For years the Japanese school system had been notorious for its strict and questionable rules - banning everything from certain hairstyles to types of underwear. But all it took was one lawsuit to shake it all up…
Schools Across The Globe
Schools in Tokyo are famously strict, but they aren’t the only schools around the world with formal dress codes and excessive rules. In fact, these kinds of schools can be found around the world.
But there’s no denying that schools in Tokyo have a long history of unusually rigid regulations. And when the Tokyo board of education eventually discovered that many students and their parents were less than impressed with what they called the “black rules,” it seemed some changes were in order.
The "Black Rules"
In Japan, the severe system of rules and regulations across many schools was known as “Burakku kōsoku,” or “black rules.” These rules applied to both boys and girls in the school system and were believed to play a key role in molding them into better students.
The education board harbored the belief that these “black rules” would quell any potential rebellion in their students, ensuring that they conformed to more mainstream standards and focused on their studies. They did this by focusing on the appearance of their students first and foremost.
These rules, and the general strictness of Japanese schools, had been characteristic of the nation's education system for decades. There had always been a clear idea of what "appropriate" student dress and behavior entailed, which was often at odds with the student's sense of individuality and personality.
This encompassed virtually everything, from the color and style of their hair to the length of their skirts, and though rules were aimed at both boys and girls, they were especially harsh on the female students. Let’s take a look at some of the most controversial of all the “black rules.”
Up first: the school system's approach to dress code, in particular, the skirts. While many schools around the world have restrictions on their school uniforms, including how short their student's skirts should be, the Japanese rules were especially strict.
Skirts had to be a specific length and style, and any tampering with skirts resulted in disciplinary action. "Skirt length was strictly regulated," said Chise Iida, a graduate from Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School. "And absolutely no skirt should be folded, and if it was above the knee, the students were sternly warned."
More Uniform Rules
Iida went on to tell Vice World News about her personal experiences studying under the “black rules” of the Tokyo school system. The restrictions on female clothing certainly didn’t stop at skirt length, but actually applied to several layers of the uniform.
At certain schools, there was a small range of specific colors that students had to wear, and this even applied to the clothing beneath their school uniforms. Undershirts could be beige, mocha, or any other inconspicuous color, and underwear had to be "monotone white, grey, navy blue or black" in some schools.
Throwing Out The Ponytails
And of course, they wouldn’t be strict school rules if they didn’t tell their students how to style their hair! In many Japanese schools, there are restrictions on the color, length, and style that students can wear their hair. For example, according to one 2020 survey, roughly 10% of schools in Fukuoka had banned ponytails entirely.
When pushed for an explanation, the school system pointed out that "the nape of a woman's neck" could prove to be a distraction for male students. While it may seem strange to many people, the list of buzz-worthy school rules certainly didn't end there...
Other Forbidden Hairstyles
It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that the ponytail was just the beginning. Many other hairstyles were also banned in schools throughout the country, with one of the most prominent being the ‘two-block’ haircut. This hairstyle consisted of cutting the hair short around the sides and back and leaving the top long.
The 'two-block' was a hairstyle trending in countries across the globe, but it was deemed inappropriate by the Japanese school system. While banning popular hairstyles was one thing, many of these schools were even banning people's natural hair color. Here's why…
Black Rules & Black Hair
A lot of teenagers love dying their hair in "unnatural" colors such as purple, blue, and green, and it's not uncommon for schools to prohibit these hair colors. But according to Japanese news outlet NHK, some Japanese schools took these rules a step further…
In some schools, it was dictated that only one hair color was permitted on campus: the color black. Many Japanese people do have naturally black hair, but not all of them. And the students who didn’t were required to show the school proof of their natural hair color before they were allowed to attend such schools.
Proof of Color
The NHK report showed the extent of the evidence required to prove a student's natural hair color wasn't dyed or permed. It included a childhood picture of the student and an authentication certificate provided by their parents. All of this just so a student with non-black, non-straight hair could attend their classes...
The restrictions around "natural hair" originated back in the 1970s. It was believed to be a necessary rule to enforce conformity amongst students and prevent further bullying and violence. The Human Rights Watch responded to the regulation, saying that there is a "price to be paid for imposing conformity."
Spoken & Unspoken
Though the burakku kōsoku appear in many schools around Japan, the way they are implemented varies from place to place. Hiromi Kuroi, who represents a non-government affiliated agency involved in investigating these rules, explained their perspective on the matter.
"I think schools like these should disappear. In some schools, these restrictions are written down, but in many others, there's an unspoken understanding that you can't break certain rules," Kuroi told VICE World News during their report on the "black rules."
Influencing the Masses
She took her explanation even further, stating that "to question a student's natural hair is like saying their identity is wrong. It's also clearly racist." To clarify this, she used the example of a student in Osaka who filed a court case against her school due to perceived discrimination.
And the criticisms were spreading throughout the nation, according to Kuroi. "Recently, famous foreigners and hāfu [mixed race] have called out blatant discrimination, like athletes Naomi Osaka and Rui Okoye," she explained. But many were still afraid to speak out against these regulations, particularly non-famous "normal" students.
From the Bathroom to the Courtroom
But let’s backtrack to the Osaka lawsuit Kuroi mentioned. This particular student reportedly faced a variety of severe restrictions that culminated in her pursuing legal action against her school. The biggest issue she faced had to do with her hair and the aforementioned “black rule” around natural hair colors.
For the first few years of schooling as a teen, the girl diligently dyed her hair black to hide the roots of her naturally brown hair. Every few months, she had to redye it when the brown roots would go back. It’s no surprise that after a few years passed, the girl grew sick of the restrictions on her.
One day, the student decided she couldn't comply any longer with the strict rule, and she promptly stopped dying her hair. Over time the brown color crept back in until her hair was mostly brown. The student waited to be reprimanded but was stunned by the severity of the school's punishment.
Rather than give her detention or hold a meeting with her parents, the school administration took her desk out of the classroom, removed her from all rosters, and restricted her from attending classes and school trips until her hair met school standards. So the student decided to take matters into her own hands.
Taking Them To Court
She and her parents swiftly took action against the school, filing a lawsuit and suing the institution for over $20,000. Her reasoning was due to the damage that constant dying had done to her scalp and hair. She also cited the immense mental stress she was under during her attendance.
To her dismay, the Osaka District Court ruled in her favor but only ordered the local government to compensate her with $3,100. This was not even 15% of what she asked for. And to make matters worse, the judge dismissed her call to reconsider the school's rules as they were technically not against the law.
Not "Black Enough"
Understandably the former student was distressed by the court ruling, and she quickly appealed it. From her perspective, the “black rules” of Prefectural Kaifukan High School had taken an enormous toll on her mental health and the quality of her childhood.
Not only was she forced to dye her hair throughout the year, but she was even banned from participating in various school activities because of her hair color. According to her lawyer, Yoshiyuki Hayashi, she was told that her hair wasn’t “black enough” to participate. And that wasn’t all.
Unable To Escape the Trauma
Her lawyer went further, explaining the more severe consequences of the school's restrictions on her. "She was hit very hard psychologically," Hayashi said. "At one point, it was so bad that just seeing herself in the mirror or seeing her hair caused her to hyperventilate."
He continued to describe his client's distress, including how "she became extremely mistrustful of people" and struggled to interact socially outside of her family. "She has now started a part-time job, but she is still struggling." It was this testimony that began to turn the tide against the "black rules."
Under House Arrest
By now, it’s clear to see that the rules and guidelines found in many schools in Tokyo and wider Japan were unusually strict. But the severity went beyond just these regulations… the punishments doled out to nonconforming students were equally extreme, at least compared to the education systems of most countries.
The consequences for students in Tokyo who did not obey the “black rules” were considered cruel and unusual by many people, both inside and outside of Japan. These students were placed under a form of “house arrest,” despite how easy it was for some students to unwittingly break the rules.
Finally Speaking Up
During the Osaka lawsuit, students, parents, teachers, and even school boards began to open up conversations on the severity of the “black rules” and whether or not they were still appropriate. Many agreed that the regulations and punishments were not proportionate.
Beyond that, many doubted whether they actually improved the student's academic performance at all! Soon these policies were being widely criticized around the nation, and many were calling for school boards to change these regulations for the benefit of future students.
More Chilling Confessions
And there was another beneficial consequence of the Osaka lawsuit - it gave plenty of other students a chance to speak out against the "black rules" and how they had been affected by them. "Our bangs couldn't grow past our eyebrows," one college student told Vice World News about her former high school.
"Also, if we were caught wearing above knee-length skirts, we had to write a statement reflecting on what we had done," she explained. These public statements were already leading to incremental changes, shown at one school in the Mie prefecture, where many of the "black rules" had been abolished.
A "Relic" Of The Past
Over time, many other schools in Tokyo, where the “black rules” were believed to be most strongly enforced, began to reconsider their stance on uniform regulations. Local officials would go on to describe them as “relics” of a past era and call for them to be overturned.
Despite their ubiquity over the past 4 or 5 decades, most students, parents, and teachers embraced these changes, drawing attention to the need for school rules to evolve with the times. Activist movements sprung up in support, and pressure was put on the school boards to make these changes official.
The Final Verdict
In a short amount of time, it seemed that most of the country had seemingly shifted their opinion on the issue, calling for a serious change in the capital's school system. The Tokyo board of education had no choice but to listen - and in 2022 they made a big announcement.
According to the board, as of April 2022, the infamous “black rules” of Tokyo high schools would be officially abolished across 200 schools in the city. Restrictions on natural hair colors, underwear colors, and hairstyles like the “two-block” would be no more.
“Catching Up With the Times”
Chise Iida, the aforementioned graduate of Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School, shared her opinion on the ruling after 216 of 240 institutions in Tokyo were shown to still be using the "black rules." "It's great that we're finally catching up with the times," she said.
Vice World News also interviewed Yuto Kitamura, a member of an education board who acknowledged the negative effects the rules had had on students for decades. "It is essential to respect an environment where students think proactively and make their own decisions. I find the move to be a major step forward," he said.
Why Did It Take So Long?
Kaori Yamaguchi, a member of the same education board as Kitamura, chimed in regarding the reason these severe rules were instated in Tokyo for so long. "Japanese people have been educated to believe that it is a virtue to simply abide by the rules," she admitted.
But given the recent turn in events, the board member was finally hopeful for the future: "I hope this will be an opportunity for people to discuss what we should do to create a society where rules are observed in a manner convincing to everyone," she gushed.
Equality for All Genders
Fortunately for the many students who have been affected by the “burakku kōsoku,” it isn’t just the rules that are being reformed. The penalties for pushing back against school rules are also being evaluated, with the “home detention” punishments being officially removed.
If that wasn’t enough, one school in Ube, Yamaguchi prefecture, has developed an ambitious plan to circumvent issues around school uniforms. They are doing this in the form of “genderless” uniforms, where girls and boys can choose whether they want to wear skirts or trousers.
Taught to Conform
When new education reforms like the above are officially instated, many Japanese people are left wondering about how these changes will affect long-held Japanese cultural norms. "In Japan, people have an impression that when someone stands out, they will be targeted or bullied," explained Kayoko Oshima.
Oshima is a law professor at Doshisha University who has studied the issue and its potential sociological effects. "People learn not to stand out, and young people see this as a survival method. Teachers talk about individuality, and yet people's uniqueness is crushed."
Petitioning for Change
The fallout after the Osaka case even resulted in the 2018 campaign "Stop Extreme School Rules," according to the Washington Post. The vice president of the organization collected more than 60,000 signatures for a petition that called for the end of the "black rules" nationwide.
"Because of the rules, the children themselves exert peer pressure that everyone needs to conform, and this continues into adulthood like an obsession," the VP elaborated. "Children's self-esteem is plummeting, in some cases so low they are losing their will to live."
What About Immigrants?
And he wasn’t the only one. Just ask 32-year-old Tokyo resident Miyuki Nozu, a woman who works with refugees in Japan and also spent her teenage years at a private school with the same “natural hair” rule, where students were required to have certifications if their hair was not black or straight.
She pointed out the negative effects this can also have on immigrants and mixed-race children in Japanese society. According to Nozu, "Schools just assume without any thought that all Japanese people have black straight hair and girls should act a certain way."
From Troubled to Top of the Class
Nozu continued on, explaining that "Japan is not a single-ethnicity nation anymore. Schools don't realize society has changed and that they are forcing an outdated ideal on students. This proves they have no intention or ability to teach about diversity."
And that's not the only issue. "There are plenty of people who are repressed and lose their creativity," she said. She shared an anecdote about a former classmate as an example - this classmate was considered a "troublemaker," yet she eventually graduated top of her class at the Tokyo University of the Arts.
After decades of severe and perhaps discriminatory regulations, the Japanese school system seems to be making changes for the better. And while diversity is being encouraged across the nation's education boards, the capital city is still lagging far behind when it comes to dismantling the "burakku kōsoku."
For example, the prefecture of Gifu in central Japan officially abolished the harshest of the “black rules” in 2019, a ban that was applied to every single school in the region. And in March 2021, the Saga prefecture also called to end the specific rules around underwear color.
Looking To The Future
It's clear that the "black rules" are steadily losing favor amongst Japanese students, parents, and educators - but it seems it's going to take a while before their demands spread throughout the country. Though the students aren't about to give up anytime soon…
In fact, some students are pushing for more leniency on makeup and hair products, while others have lobbied successfully for trousers to be worn by female students! Since 2018, more and more of these regulations have been abolished in Tokyo and wider Japan. And it looks like this is just the beginning.