School rules in Japan offer harsh lessons in mindless assimilation

by Colin P.A. Jones

Contributing Writer

“You may not put more than three pencils in your pencil box/ If you wish to speak in class, raise your hand forward at a 70-degree angle/ No going to the toilet in groups/ You must finish using the toilet within seven minutes/ Use no more than 30 cm of toilet paper each time/ Even if parents or siblings, males and females must not walk together on the street/ Meals must be eaten in the following order: milk, bread, main course.”

— Musician Tatsuo Kamon

The lyrics (my translation) to Japanese joke-rocker Tatsuo Kamon’s “Honto ni Atta Kowai Kosoku,” a song about school rules, might seem funny until you get to the chorus: “These were real school rules/ bizarre school rules/ scary school rules.”

Japanese schools still have enough odd rules to fill a book. Literally. “Henna Kosoku” (“Strange School Rules”), published in 2011 by the Strange School Rules Study Group, is a compendium of craziness from middle and high schools across the country: students who sneeze more than three times must leave the classroom and visit the school nurse; no using foreign words in class; everyone must applaud when teacher enters the classroom; school uniforms must be worn any time a student is more than three phone poles away from home; gatherings of three or more students are prohibited; making eye contact with students from other schools is forbidden; no speaking with an accent or in local dialect; no whistling at school. There’s also my personal favorite, “No going within 3 meters of the area of a playing field that bears a curse.”

School rules are deadly serious, however, as their enforcement by teachers who should know better is a tremendous source of stress to students. Pupils who are marked by teachers as nonconformists may be subject to constant harassment — “guidance” — for minor infractions, such as having hair touching their ears or the wrong color socks. This drives some children to tōkōkyohi (truancy) and a few to suicide — that number is small but steady enough for there to be a Japanese term for the phenomenon: shidōshi (death from school rule-related “guidance”).

While the refrain in Kamon’s song speaks in the past tense, according to a survey discussed in “Burakku Kosoku” (“Dreadful School Rules”), a recent book edited by critic Chiki Ogiue and Nagoya University professor Ryo Uchida, more people in their teens report having negative experiences with school rules than those in their 20s, 30s or 40s. In other words, some Japanese middle and high schools are apparently becoming less progressive in recent years rather than more. Educators, it seems, are following broader social and political trends of trying to deal with a complex world by retreating into the past and the security of enforced conformity.

Kōsoku (school rules) were in the news last year when an Osaka high school student brought a lawsuit challenging her school’s demand that she dye her naturally brown hair black. Ogiue and Uchida’s book reveals much suffering due to coiffure-related rules. Many schools prohibit the dying of hair or perms, unless your hair is not black or is naturally curly, in which case you must dye or straighten it. Some schools may allow students to get by with some form of Official Proof of Naturally Deviant Hair, but individual teachers may still pressure them to assimilate, conformity — everyone looking the same even if they aren’t — seems to be the goal. Even those blessed with “normal” hair may find themselves constantly badgered with it being a few millimeters too long or not kept properly.

Fashion police

Attire is another area where control freak educators can have a field day. Skirts must be a certain length, socks a certain color — uniforms must be completely uniform. The enforcement of these rules can range between creepy and a form of child abuse. Creepy in that a number of young women in Ogiue and Uchida’s book report some type of sexual harassment in the form of teachers — sometimes male — checking the color of their underpants or bras, and criticizing them for noncompliance. Child abuse in that some schools still require children to be pointlessly cold in the winter — girls must wear skirts but not stockings, scarfs or warm undies prohibited. Asinine prohibition about the use of sunscreen — even in the summer — is another example where school rules are actually harming children’s health.

Rules can also impose a significant financial burden on struggling families. Schools with rigid requirements on hair length or color may also prohibit taking care of the problem at home; children subject to “guidance” for hair that touches their collar or eyebrows, or who need to dye their hair black may be required to prove they have gone to a barber or a beautician by producing receipts for the many visits compliance required.

Similarly, school uniforms have their historical roots in two goals, one admirable another cynical though understandable. First, uniforms are supposed to free Japanese families from the economic burden of competing with their neighbors through what their children wear to school. Second, in the 1950s, requiring the purchase of uniforms was a reflection of economic policy, ensuring the nation’s growing textile industry had captive customers.

Today, some uniform policies have seen these goals twisted beyond recognition. Uniforms for some schools may cost hundreds of dollars and are available from a single supplier. Earlier this year a prefectural public elementary school in a posh part of Tokyo made the news by mandating Armani-designed uniforms that cost ¥80,000 a set. This is just the tip of the iceberg; students everywhere are captive customers who must buy whatever the school mandates, whether uniforms priced higher than a decent business suit or “approved” bicycles costing twice what they should. Highly specific requirements about uniforms or other required school supplies, and express prohibitions on using an older sibling’s hand-me-downs, stink of questionable arrangements between schools and the merchants who supply them.

Needless to say, school rules victimize students, particularly those who unavoidably fall outside the tight parameters of the uniformity they seek to impose. Rigidly gendered requirements as to dress, hair styles or conduct impose tremendous burdens on LGBTQ students, those with foreign ancestry, learning or physical disabilities or anything else that makes them different.

Assimilation or inspiration?

Ogiue and Uchida make it clear that it is a minority of schools that account for many of the problematic rules and their strict enforcement, particularly storied private schools that can justify absurd rules in the name of long-standing tradition. Nonetheless, public schools are among the offenders, and reading about the subject it is hard not to develop a general loathing of all the teachers — whether at public or private schools — who busy themselves with making children miserable through meaningless rules rather than filling them with curiosity and a desire to learn. How dare they call themselves “educators” or presume to be preparing children for a fulfilling life.

The schools have their own rationale, of course. Decades ago Japan experienced what (in Japanese terms) was a crisis in classroom violence and misbehavior. Thus, there is — or at least was, perhaps — something akin to a “broken windows” logic to strict rules and their enforcement; policing minor infractions theoretically helped deter more serious violations. Some schools may simply be responding to the expectation of at least some parents and other stakeholders, that expect them to instill discipline and make children submit to community norms.

“Community norms,” however, may just be a nice way of expressing the underlying purpose of some school rule regimes: Compelling young people to respect authority even if it requires becoming mindless (an odd result for an educational process). It probably helps if the rules lead to acceptance of a highly restrictive view of personal freedom: Anything not expressly permitted is prohibited. Numerous interlocutors in Ogiue and Uchida’s book report rules that were not even written down — principals simply declaring the rule to exist because they said so.

Foreign visitors frequently comment on how law-abiding Japanese people are, but this appearance may be more about complying with the mandates of authority figures, even when unspoken or inexplicable. Challenging the rules is pointless, since however written they will only even mean whatever the authority figure says they do.

School years account for a significant, highly formative portion of a person’s life. School rules thus have a significant impact on Japanese society as a whole. Overseas tourists tend to note how orderly Japan is, and the norms established by school rules and discipline may contribute to that. Yet they are not without cost: In addition to the suicides, physical harm, psychological stress and trauma that some report in response to the rules, the regulations themselves sometimes kill children. In 1990, a school in Kobe was enforcing a tardy policy by having teachers counting down the seconds until start time through a bullhorn before slamming it shut when the chimes rang. They didn’t notice one girl rushing to be on time for class and slammed the gate on her head, crushing her skull and killing her.

Whatever they might arguably bring to society, mindlessly articulated and enforced school rules render children something less than human, their feelings and thoughts immaterial, and their health and emotional well-being secondary to some unspoken greater goal. Anyone who wants to talk about children’s rights in Japan should spend time taking a good hard look at the educational system for clues.

Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto and primary author of “The Japanese Legal System” (West Academic Publishing, co-authored with Frank Ravitch). The views expressed are those of the author alone.