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Schools reassessing rules criticized as oppressive

TOKYO >> More and more municipalities in Japan are scrambling to amend or abolish school rules widely criticized as draconian, heralding a reassessment of an education culture that has prized conformity and docility.

Most recently, the board of education in Gifu Prefecture reviewed rules known as kosoku, typically referring to codes of conduct for junior-high and high-school pupils. They often dictate a strict dress code that extends to the length and color of hair.

The investigation by the Gifu Prefectural Board of Education found that more than 90% of its 61 full-time high schools had rules so stringent they risked compromising students’ rights.

Some examples, according to board official Masayuki Ishigami: girls’ underwear must be white, students must notify schools of personal plans for long-distance travel, students must seek teachers’ permission to join an assembly outside school hours, including political rallies.

While schools already have been told to remove the rules, changes officially take effect at the beginning of the school year in April, Ishigami said.

“At the very least, we felt it necessary to revise those school rules that affect students’ human rights,” he said. “For example, the mere act of teachers trying to check the color of (underwear) worn by girls would raise human rights questions.”

Although long accepted as part of the education system, the tradition of kosoku ignited debate in 2017, when an 18-year-old girl sued Osaka Prefecture after she was repeatedly forced by her teachers to dye her naturally brown hair black.

Those overly restrictive rules are now commonly dubbed “black kosoku.”

In August, protesters seeking to eliminate black kosoku submitted a petition to the education ministry signed by more than 60,000 people. Osaka Prefecture likewise took steps to address the issue, ordering all of its high schools to review their rules. About 40% of its 135 full-time high schools made changes.

Japan began keeping a tighter rein on students when the nation went through a drastic increase in juvenile delinquency in the early 1980s, prompting school authorities to stiffen rules, author Masaharu Hata wrote in a 1999 book.

But progress to change long-held codes of conduct has moved at a glacial pace, as many teachers still prize them, said Ryo Uchida, a Nagoya University professor and author of multiple books on school-related issues.

Uchida said schools are run “almost as though they were granted extraterritoriality,” where even the most absurd rules, such as banning students from wearing scarves and tights even in winter, are justified under the pretext of nipping delinquency in the bud.

“The logic is that if one student started showing off what might be considered a fashion accessory, other students may follow suit, which could encourage overall disorderliness,” he said.

The most effective antidote to black kosoku, Uchida said, is full disclosure of internal school rules so they can be checked against the “common sense of the outside world.”

Setagaya Ward in Tokyo plans to do just that. Its education board is in the “final phase” of a plan to make public a list of updated rules upheld by all of its junior-high schools.

All public junior-high students will now be allowed to wear clothing of their choice once a month.

“Our big objective is to eliminate any unreasonable kosoku,” said board member Yuji Aoki. “We also believe that children should be left to make their own decisions about how they should act, not governed by a long list of rules, in order to harness their autonomy in these changing times.”

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