It wasn’t until he moved to Tokyo for college that Michael Nakano began to experiment with his hair. 

Growing up in Osaka, his “very, very local” high school had strict rules on hair, just as many public schools in Japan do. The 20-year-old recalls monthly tōhatsu kensa or “head hair checks,” where school staff examined his hair. 

He was often asked to cut it, and he’d get it trimmed by his mother at home. 

Nakano, who is Japanese and Senegalese, didn’t mind the rules at the time. He wore a buzz cut as most student-athletes did and rarely felt outcast because “in his mind” he’s pretty Japanese, he said. 

So it wasn’t until college that he added color to his hair, grew out his curls to almost his shoulders and even tried out braids. 

Still, he couldn’t help but feel something when he saw a story in the Mainichi Shimbun about how a student in Hyogo Prefecture with mixed Black and Japanese ancestry was barred from his high school graduation for wearing cornrows. 

“I was saddened to see that (the school) didn’t take into account the history behind cornrows, and just outright isolated him,” Nakano said, thinking back to his first reaction to the student’s story. 

Go Takeuchi, a Japanese Cameroonian actor and comedian raised in Nagoya, said he didn’t realize the value of his differences until he moved to New York City, one of the world’s most diverse cities, in his 20s. | LOUISE CLAIRE WAGNER 

The incident went viral on social media and was covered by various news outlets in Japan and abroad, sparking conversation on stereotypes, discrimination, cultural expression and the necessity of certain rules, with these regulations becoming increasingly contentious as Japan becomes more diverse. 

The challenges that Black people, including those with mixed roots, go through in Japan — one of the world’s most homogeneous nations — in regard to appearance are real. But they also vary. 

Karen Hill Anton, an author and longtime columnist for The Japan Times, had a different reaction to the Mainichi Shimbun story. 

Originally from Manhattan, Anton has lived in rural Shizuoka Prefecture since 1975. Anton always wore her hair natural, and eventually she decided to try dreadlocks and wore them for 35 years until she cut them just three years ago. 

In Shizuoka, she raised four multiracial children and often wrote about her experiences in regard to her race and status as a foreign national. But she wrote about them not in reference to discrimination or intolerance, but as mere realities. 

One moment she recalled in particular was at a plant nursery when her now-adult children were teenagers and she was carting them home from a volleyball game. A woman grabbed her hair and asked not her, but Anton’s Japanese friend beside her, whether her hair was real. 

“I took my hair and said, ‘Yes it’s real and don’t touch it,’” Anton said, calling the incident not a matter of racism, but “rude, impolite and stupid.” 

“It’s the countryside, first of all, and I can assure you, there is no one around here that looks anything like me, nor has there ever been for almost 50 years. … If I wasn’t comfortable being in that kind of situation, I couldn’t live here.” 

Shizuoka Prefecture-resident Karen Hill Anton, an author and longtime columnist for The Japan Times who is originally from the United States, says sparking change on school hair rules requires dialogue. | BENJAMIN PARKS 

Anton’s multiracial children, all of whom have curls looser than her own, went to Japanese public schools. Two of them were required to follow strict rules in regard to hair — short hair and no braids for girls, and a bōzu (buzz cut) hairstyle for boys. The rules shifted over the years though, and her younger two were permitted to wear their hair longer. 

From Anton’s perspective as a parent and as someone who has presented her criticisms of Japanese education to lawmakers, sparking change requires dialogue. 

“My experience is that the school’s rules are clear cut and you know when you’re circumventing them,” Anton said. “I’m not saying they’re all good rules, in fact, I have written a lot about that. Some of them even prevent students from using their common sense. 

“But I would never unilaterally say, break the rules. … If you don’t like the rules, maybe present your ideas to the kyōiku iinkai (board of education) or in PTA meetings or work with your parents.” 

Go Takeuchi, 42, a Japanese Cameroonian actor and comedian who goes by the stage name “Black Samurai” was raised in Nagoya. 

It wasn’t until he was around 17 that he met another Black person, and he hadn’t realized the value of his differences until he moved to New York City, one of the world’s most diverse cities, in his 20s. 

When he heard about the cornrow controversy in Hyogo, Takeuchi quickly got together with his good friend Rene Hoshino, a manga artist and Japan-raised Cameroonian. They made a YouTube video in which they trade thoughts and opinions on the incident, sometimes with a comedic touch. 

But this ability to share didn’t come so easily for Takeuchi. 

As a child, he found himself in fights with classmates due to hurtful comments. He recalled a moment where a child said he had somehow brought AIDS to Japan because of his race. 

Like Nakano, Takeuchi had always kept his hair shaved. But on one summer break from school — inspired by basketball player Dennis Rodman’s appearance in the teen magazine Shōnen Jump with dyed red hair — the then 14-year-old Takeuchi decided to bleach and dye his hair blonde. 

But, afraid of breaking the rules, he toned it down to a brown once he returned to school. He recalled being reprimanded a bit, and soon after he dyed his hair back to black. 

Vivian Calloway, who is African American and Japanese, has mostly kept her hair straight since moving to Tokyo as part of her exploration of her Japanese identity. | LOUISE CLAIRE WAGNER 

In the absence of firm details on the case of the Hyogo student, Takeuchi said his reaction to the incident was an extension of the beliefs he’s come to hold as an adult, especially after his school-aged years in which he endured countless questions and reactions to his appearance in daily life. 

“It’s 2023, and that’s an old way of looking at things. Whatever your hair color is, as long as you study and go to school as expected, you’re not harming anyone.” 

Vivian Calloway, 21, was born in Japan but raised in the United States. This year she started living in Tokyo as an exchange student. 

When Calloway has time and feels comfortable sharing details about her racial identity, she is often faced with surprise. 

“I’m mixed Japanese and African American, but I don’t really look like it,” she said. 

She recalls a childhood memory in America when she explained to one classmate that she was a quarter Black. 

“One classmate burst out laughing, she thought it was some edgy joke, which isn’t even funny,” she said. 

Takeuchi and manga artist Rene Hoshino both explore identity in their work and regularly discuss their own experiences with identity in Japanese society. | LOUISE CLAIRE WAGNER 

Spending time alone in Japan for the first time in her life, Calloway has felt a sense of freedom. Not just in terms of being able to finally learn the ins and outs of Tokyo, but also in exploring her Japanese identity and finally feeling as if she’s able to blend in. 

Calloway has fair skin, depending on how much sun she gets, she said, and she has mostly kept her hair straight since arriving in Japan. On her Instagram though, followers can see that her natural hair holds curly ringlets. 

“Having straight hair kind of made me feel more Japanese, and like it would just kind of feel more comfortable in Japanese society,” she said. “I think I kind of wanted to prove that I am Japanese, even though I know it’s better to embrace the fact that I’m mixed.” 

Having gone to American schools, her experience is different from the teen in Hyogo. But she still feels a connection to him as someone who likely faced a lot of prejudice. 

“I realized in Japan that (people) assume it’s kind of a choice to have curly hair, just like a Japanese person who has curly hair usually got it permed,” she said. 

“But people with naturally curly hair, they just exist like that. That’s just how they are born. … Yet, so many people think straight hair is just the norm. People always assume I got a perm. Because from my face, they don’t know I’m mixed, so they assume, ‘She wants to be different.’” 

On Calloway’s Instagram, followers can see that her natural hair holds curly ringlets. | LOUISE CLAIRE WAGNER 

Calloway’s experience attending American schools has enabled her to see the value of being able to express and explore identity. And that’s what she values greatly, especially as she’s still learning about her own. 

“Not having the freedom to explore different styles and different ways to express yourself I imagine is very suffocating,” she said. “Even if you have curly hair, trying straight styles is important in discovering your personality and your individuality.” 

For fellow college student Nakano, the importance of experimenting with cultural expression and hair is something he is familiar with. After moving to Tokyo and entering college, he began to get guidance and tips from other Black men. 

But even in more diverse Tokyo, not everyone appreciated his uniqueness. He was reminded of that when he was told he’d be offered a part-time job if he cut his hair. 

“I told them it wasn’t worth it to go that far and kill my individuality,” Nakano said, grinning with pride. 

And while he loved his school experience, Nakano said that moving forward he wishes the rules could evolve to become more inclusive, especially for youth like him. 

“Whether it’s middle or high school, I think (school is) a time in life where students want to nurture their individuality in their adolescence,” he said. “I would be happy if Japan could create a system that allows everyone to make the most of their individuality.” 


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