High school students in Japan push to change ‘unreasonable’ rules on skirts and relationships

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Student council members and others at Anesaki High School in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture discuss proposals to change school rules, December 2021. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

TOKYO — Why can girls only wear skirts? Why are there rules about the color of students’ underwear? Why are romantic relationships prohibited? With “black rules” in schools increasingly viewed as a societal issue, high school students have also begun to demand changes to what they see as unreasonable limits on their freedom.

In mid-December 2021, at Anesaki Prefectural High School in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, a group of female students, some in skirts and some in pants, were chatting.

Their school had approved trousers – originally exclusively part of the male student uniform – for female students from April 2022, and preparations were underway to order the correct sizes from the supplier. But then a questionnaire run by the student council drew a flood of critical comments, including “the idea that girls = skirts is wrong” and “there should be consideration for sexual minorities”.

As a result, the uniform rule change was brought forward to November 2021, and female students could purchase and wear boy-sized pants if they wished. Maria Isogai, a second-year student, quickly started wearing pants in school. She told the Mainichi Shimbun with a smile, “I don’t like having my legs apart and wanted to wear pants in the winter when it’s cold.”

A group of volunteers made up mostly of student council members are also currently trying to change other rules, including that skirt hems must be below the knee and a ban on hair products. More than 90% of the students who responded to the survey requested changes to the rules on skirts. Among the reasons given were: “If they are long, it is dangerous because they can get caught in bicycle chains” and “Skirts get dirty when they hit the floor in the school’s Japanese-style toilet”.

In December 2021, the student council formally proposed making it possible to wear skirt hemlines ending at the top of the kneecap. The school will test the proposals during the month of February, and if there are no infractions, principal Naoto Kase will approve it as a new rule.

Principal Kase referred to the 2015 revision of the Elections in Public Offices Act, which lowered the voting age from 20 to 18, and said, “I want them to go the extra mile toward “true adulthood” and try to find out what they can change through self-help efforts.”

About 20 years ago, the school saw a stream of students leaving mid-study and received fewer applications than it had places. Principal Kase was then in charge of student discipline, and he and others oversaw the enforcement of the rules. Until then, skirts were allowed 10 centimeters above the knee, but to prevent messy outfits and students from being shot under the skirt, the rules were changed to keep hemlines “up”. to the kneecaps”. They were then taken lower, “below the knees”.

“People in the area started saying that the students would greet more and the atmosphere around the students had improved. The school’s strict rules had value,” Principal Kase said.

This time, the students conducted interviews and surveys with local businesses and residents to get a sense of local feelings about skirt length. The results showed that skirt hemming at the top of the kneecap was generally thought to be appropriate. Thanks to the hard work of these students, they received permission to take the test.

The student council called the efforts “dialogue, not opposition” and attended several meetings with teachers and others. Second-year student and student council member Sanae Kojima said, “School rules are the closest societal issue for us. We also have the right to express our opinions, and I felt that we could change our school.

At Kitazono Metropolitan High School, a public institution in the capital’s Itabashi district, a caveat in the textbook says students “must lead a school life with clothes and hair consistent with the academic environment of a high school student.” . Although there is no passage prohibiting hair coloring, teachers and other staff have begun to warn students against it.

Students at the school created a video to showcase what they consider problematic about unwritten hair dye rules and uploaded it to YouTube in April 2021. The video caused a stir with the inclusion opinions from students, experts and others, including, “If there’s a ban on dyeing your hair, then we want it in writing” and “Teachers can’t explain why they do it”, referring to the instructions not to color your hair.

Seiya Adachi, a third-year student who led the student council at the time, said, “I think it’s important that everyone can present the version of themselves that they want to be, and that we can respect how others present themselves.”

The ‘Ending Black School Rules’ project, which was started by nonprofits and others involved in supporting children’s education and other causes, has achieved a 2018 online school rules survey targeting 1,000 people aged between teens and 50s. Half of the respondents said they had been subjected to unreasonable rules in high school.

A high proportion of teens cited skirt length rules and hair product bans, among other things. A small number also said they were not allowed to pursue romantic relationships.

Ryo Uchida is an associate professor in the sociology of education at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, Nagoya University and an expert on school rule issues. “Until now, movements to change school rules have often come from outside educational institutions, but we are now seeing more cases of voices being raised within schools. This is a major progress,” he said.

But he added: “There are still many cases where, even if students make their voices heard, conservative teachers do not easily accept their views. The extent to which children’s sense of self-determination can flourish depends on adults. teachers are needed. »

(Japanese original by Mei Nammo, Tokyo City News Department, and Haruka Kobayashi and Erina Sato, Tokyo Bureau)

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