Japanese schools are overhauling dress codes and haircut requirements

The new academic year is going to look different in Tokyo, as school uniforms undergo a significant and symbolic change for the first time in decades. Starting April 1, nearly 200 public schools in Japan’s capital will abolish regulations that dictated the color of students’ undergarments and the type of haircuts they’re allowed to get.

Tokyo’s education board made the updates after a recent survey revealed that majority of parents, students, and teachers believed that the current school uniforms are outdated and impractical.

Several schools also have amended their disciplinary methods, and have eliminated the practice of putting students on a kind of “house arrest” as a form of punishment.

In a press statement, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Board of Education member Kaori Yamaguchi said she hopes the evolutions in school uniforms will embolden the public to question other obsolete traditions in Japan. “Japanese people have been educated to believe that it is a virtue to simply abide by the rules,” she said. “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.”

Tokyo is among several Japanese regions scrutinizing a school uniform template that dates back to the early 19th century. Several progressive high schools have adopted “gender-neutral uniforms” allowing students to choose between slacks and skirts. Schools in the Mie prefecture allow students to wear Uniqlo as a type of informal uniform.

The significance of black hair in Japan

Policing hairstyles, in particular, has become a contentious matter. Prior to this school year, male students in Tokyo were prohibited from getting a “K-Pop style two-block” cut. In 2020, a politician challenged the education body’s reasoning that banning undercuts was meant to protect students from “being involved in incidents or getting into accidents.”

Another rule forcing students to use chemicals to achieve a stick-straight jet black mane has been challenged in courts. A high schooler won a lawsuit against the Osaka school system for health issues resulting from having to periodically dye her hair in compliance with school’s standard. Purin atama (pudding head) — the state when one’s natural roots begin to show — was prohibited.

Critics say that the obsession with black hair is based on a bygone fantasy about the Japanese image. Jet black hair, or kurokami, evokes an idealized Japanese woman equated with submissiveness, tidiness, and cleanliness, as the language researcher Mami Suzuki explains in the culture blog Tofugu.

Convenience store chain Family Mart used to bar employees with naturally black hair from altering their color. When it retired the policy  in 2018 in deference to foreign workers, the retailer learned that some customers perceived black hair as “customer-friendly,” and that lighter hair was viewed as “unclean.” In 2019, Pantene launched a #HairWeGo campaign exploring facets of the restrictive Japanese standard. The campaign resulted in a petition calling for schools to abolish restrictions on hair color.

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