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Japan school rules for rash guard usage in swimming lessons leave parents perplexed

Footmark Corp.'s "Shine Guard" long-sleeved swimsuit is seen in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on July 7, 2022. (Mainichi/Maki Nakajima)

TOKYO -- While swimming classes have been resumed at many Japanese schools for the first time in three years, parents have been confused over some schools' rules regarding the usage of rash guards, which require them to submit papers or talk with the principal to gain permission.

    The Mainichi Shimbun examined the state of such practices surrounding rash guards, which provide UV protection and make differences in body shape less noticeable.

    "I have to write on paper that my children will use a rash guard and submit it to the schools," a woman in her 30s living in the city of Saitama, north of Tokyo, said with bewilderment. At the schools of her two children -- a third grader and a first-year middle school student -- parents of students who want to use rash guards or goggles are apparently asked to submit papers showing their intention to use additional gear before the swimming season begins.

    "I don't get why we need to go out of our way to submit them, even though there are hardly any cases where we don't get permission. I questioned it at first," the woman said. However, she was also understanding to a certain degree, saying, "Well, the teacher needs to handle nearly 40 students alone, and I can understand that they would want to go in this direction to reduce irregular cases as much as possible to manage the children."

    A Tokyo resident in her 40s strongly wished to have her daughter wear a rash vest after seeing her get severely sunburned during her elementary school's swimming lessons last summer. When the mother conveyed this to the homeroom teacher via a correspondence notebook, she received the unexpected reply, "Please gain permission by meeting the principal."

    The woman visited the school to submit a document and talk with the principal. When she asked the principal why the procedure was necessary, they apparently explained, "When one wears a rash guard, the water's resistance grows, making it hard to swim." In the end, she received permission for her child to exclusively wear a type with a navy color and no hood.

    The woman said, "The meeting ended too smoothly, and I didn't sense any particular opposition from the school, so I was taken aback. If this is the case, I want the school to let us write a note in the pool card next to a seal (that indicates a signature), which is the measure for goggle usage. There may be parents who give up as they are busy with work or other things, after hearing that a meeting is required to have their children wear rash guards."

    Rash guards are originally long-sleeved sportswear that surfers use to protect their skin, and have recently also been used by general pool and beachgoers. There are no standard guidelines regarding their usage in education, and cases differ by school.

    A woman in her 40s whose child attends a middle school in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward said, "At my child's elementary school, there were no restrictions on color or pattern, and we were free to choose whatever. At the middle school, the school has a designated rash guard, and those who want to wear one purchases it. I don't think the rules are that strict."

    "More schools are abolishing their system of having parents request permission, and instead have them purchase the gear at designated stores," said Junya Shirakawa, a 45-year-old employee at Footmark Corp., which manufactures and sells swimming goods and other items. He explained, "In the past, they could not be worn without a special reason, such as a skin disease, but I have the impression that there are many schools now that allow anyone to use rash guards. I think that in many cases, schools take action following requests from parents and students."

    Since the 2000s, the company has sold long-length swimsuits that cover the thighs and long-sleeved tops called "Shine Guard." The Shine Guard gear has apparently spread mainly in west Japan, including Okinawa and Kyushu, for about five years, to avoid exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays. They have also begun to be worn in east Japan since around three years ago.

    While orders decrease from the summer in usual years, the company has been receiving additional orders even in July this year. Demand has been especially high among products for middle schoolers, and large-sized wear has been selling well. As he hears that both boys and girls are conscious of skin exposure at schools, Shirakawa thinks that children's desire to hide their figure is behind this.

    "In middle school, there are more students who sit in on swimming classes because they are uncomfortable wearing swimsuits due to changes in their body. At one school, once it gave permission for students to wear long-sleeve swimsuits in an attempt to get more children to participate, students observing the class began to join lessons," he said.

    With pride, Shirakawa said that the swimwear are items that solve low participation rates in swimming lessons. He said passionately, "Swimming classes have the purpose to enhance students' swimming abilities and prevent water-related accidents. For this reason, too, I'm happy if by increasing swimsuit options, there will be less students who dislike swimming."

    (Japanese original by Maki Nakajima, Digital News Center)

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