Pledge comes in the wake of 2.2 million-yen lawsuit from naturally brown-haired schoolgirl in Osaka.

The overwhelming majority of middle and high school students in Japan are required to wear uniforms, and so it’s no surprise that Japanese schools tend to have lots of other rules governing students’ personal appearance. One that’s been attracting controversy in recent years, though, is a requirement at some schools that all students must have black hair.

The ostensible reason for the rule is that almost all Japanese people have naturally black hair, and so they’ll only have non-black hair if they’ve chosen to dye it a different color. Such willful, discretionary standing out from the norm is seen as a distraction and/or lack of earnestness according to orthodox Japanese values, and thus counterproductive to the collective student body’s academic development.

However, an incident in 2017 sparked debate when it highlighted that requiring students to have black hair and forbidding them to dye it aren’t always one and the same, and in fact can sometimes be complete opposites. You’ll notice in the last paragraph that we sad almost all Japanese people have naturally black hair, and that’s because some of them don’t. While it’s relatively rare, some Japanese people are born with hair that has a natural brown tint to it, and one such girl who was attending high school in Osaka was forced to dye her naturally brown hair black, resulting in damage to her scalp and prompting a 2.2 million-yen (US$20,400) lawsuit against the school.

While the lawsuit is still ongoing, opponents of school policies requiring students to dye their natural hair in order to look more like it isn’t dyed to unaccustomed eyes can celebrate one victory. On July 30, Hiroki Komazaki, head of children and family advocacy NPO Florence, presented a petition to the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education. The petition, which had collected 19,065 signatures since May, asked that schools be prohibited from instructing naturally non-black-haired students to dye their hair, and the board gave its word that the request will be met, with High School Educational Guidance Section head Seiichi Sato saying:

“We will not direct students with natural non-black hair to dye their hair black.”

However, the board stopped short of complying with the petition’s request that municipal high schools be required to mention on their official websites that students with non-black hair will not be required to dye it, saying that the primary purpose of the websites is for each institution to communicate what makes its school unique and special.

While the petitioners are obviously upset by schools which require students to dye their hair black, Komazaki doesn’t place the blame entirely on educators. “Students are encouraged to have black hair to serve as a visible signal that they are willing to adapt to society,” he recognized, “and so educators may recommend it when thinking about their students’ future employment prospects. Companies and society must also change their way of thinking.”

While Sato’s stance is a welcome step in the direction of greater tolerance, it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s public schools that the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education has administrative control over, and so the board’s promise to prohibit educators from forcing students to dye their hair black may or may not carry much weight at private schools in Tokyo.

Source: Mainichi Shimbun via Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso
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