High school students wearing face masks walk in Tokyo, January 16, 2021.  © 2021 The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images 

A recent case in Osaka, Japan, about hair color, highlights the risks of imposing social conformity. Many schools in Japan have strict policies around hair color, dress, and other appearance, and students can face harsh consequences if they fail to comply. Pressure to conform is something the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students also know much about.

Last week, a court ruled that a brown-haired teen should receive compensation after her high school, where black hair is ubiquitous, penalized her for allegedly violating the school’s policy forbidding dyed hair. Though the girl maintained her hair is naturally brown, school authorities inspected her hair’s roots, declared it dyed, and demanded she dye it black. Initially, she complied.  But when she stopped dyeing and returned to her natural color, the school literally removed her desk from the classroom and erased her name from the school roster. She sued and won compensation, but the court left the school’s hair policy intact.

Hair is a cultural marker.  It can be variously associated with race, sex, and gender. Imposing regulations can have real consequences for individuals.

In South Africa, the South African Human Rights Commission has intervened in hair disputes about race, determining which hairstyles are deemed acceptable in schools, appropriate advertising, and specifying training requirements for stylists. In Indonesia, transgender women known as waria, who traditionally occupy a niche in hairstyling, have been targeted by authorities hostile to transgender people. Malaysian activist Nisha Ayub said of her imprisonment for being transgender: "You can cut my hair.…But you cannot take away my identity as a transgender person."

The incident in Osaka echoes the predicament of LGBT youth in Japanese schools, who face enormous pressure to conform and social ostracism for being different. While Japan’s national bullying prevention policy was amended in 2017 to recognize that LGBT students are bullied, the national school curriculum still needs updating to better reflect the experience of LGBT students.  Some schools have followed a 2015 directive from the Education Ministry to allow for a more flexible school uniform policy – a boon to transgender kids.

There is a price to be paid for imposing conformity. Schools in Japan should be more accommodating of difference, whether unexpected hair color, school uniform codes, or personal desire.