December 2021 at the prefectural Anesaki High School in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, a group of female students, some in skirts and some in pants, were having a discussion.

    Their school had approved pants -- originally exclusively a part of the male students' uniform -- for female students from April 2022, and preparations were going ahead to order the correct sizes from the supplier. But then a questionnaire run by the student council prompted a flood of critical comments, including "the idea that girls = skirts is wrong," and, "there should be consideration for sexual minorities."

    As a result, the uniform rules change was brought forward to November 2021, and female students could buy and wear pants in boys' sizes if they wished to do so. Maria Isogai, a second-year student, quickly started wearing pants to school. She told the Mainichi Shimbun with a smile, "I don't like having my legs out, and I wanted to wear pants in the winter when it's cold."

    A group of volunteers primarily consisting of student council members is also currently trying to change other rules, including that skirt hems must be below the knee, and a ban on hair products. Over 90% of female students answering the survey requested changes to the rules on skirts. Among the reasons provided were, "If they're long it's dangerous because they can get caught in bicycle chains," and, "The skirts get dirty touching the floor in the school's Japanese-style toilets."

    In December 2021, the student council formally proposed making it possible to wear skirt hems ending at the top of the kneecap. The school will test the proposals over the month of February, and if there are no infractions then Principal Naoto Kase will approve it as a new rule.

    Principal Kase referenced the 2015 revision to the Public Offices Election Act, which reduced the voting age from 20 to 18, and said, "I want them to take that extra step toward 'real adulthood' and try to experience what it is they can change through effort made under their own initiative."

    About 20 years ago, the school was seeing a stream of students leaving mid-studies, and it received fewer applications than it had places. Principal Kase was head of student discipline at the time, and he and others oversaw rules enforcement. Until then, skirts had been allowed to be 10 centimeters above the knee, but to prevent messy outfits and students being victim to upskirt shots, the rules were changed to keep hems "down to the kneecaps." They were later taken further down, to "below the knees."

    "People in the area started saying how students would give more greetings, and that the atmosphere around the students had improved. Strict school rules had value," Principal Kase reflected.

    This time, the students did interviews and surveys with local companies and residents to get a sense of local feelings around skirt lengths. The results showed that it was generally thought that skirt hems at the top of the kneecap were appropriate. Through these students' hard work, they received permission to do the test.

    The student council has described the efforts as "dialogue, not opposition," and has attended multiple meetings with teachers and others. Sanae Kojima, a second-year student and student council member, said, "School rules are the closest societal issue to us. We have a right to state our opinions, too, and I felt we were able to change our school."

    At the metropolitan Kitazono High School, a public institution in the capital's Itabashi Ward, one point of caution in the handbook reads that students "are to lead a school life with clothing and hair in keeping with the academic environment of a high school student." Despite there being no passages forbidding hair coloring, teachers and other staff began cautioning students against it.

    Students at the school created a video to present what they see as problematic about the unwritten rules on hair-dyeing, and uploaded it to YouTube in April 2021. The video caused a stir with its inclusion of opinions from students, experts and others, including, "If there's a ban on dyeing our hair, then we want it written down," and, "The teachers can't explain why they do it," referring to instructions not to color their hair.

    Seiya Adachi, a third-year student who was head of the student council at the time, said, "I think it's important that people can each present the version of themselves they want to be, and that we can respect the way others present themselves."

    The project to "end black school rules," which was started by nonprofit organizations and others involved in supporting children's studies and other causes, did an online survey on school rules in 2018 targeting 1,000 people aged from their teens to 50s. Half the respondents said they had been subjected to unreasonable rules in high school.

    A high proportion of teens cited skirt length rules and hair product bans, among others. A small number also said that they aren't allowed to pursue romantic relationships.

    Ryo Uchida is an associate professor in education sociology at Nagoya University Graduate School of Education and Human Development and an expert on school rules issues. "Until now, movements to change school rules had often come from outside educational institutions, but we're seeing more cases of voices being raised from within schools now. It's major progress," he said.

    But he added, "There are still many cases where even though students do make their voices heard, conservative teachers do not readily accept their views. To what extent children's sense of self-determination can flourish is down to adults. A change in thinking among teachers is needed."

    (Japanese original by Mei Nammo, Tokyo City News Department, and Haruka Kobayashi and Erina Sato, Tokyo Bureau)

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