While anti-feminist modes of governance are not a new phenomenon anywhere around the globe, Japan seems to be one of the countries somewhat behind in marking itself as a progressive nation.
The rules of Buraku Kosoku were established in the 1870s by a Japanese government seeking to regulate the education system. They were tightened in the 1980s and have since mutated into a means of exercising control over the appearance of female students.
Buraku Kosoku not only defines sock and skirt length but also encompasses more draconian policies, such as the shape of a pupil’s eyebrows, their hairstyle, and the underwear they are permitted to wear.
A 2020 report found that 10 percent of schools in Japan’s sixth largest city prohibit girls from wearing ponytails, to avoid the napes of their necks arousing male students. Former middle-school teacher Motoki Sugiyama stated that of the five schools he taught at in Japan’s fifth largest city, all of them enforce the ponytail ban.
Under Buraku Kosoku many schools also demand proof of a student's natural hair if it is not black and straight. Data collected by the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education found that 45 percent of high schools in the capital city request ‘real hair certification’ - childhood photos and the signature of a guardian - when a student’s hair is deemed too light or not straight enough.
This rule disproportionately affects female pupils, such as in the case of an Osaka student who, in 2017, sued her school for mental distress. After suffering scalp burns and refusing to continue dying her brown hair black, the school removed her desk, wiped her name from class registers, and prohibited her from attending a school trip.
While the student received $3000 in compensation, a court judge concluded that the school’s response preventing her education did not violate any laws.
Buraku Kosoku regulations also dictate that female students are required to wear white underwear, so that it cannot be seen through their uniforms. Japan’s Board of Education claim 60 percent of junior and high schools in the large Nagasaki prefecture enforce this.
Girls as young as 13 are being taught that their bodies are subject to policing - problematic enough before we even begin to consider the privacy violations and sexual assault allegations that have emerged.
Japanese newspaper NHK report some pupils being forced to line up and undo their shirts, for teachers to check if their underwear conforms to regulations. Nippon TV also disclosed incidences of sexual harassment by male teachers, who would touch a student’s breasts to conclude whether supportive bras were allowed to be worn.
The network further claimed that elementary schools housing children aged 6-12 often demand pupils remove their underwear during PE lessons, for “hygiene reasons.” A student requires teacher approval if they wish to keep their underwear on, and if found without this, would be excluded from the lesson and instructed to take it off.
Buraku Kosoku exposes an insidious pattern within Japan’s education system, targeting female students and their appearance. These draconian levels of control raise poignant safeguarding concerns - how are children subjected to such invasive checks based on factors which have no bearing on their ability to learn?
Rules such as these simply pander to a long-outdated social model founded upon misogyny. What sort of a reductive message does it send? Girls are seen in the school environment as inferior; their appearances easily alterable to prevent the potential for their male peers to become ‘distracted.’
It is worth noting perhaps that in Sugiyama’s extensive teaching experience no boy ever found themselves ‘excited’ or ‘distracted’ by a ponytail, a slightly visible bra strap, or the nape of a neck. Such regulations achieve nothing but the hyper-sexualisation of female students by placing a weight on arbitrary parts of their body.
Whilst it cannot be said that every school across Japan upholds these rules, it is not absurd nor revolutionary to suggest that for any institution to enforce them is unacceptable in today’s social climate. What is prohibited under Buraku Kosoku may differ from school to school, but the inherent message remains the same - the bodies of girls are subject to policing.
Sadly, this problematic view is not just confined to school environments. In a report by The Business Insider, it was found that various Japanese companies prohibit their female employees from wearing glasses in the workplace, on reductive and bigoted grounds.
Reasons given were that glasses make women look unfeminine, unwelcoming, or too intelligent. The ideas that they “give women a cold impression” and “make it difficult to see their makeup” were also among the most common.
Nippon TV queried the implementation of this rule which affected the majority of the country’s employment sectors. The report sparked a discussion on social media and the hashtag ‘メガネ禁止’, or ‘glasses are forbidden’, began trending on Twitter in protest.
Why is it that women and girls across Japan are subjected to such archaic and draconian restrictions, that place a huge weight on their physical appearance? Whilst many workplace rules and Buraku Kosoku regulations persecute men too, it is undeniable that they disproportionately target Japan’s female population.
The majority of policies implemented by schools and companies are rooted in sexist and outdated gender norms. Women and girls are held to reductive standards of femininity, whilst being told their value rests solely on the way they look.
What, then, can be done?
Those in power need to listen to the voices of students, and the parents of those too young to advocate for themselves, who feel unfairly and unnecessarily targeted by Buraku Kosoku.
Such rules achieve nothing in the name of enhancing anyone’s education, as shown by the frequency of ‘dress-coding’ protests, where male students stand with their female peers and reject claims they are ‘distracted’ by shoulders, arms, or indeed, napes of necks.
It is further essential that companies listen to backlash and adapt. There is no space for such damaging misogyny in what are supposed to be safe environments, and in a world where gender equality is, and should be seen as, non-negotiable.
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