When an 18-year old Osaka student filed a $19,000 lawsuit against the Osaka Prefectural Government because her school insisted that she dye her natural brown hair black, the responding social media buzz revealed a Japan knocking on the door of change.
Even though the Osaka high school student suffered rashes on her scalp, the school still insisted her hair wasn’t black enough, and that she must continue to dye it or face expulsion. So, she stopped going to school, filed the lawsuit, and her story went viral across the globe.
Japanese Twitter Lashes Out Against Black Hair Standard
But it was the response to the story from within Japan that was most telling. Japanese social media erupted with similar tales of the hair policing and strong opinions against the practice. AKB48 member Sayaka Akimoto, who is half Filipino, admitted on Twitter that she, too, was forced to dye her hair black. Japanese Tweeters began to openly question how Japan can both simultaneously preach diversity while trying to smother it at the same time.
Like the infamous school uniforms and classic black business suits of freshman job seekers, black hair is a codified standard and is enforced not only in schools, but in corporations. In Japan, to stand out in the crowd is to be selfish and cause trouble. It goes against kihan ishiki (adherence to rules). Being an individual flies in the face of shakai ishiki (social consciousness). The nail that sticks up gets pounded down, even if that nail is the hair you were born with.
Deeper Meanings of Black Hair Cultural Norms
When Family Mart announced that they were to abolish their black hair policy in March 2018 to try and lure more part-time workers, customers pushed back with opinions in their online forum revealing deeper meanings attached to the symbolism of black hair in Japan. Black hair was “customer friendly,” while blond hair was “unclean.” Some customers said they felt uncomfortable with brown-haired workers handling their food.
An even more disturbing cultural code was revealed in an issue of Tofugu in a discussion about why some young Japanese women have decided to ditch dyeing their hair black in favor of lighter colors. Black hair represents yamato-nadeshiko (personification of an idealized Japanese woman) which is equated with submissiveness, obedience, tidiness, and cleanliness. One woman reported that since she stopped dying her hair black, the number of times she had been molested had dramatically decreased.
Any Student with Hair Lighter than Black is Suspect
Asahi Shimbun reported that close to 60% of 170 Tokyo public high schools require students with light-colored hair to prove it’s their real hair color. They do this by requesting “Certificates of Natural Hair Color” or childhood photos. Because it’s forbidden for students to dye or perm their hair, any student with hair lighter than black is suspect.
This follicle profiling drips with irony. Schools say they have to police students’ natural hair color to avoid having to police students with light-colored hair—by periodically inspecting their roots for signs of dye. Barring that, they simply force them to dye their hair black. The irony wasn’t lost on Proctor and Gamble’s Pantene Japan who posed the question, “What’s Wrong With My Hair?”
Almost 90% of Teachers Are Against the Black Hair Policy
As a part of Pantene Japan’s #HairWeGo What’s Wrong With My Hair Campaign, the brand surveyed 1,000 current and former high school students, middle school students, and teachers. It found that one out of 13 current and former students were told to dye their hair black. But Pantene also discovered that almost 90% of teachers believe school hair rules need to change.
The Pantene campaign went viral within Japan with close to 10 million viewings of its short film and over 180,000 related Tweets. The film portrayed students and teachers both questioning the black hair standard. But its strongest point was made by a student who wondered about the logic in forcing students to dye their hair black to comply with a rule that states that hair dying is against the rules.
P&G’s Pantene Japan Anticipates Growing Individuality in Japan
The success of the Pantene campaign prompted a petition on Change.org which is currently gathering signatures to raise awareness and stop the practice of students being forced to dye their hair. The signatures, now hovering over 17,000, will be submitted to the Governor of Tokyo and the Chairman of the Tokyo Board of Education.
Japan’s uniform education system has always been considered a primary factor in sustaining its lean toward homogeneity. Now that cracks in the foundation of its more draconian school traditions are being revealed, a rallying cry for individuality is shining through from the general population. Innovative companies are recognizing this as the ground tremors of progressive change.
Voices of Japan’s Future Consumers are Sometimes Voices of Dissent
What we see in Pantene’s example is an innovative company that had its finger on the pulse of trending local issues and was able to craft its brand’s voice in response to them. Now, Pantene is not only participating in the conversation but also working to sway an outcome based upon the sentiment it’s reading from its market.
The clash between the past and present of Japanese culture is exposed in the media daily. Companies that have their ear to the ground after new stories drop may pick up fresh voices of dissent amidst the airwaves of the interwebs. Those voices are the voices of Japan’s future—future students, future workers, and future consumers. All you have to do is listen.