THE ZEIT GIST
Schools single out foreign roots
International kids suffering under archaic rules
By DEBITO ARUDOU
The Japan Times: Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Column 36 for the Japan Times Community Page
"Director's Cut" with links to sources
PDF scan of the article courtesy Ben Goodyear here.
Since 1990, when Japan started allowing factories to easily import
foreign labor, the number of registered non-Japanese (NJ) residents has
nearly doubled to more than 2 million. [SOURCE]
Many migrant workers have become immigrants: staying on, marrying, and having children.
Some have faced illegal work conditions, according to the domestic
press: incarceration, physical and emotional duress, even child labor
and virtual slavery. [SOURCE 1, SOURCE 2, SOURCE 3, SOURCE 4] Policymakers at the highest levels are currently debating solutions. [SOURCE]
Good. But less attention has gone to the children of these immigrants,
particularly their schooling. This is a crisis in the making for Japan.
The bellwether of any country's internationalization is the altered
composition of the school population. Many of Japan's immigrant
children are becoming an underclass, deprived of an education for being
born different than the putative "Japanese standard."
GAKKOU NO IRO NI SOMARU
I recently met "Maria," a college-age Brazilian of Japanese descent.
She and her younger sister, "Nicola," grew up as children of Brazilian
laborers in Shizuoka Prefecture. With factories producing machinery,
chemicals, tea, etc., their region contains about a third of Shizuoka
Prefecture's nearly 100,000 NJ residents. [SOURCE]
They went to Japanese primary schools without incident.
In high school, however, Nicola ran afoul of school rules.
Nicola has wavy brown hair, unlike Maria's straight black. So Nicola got snagged by the school's "hair police."
"Every week teachers would check if Nicola was dyeing her hair brown,"
explained Maria. "Even though she said this is her natural color, she
was instructed to straighten and dye it black.
"She did so once a week. But the ordeal traumatized her. She still has a complex about her appearance."
Even after leaving the school, Nicola's hair is still damaged.
Her health may also have suffered. Google "hair coloring" and "organ damage"
and see what reputable sources, such as the American Journal of
Epidemiology and the National Institutes of Health, have to say about
side effects: lymphatic cancer, cataracts, toxins, burns from ammonium
Last May I visited Nicola's school to hear their side of the story.
OLD HABITS DYE HARD
According to their head uniform inspector, the school has never forced
anyone to change to anything but their natural hair color.
"In principle we say, 'Don't mess with your hair,'" the teacher said.
"Having them dye it again, even to black, would contravene our rules."
The regulations are as follows, courtesy of their seito techou:
"Boys will not perm, straighten, dye, bleach etc. their hair. ... are not allowed to have extreme ("kyokutan") hairstyles, or shave their temples, etc... will not let their hair fall over their eyes (and will not let their hair grow down to their collars). They will have a refreshing style as befits a high school student. (koukousei rashiku sawayaka ni suru)"
"Girls will not perm, straighten, dye, bleach, or add extensions etc. to their hair. ... will not let their hair fall over their eyes. Girls with long hair will pin it back in a way that does not interfere with classroom instruction."
The teacher continued: "During the first week of school we carry out
inspections during assembly. If anyone looks suspicious, we call them
into the office for closer scrutiny of follicles."
I asked what happens to students with naturally brown hair, such as my daughter, or even myself.
"You would still be inspected. We can tell if it's natural."
How? He gave an explanation so detailed that I imagined him moonlighting as a hairdresser.
But doesn't this direct unwarranted suspicion on children born with international roots?
"We think it's more important that students understand the importance
of following rules ("kihan ishiki"). They must have an awareness of
society ("shakai ishiki") and stop thinking only of themselves. Also,
given job and college interviews, it wouldn't serve our reputation to
have kids look slovenly."
What if students don't comply, and dye?
"We would have homeroom teachers keep an eye on them, call their parents ..."
Even suspend the student?
"It's never come up. So far, students have always complied." He
repeated that nobody has been compelled to blacken naturally-colored
When I related that story later to Maria, she laughed.
"This happened to my sister only last year. What's he talking about?"
Nicola's trauma is still so great that she refused to be interviewed for this article.
THE EFFECTS OF HAIR POLICING
Hairstyle might seem insignificant, but it matters. Doubt it? Try
enforcing a rule where all students (including girls) shave their
heads. No worries about length, color or style anymore, right?
Oh, do I hear protests from parents too? You betcha.
But let's look at the bigger picture: systematic alienation.
According to the Asahi Shimbun (Feb. 12, 2007), between 20 and 40 percent of all Brazilian children in Japan are not attending school at all.
More than 10,000 Brazilian children are estimated to have dropped out of school, or never entered one in the first place.
A lack of accommodation of natural differences, thanks to blind adherence to "following rules," doesn't help.
Other barriers are financial and legal. The Yomiuri (May 21, 2007)
reports that 20,000 NJ students lack sufficient Japanese ability to
follow classes. Yet schools have no budgets for remedial lessons.
Some schools are even refusing to enroll NJ children. Claiming "a lack of facilities," [SOURCE JAPANESE ONLY pp 228-229, or April 13, 2000 Debito.org report here] they note that compulsory education is only guaranteed to Japanese citizens.
Sadly, they are right. [SOURCE]
And Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's revision to the Fundamental Lawof
Education last December, with all the emphasis on teaching patriotism,
did not change that. [SOURCE]
Some local municipalities have adopted remedial policies. [SOURCE] But we still have a situation where thousands of NJ kids grow up unable to read, write, or speak proficiently in any language.
What other choices do they have? Ethnic schools, perhaps. But,
unaccredited by the Ministry of Education, they go unfunded and become
too expensive for laborers. And graduates of these schools cannot enter
many of Japan's premier universities anyway. [SOURCE]
So they leave school, get underage employment, even join criminal
gangs. We are seeing youth-crime policy in the pipeline already,
targeting the miscreants without addressing the root cause. [SOURCE]
Conclusion: Ye shall reap an NJ underclass. The government cannot keep
ignoring this situation. The NJ workforce (not including overstayers)
is estimated at nearly 800,000, and growing. [SOURCE]
GET READY, 'COS HERE WE COME
Foreign labor has rescued many domestic industries--such as Toyota [SOURCE], now the world's top automaker--by working for extremely low wages with no social security. Where's the gratitude?
And don't think this only affects foreigners. Consider two sea changes.
One is the Japanese children of international marriages. We don't know
how many there are out there. The Japan Census Bureau refuses to survey
So probably hundreds of thousands of children with international roots
live invisible lives in purportedly "monocultural, monoethnic" Japan.
Invisible, that is, until they enter secondary school, and have their roots inspected.
The other shift is in the entire NJ population. The number of
"oldcomer," or Zainichi-generation foreigners (about half a million) [SOURCE], has been slowly decreasing for decades, dropping by an average of 2.5 percent since 2002.
Meanwhile, "newcomer" immigrants (i.e. those coming from abroad and
receiving Permanent Residency status) have shot up by 15.2 percent in
the same period. [SOURCE 1, MORE DETAILED SOURCE 2]
With these trends, the growth lines will cross in 2007. For the first
time in Japan's history, there will be more newcomers than
oldcomers. And at this rate, the newcomers will double yet again
in five to seven years, with more of their children needing an
Yet schools keep confusing uniforms with uniformity, with crass enforcement of class rules.
Meanwhile, the government remains negligent toward the psychological hurt caused to kids at a highly impressionable age.
Time for Japan's education system to catch up with the demographic reality. Because it could affect your children too.
Dealing with the 'follicle enforcers'
Following is some advice on what to do if your child gets nabbed by the school "hair police."
1. Support your child. Reassure him/her that he/she is as "normal" as anyone else.
2. Seek an understanding with teachers
and the principal. Point out that variation is normal. There are plenty
of Japanese with naturally lighter, curly hair.
3. Get written proof from your previous school that your child's hair color or texture is natural.
4. Raise this issue with the Classroom
Committee of Representatives ("gakkyuu iinkai") and/or the local Board
of Education ("kyoiku iinkai"). With all the attention on "ijime," or
bullying, these days, the board may be sensitive to your concerns.
5. Be firm. Dyeing hair is neither good for your child's mental or physical health.
6. If compromise is impossible,
consider changing schools ("tenkou"). Your child deserves a nurturing
educational environment, not alienated by perceived "differences" on a
daily basis. (D.A.)
More information on this issue can be found at www.debito.org/index.php/?p=412.
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The Japan Times: Tuesday, July 17, 2007
2007, Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan