Some Japanese schools are introducing uniforms designed less around traditional gender stereotypes and more with respecting gender expression by allowing students to choose their attire – a major benefit for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth whose identities and expressions sometimes resist those social norms.

© 2016 Taiji Utagawa

In 2015 and 2016, Human Rights Watch interviewed LGBT youth from across Japan. We heard over and over again that they felt rigid school uniform policies were preventing them from accessing education on equal footing with their peers.

Transgender students were particularly affected.

One transgender male student explained that his anxieties about the female gender of his school uniform increased over time. “When I first started junior high school, I didn’t question the uniform initially,” he said. “I progressively started to question it and by the third year I dreaded every school day because it meant I would have to put the skirt on.”

The majority of Japan’s junior high and high schools require students to wear uniforms. The attire is gender-specific and the two options, male or female, are dispensed to students according to the sex they were assigned at birth. “The idea behind the uniform is that if you can’t wear it properly, you’re a bad student,” said Mameta Endo, a transgender activist in Tokyo. “It makes you an outcast.”

In 2015 Japan’s Ministry of Education issued a directive that suggested teachers should “accept students’ preference of outfit, school and gym uniform.” Implementation has been piecemeal, but appears to be gaining traction in some schools, sparking discussions in local school boards and governments.

The national government has in recent years taken positive steps toward protecting LGBT youth. The education ministry followed its 2015 directive with a “Guidebook for Teachers” in 2016. That same year, Japan, along with the United States and the Netherlands, led a UNESCO conference on LGBT student bullying. And in March 2017, the ministry announced it had revised the national bullying prevention policy to include LGBT students.

School uniform policies that nurture self-expression and make all students feel welcome should now be a priority.