ONCE-strict rules governing state school pupils' appearance are disintegrating rapidly, according to teachers in Japan.
Children as young as five, caught up in a cosmetics boom for "baby make-up" are wearing lipstick and eyeliner to class, while some middle and high school children are experimenting with wild coloured hair and clothes styles.
Until recent education reforms, the majority of Japan's public schools regulated not only the style of students' clothes but also hairstyles. Some rules required boys to have close-cropped hair and female students' hair had to be a certain length, sometimes measured weekly by overzealous teachers.
The once-rigid rules are an echo of the totalitarian regulations imposed on schools before the Second World War, explained Hideko Matsunaga who taught for five years at the Tondabayashi elementary school in Osaka. She said there were few rules governing the appearance of elementary school pupils, but middle schools used to enforce strict dress codes. "A few years ago students started to bend the rules by sporting permed hair, and wearing pierced earrings. Many teachers were opposed to this behaviour as it was seen to disrupt the harmony of the school. But now many young parents complain to the school if their children are sent home on account of their appearance."
Three years ago an Osaka citizens' group criticised a municipal junior high school for forcing nine pupils to dye their hair back to its natural colour with the help of a spray can. It is unlikely that any school, except perhaps a private school, would get away with this in Japan now, said Ms Matsunaga. "Because of the spread of "classroom collapse" - a phenomenon where teachers completely lose control over their pupils - teachers are more likely to let children and parents get their way. Letting the children express themselves through individualistic hairstyles and clothes is a way of pacifying them."
She added that about 50 per cent of all parents under 30, many of whom also dye their hair brown or red, appeared to have little or no control over their children and were expecting schools to bring them up.
Professor Michio Nitta, of Tokyo University's Institute of Social Science, said the rebellion against school rules was particularly strong in the OsakaKyoto region. "Most parents probably support the practice of uniformity in appearance," he said. "But Kyoto has a unique tradition of progressivism in politics and education."
The Big Picture, Friday magazine, 16