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Tokyo loosens strict public school uniform rules

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Going to school today probably felt a little different for many students in Tokyo, Japan. Dress codes with roots that go back decades were just overhauled by about 200 public schools in the metropolitan area. The rules dictated hairstyle, the length of socks, underwear color and other aspects of a student's appearance. After years of debate surrounding the dress codes, officials repealed five of the rules. Hanako Montgomery has been following the story for VICE World News. She joins me now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HANAKO MONTGOMERY: Thank you for having me on.

SNELL: So, first of all, tell us about the five rules that were repealed in the Tokyo municipality today.

MONTGOMERY: So now students no longer have to dye their natural hair color black. They will also be allowed to have a two-block hairstyle, which in Japan is short on the sides and the back, longer on the top. There also won't be a rule on underwear color. So previously, you had some schools that instituted a white-only underwear rule. But now students can wear underwear of different color. And on top of those three rules, students can now attend school while being suspended. So they don't just have to stay at home, but they can actually go to school with their classmates. And last but definitely not least, any language that describes students having a sort of a typical way of dress or a typical way of acting will be banned. So that was sort of in a way to kind of enforce those rules and have an ambiguous reasoning behind these restrictions.

SNELL: So this isn't just, you know, a situation where it was rules about outward appearance - things like underwear color that somebody wouldn't see normally. Or, you know, the way people talk about clothing is is changing, too. So it sounds like it's more of a cultural shift.

MONTGOMERY: Yeah, absolutely, I think. Allowing students kind of more freedom, you know, in terms of what color they choose for their undergarments signals that a real shift is being made here and more acceptance, more lenience in terms of what students should and shouldn't be allowed to do.

SNELL: So how are people feeling? What's the atmosphere like?

MONTGOMERY: Yeah, so, you know, this change has sort of been months in the making. So the atmosphere surrounding these draconian school rules, otherwise known as buraku kousoku in Japanese - it's, I would say, one of joy. It's one of welcomed acceptance. You know, these rules have been problematic for years now, and we're finally seeing some change in the most populous prefecture of Japan.

SNELL: You know, I know Japanese law makes it more difficult to talk to current students, who would be minors. But you spoke to some young former public school students for your reporting with VICE. And I'm wondering, what did you hear from them about the changes to the rules?

MONTGOMERY: Yeah, sure. So when I spoke to the former students of public high schools, they were so happy (laughter) that these rules were being changed, largely because it's kind of baffling to hear the justification for some of these restrictions. I mean, to a student, it just sort of seems like an imposition on their freedom of expression, on their freedom of speech. So...

SNELL: Which is very important as a teenager.

MONTGOMERY: Yes, exactly. I mean, a school is where you kind of first understand your identity - right? - where you're exploring different things, and you're seeing what really fits you. Some of the former students that I spoke to had attended private middle schools, and they recalled really strict regulations. So one student I spoke to - her bang length was restricted. Or, you know, some students had to tie their hair up into a ponytail. But then at some other institutions, you have banned ponytails because they could sexually excite male students because you can see the nape of their neck.

SNELL: So I'm wondering, why is this happening now? If this has been a part of the Japanese school system for decades, why is this change happening now?

MONTGOMERY: Yeah. So perhaps one of the biggest catalysts for change is - so a high school student in the southern Osaka prefecture of Japan sued her school in 2017 for mental distress. She was told to dye her naturally brown hair black, or she would face expulsion. And, you know, she followed the school rules at first, but she eventually stopped, which led to her institution removing her desk from her classroom, erasing her name from rosters. And in February 2021, a court finally came to the decision, and they ordered the local government to pay her around 3,000 U.S. dollars in damages. But they still ruled that the school had a right to impose these hair regulations on her.

SNELL: So is there momentum in other parts of Japan for schools to change similar rules?

MONTGOMERY: Yes. Yeah. So after that case was widely reported in Japan and Western media, even before the Tokyo prefectural board banning these five school rules, you had a number of city and prefectures coming to the decision that these rules were no longer needed and that they were imposing a lot of restriction on student life.

SNELL: That's Hanako Montgomery. She's a Japan-based reporter for VICE World News. Thanks for being with us.

MONTGOMERY: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEVER RAY'S "TO THE MOON AND BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.