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Boy honors dad's roots with cornrow hairstyle, gets segregated at graduation in Japan

This photo provided by the high school boy's parents shows the hair style he had for graduation ceremony. (He got pierced after graduation.)

HIMEJI, Hyogo -- A male student was recently segregated from other students at a high school graduation ceremony because his "cornrow" hairstyle, based on his father's roots as a Black man, was deemed against school rules.

    The number of children with diverse backgrounds is increasing in Japan, and the move sparked a call from one expert for schools to respect human rights. The third-year student at a Hyogo prefectural high school also expressed disappointment at the school's response, telling the Mainichi Shimbun, "I wasn't able to create memories to conclude my three years (at school) with my friends."

    The boy considered the graduation ceremony a special occasion and decided to braid his har in "cornrow" style so that it would look neat even with his curly hair. He had researched on the internet that the hairstyle was a Black cultural tradition with African roots, and his father had also told him about it.

    However, the school did not approve of his hairstyle and he went home in the middle of the ceremony. He then returned in his uniform to receive his diploma and other mementos, but was sent to a room with no other students, and a teacher followed him when he went to the restroom. While waiting for his friends at school after receiving his diploma and other items, the teacher told him to leave the school.

    The student recalled, "I was frustrated because I felt like I was being told, 'This is not your special day.' (The hairstyle) represented my father's roots and culture in the Black community."

    His parents, who were looking forward to their son's big day, also questioned the school's response. On the day of the ceremony, the parents were told by the vice principal, "We cannot allow your son to participate because of his hairstyle." When the parents asked why, the vice principal simply repeated, "He should know the rules," and gave no clear rationale.

    This photo shows his usual hairstyle with braids untied in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, on March 9, 2023. His curly hair tends to spread to the side. (Mainichi/Yoshiko Yukinaga)

    The school's regulations stipulate that hairstyles should be "not trendy, but clean and appropriate for a high school student." The rules prohibit dyeing, bleaching, or using a hair dryer to create styles, but do not specify braiding.

    The Mainichi Shimbun asked which aspects of the student's hairstyle were in violation, but the vice principal simply replied, "It means that it is different from what we have been teaching."

    The boy's father was a researcher from New York who met his Japanese mother when she visited the U.S. They later married, and the student was born in China and has dual U.S.-Japan citizenship. He grew up traveling back and forth between Japan and countries overseas, and has been living in Japan with his mother and siblings since 2018.

    The number of children in Japan with foreign roots is increasing in Japan. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare's Vital Statistics, one in 24, or 4.1%, of all children born in Japan in 2020 had one or both parents who were foreign nationals. Ministry of Justice statistics further show that the number of foreign residents in Japan as of the end of December 2021 was around 2.76 million, representing a 2.5-fold increase over the past three decades.

    Anti-discrimination laws spreading in U.S.

    The CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hair, is spreading in the United States. The law was born out of the history of unfair treatment of Blacks in the workplace and at school because of their hairstyle and hair quality. The law, an acronym for "Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair," was first enacted in California in 2019, and many states, including New Jersey and Connecticut, have enacted equivalent laws.

    In Japan, there have been moves to review unreasonable school rules, including those related to hairstyle. This was triggered by a lawsuit filed in 2017 by a female student at an Osaka prefectural high school who claimed that she was forced to dye her naturally brown hair black. School bans on so-called "two block" undercut haircuts and ponytails, the requirement of certificates to prove natural hair color and the designation of underwear color have also been seen as problematic.

    In June 2021, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology notified the boards of education of prefectural governments that "school regulations must be constantly and actively reviewed to ensure that they are based on the actual conditions of students, social common sense, and the progress of the times."

    Ryo Uchida, a professor at Nagoya University's graduate school and an expert on school rule issues, said, "There are many ambiguous rules in school regulations that are not clearly stated, such as those given only verbally. The rules are determined by the teachers' senses and discretion, and this (high school boy's) case clearly shows the harmful effects of such rules."

    Uchida added, "Current school rules demand a single image of a child, such as straight black hair, even though there are children with foreign nationalities and diverse origins. As internationalization progresses, we hope that the school will not suppress children, but rather create a relationship that allows for dialogue on an equal footing and (school rules) should take a form that respects freedom and human rights."

    (Japanese original by Yoshiko Yukinaga, Tamba Local Bureau)

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