In classrooms and corporations, young Japanese are forced to toe the line — but critics say it stifles individuality and initiative, while change will only come very gradually. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.
The old Japanese adage says that the nail that sticks up soon gets hammered down. An 18-year-old high-school pupil from Osaka with naturally lighter hair is challenging that long-held attitude in the nation's courts — although even if she wins, society here is only likely to embrace difference with glacial slowness.
The Osaka District Court heard the opening arguments in the case brought by the student, who has not been named as she is a minor under Japanese law. A pupil at Kaifukan High School in the city of Habikino, she is seeking 2.2 million yen (€16,558 euros) in compensation from the school for infringing upon her human rights by forcing her to dye her hair black.
The student has hair that is naturally dark brown, and since she first entered the school in April 2015, she was ordered to dye it black.
She initially complied with the school's demand, but was forced to do so every four or five days as her hair grew out. As well as being expensive, the repeated use of dye apparently damaged her hair and her scalp. The student has also claimed that the school's hardline position — she has been sent home on numerous occasions — has caused her emotional distress.
'I feel that change is coming, but Japan is not ready yet,' says communication expert Makoto Watanabe
On one occasion, her lawyers told the court, she collapsed while being reprimanded and had to be admitted to hospital.
Ironically, the lawyers pointed out, the school's rules ban students from having "permed, dyed or bleached hair."
Nevertheless, the school is standing firm on its position, while education officials from the Osaka Prefectural Government have agreed that the school's actions are "lawful."
"Traditionally, virtually all Japanese schools are very formulaic and strict on their pupils' appearances," said Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University.
"In some districts, for example, schools insist that all boys have shaved heads," he told DW. "And while I agree that discipline and school uniforms are important, something like this could very easily be seen as a violation of an individual's human rights or their freedom of expression, which is something that the schools should actually be teaching them."
The rules in schools are extensive. Students are typically banned from wearing jewelry or makeup, girls' skirts must be of a certain length, and boys must wear black socks.
Some argue that the nation's youngsters are merely being conditioned to be pliant employees when they enter the workforce, where they are once again confronted by a myriad of regulations at their companies.
"This is something that is simply ingrained in all parts of Japanese society and culture," said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.
"I believe this dates back to the authoritarian education system that was introduced in the Meiji era, because before that time, before the mid-1860s, I don't think education here had the same characteristics," Dujarric told DW.
"But now, when you see university graduates going for interviews with prospective employers, they are all wearing the same suits and the same stern expressions," he added. "In all honesty, they look like depressed clones."
No matter a new employee's background, he or she is instructed in the company's way of doing things - everything from how to answer the phone to how to sit.
"It is codified and it is regulated — but it reduces an employee's ability to use his or her initiative or ability to 'think outside the box,' which are almost frowned upon in companies here."
And while that approach to business may have worked in the past — Dujarric points out that Japanese cars, home electronics and countless other goods have a reputation for being among the most reliable in the world — corporate inflexibility is "stifling innovation" and enabling rival corporations in China, South Korea and elsewhere to overtake their Japanese counterparts.
"Whether it is in the classroom or the company, I do not believe this strict adherence to old-fashioned rules is suitable in an era of rapid and increasing globalization," said Watanabe.
"In schools, in universities and in companies, there are more foreigners, people with diverse beliefs, different hair or skin colors, and that needs to be acceptable to the old people who are making these decisions at the moment," he said.
'Frustrated at older executives'
Many employers who are today in their 40s and in middle-management positions are "frustrated at the older people who are making the decisions above them," he added.
Those executives, however, retain great status as they were responsible for creating and expanding these major companies in the immediate postwar period; so replacing them is virtually impossible, Watanabe added. The only option is to wait for them to retire.
"I feel that change is coming, but Japan is not ready yet and it will be slow," he said.
In the meantime, the case of the Osaka schoolgirl with brown hair will be a litmus test of just how accepting Japan is of individuality.
Watanabe is not optimistic.
"Courts are obviously meant to be neutral under the law, but we have seen judges' subjective rulings in the past," he said. "The judges are almost certainly going to be older, conservative men. I don't think that is a good thing."