The U.K., Malaysia and Ireland have nice school uniforms, but how come Japanese school attire seemingly takes it to another level, leaving the students looking like little sailors and marching band leaders? Having worked as a public school English teacher in rural Fukushima and downtown Tokyo, I’ve been amazed by the variety of uniforms as well as the ways students customise them as far as they are allowed. PingMag shows you interesting details in fashion and the social performance that accompany this apparel to a point where the traditional Japanese school uniform has developed beyond the schoolyard and into pop culture.
Written by Michael Mahoney
The school uniform, seifuku, in Japan started over a hundred years ago, in the Meiji period. According to the Tombow Uniform Museum, first a more formal kimono, shirt and hakama combination was selected by the Ministry of Education, to “escalate” the profile of students. Later in this era, however, as Japan began to embrace things Western, the hakama set was replaced with a black or navy gakuran jacket and slacks.
Uniform for young boys that lived as scholars with writers or politicians during Meiji Period. Courtesy of the Tombow Corporation Uniform Museum.
Totally old school! A hakama, shirt and kimono set, which the Ministry of Education recommended as the student school uniform in 1872. Courtesy of the Tombow Corporation Uniform Museum.
The gakuran, school uniform jacket, was modeled specifically after state military uniforms, which themselves emulated the uniforms of Prussian military cadets, because the Prussian Army was so strong at the time. The uniforms had a high, stiff collar and brass buttons up to the neck, kind of like “marching band leader” meets “Men in Black”… Dark slacks, belt, dark shoes and sometimes a flat, round black cap with a flat top completed the ensemble.
Sailors and Cadets
The all so familiar sailor uniform… Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.
In 1920, a women’s school in Fukuoka began to use a sailor suit uniform. It had a triangular scarf and low-cut skirt, and was modeled after the British navy uniform used at the time since the headmistress, Elizabeth Lee, apparently had lived in Britain. This also became popular because of Britain’s strength as a naval power at the time.
Despite some modifications to the seifuku over the years (as well as a move towards blazers at some schools), the basic design remains the same at many middle schools and high schools throughout Japan. However, after World War II many elementary schools stopped using uniforms altogether.
Roles of the Uniform
For students, of course, the uniform serves to link them to their schools, and reasserts their collective identity in Japanese society as students.
Accessorise! For the personal note, a shiny pin is brushing up the standard outfit. Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.
As Pierre Bourdieu has mentioned, fashion is important in giving everyone a ‘sense of one’s place. As well, since school uniforms differ between schools – in the use of scarves or black slacks, for example – the students can instantly recognise students from other schools.
Yet within the school itself, uniforms remove the messages of social and economic status carried in apparel according to a study at Southeastern Louisiana University.
One could argue that uniforms prevent students from expressing themselves through clothes. Interestingly enough, they have found ways to make their attitude or habits known through their uniforms: For example, in my schools, rebellious ‘cool’ boys often left the top buttons of their high-neck collar unbuttoned, or wore colourful belts with their otherwise all-black uniforms. Some also grow out their hair to match the latest J-Pop star (although many were forced to chop their hair short again before taking the brutal high school and university entrance examinations.)
Mass customisation! Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.
A recent PBS report similarly explained that girls often use colourful shoelaces, bright hair accessories or attach character keychains or sutorappu, charms, to their zippers. Others wear rebelliously-puffy knee-high socks, or hike their skirts up (to shocking heights) in order to identify with a particular group of people.
On a different note, the uniforms play a symbolic role for students in professing first love. Upon graduating high- or middle-school, girls will go up to their crush and ask for his dai-ni button – the second-button down on his uniform jacket. If the boy has similar romantic feelings for the girl, he will remove this button – the button closest to his heart – and give it to her…
Golden embroidery – chic elegance by the Japanese Kuri-ori brand. Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.
Furthermore, as one Japanese student told me, for fashion-conscious parents and children, the school uniform can often be used as a fashion statement, if not a symbol of a family’s wealth or good taste. Local fashion designers such as Hanae Mori have launched their own versions of the school uniform in the past, while international labels such as Benetton have announced plans to create uniforms especially for the Japanese market.
Takeshi Tsukada of Hanae Mori Associates told me that their uniforms have been popular with parents and schools due to their traditional, classic design. “They trust her designs to be noble, not too trendy. This is a relief to the parents,” he said. He also noted that, for the school, using high-quality school uniforms were one to attract new students.
Beyond the Schoolyard
Yet, when you visit Japan, you notice the uniform – notably the girls’ sailor-suit uniform – everywhere: in comics, on billboards, on TV shows… There are even shops selling cheap knock-offs of the school uniform! Why are they so popular?
One possible reason is that, over time, these uniforms have become a nostalgic symbol of a more carefree youth. A sleepy salaryman can see a student wearing the exact same uniform he once wore, and is reminded of a happier, simpler time, when days were spent on homework and sports practice rather than at the office…
A fake sailor collar from the 100 Yen shop at Takeshita Dori…
… and accompanying pigtails! So popular…
As a result of comic book characters being dressed in uniforms, we showed you before how many teenage cosplayers use imitation uniforms to remake themselves into their favourite manga characters. Catering to this market, there are the shops offering anime-style uniform costumes and chat rooms, for example one discussing how to make your own uniform.
Symbol of Beauty
As a teacher, a thing that you notice is that students – especially high school girls – wear their uniforms all the time, even on weekends, when school is out and wearing uniforms isn’t necessary. Why?
A New York Times article claimed that Japanese teenagers are acutely aware that, because of their youth, they are a sought-after ‘brand’ in a brand-conscious society – implying that students wear their uniforms often in order to flaunt their youth.
To test this theory, I asked around a bit. Molly Elgin, an English teacher in Fukushima, noticed high school girls in Fuku city wearing uniforms, even though their local high school did not require students to wear uniforms.
A uniform as symbol for youth. Courtesy of Conomi School Goods Shop.
When asked why they wore them anyway, the students explained that it was considered “cute” to wear them. “The analysis on our part was that the images of school girls in uniform are so prevalent, [it] is emphasised as… the pinnacle of beauty, so the girls want to wear their uniform to fit that idealised beauty standard,” Elgin assumed.
On the other hand, Elgin also noticed that her junior high school students often wore their uniforms outside of school as well. “But for them, it was a laziness factor – it was easier” to wear a uniform, than to pick out an outfit of their own to wear, she stated.
I went around the corner of PingMag headquarters in Harajuku to a nice uniform shop. There, Shihori Hata, a clerk at Conomi School Goods Shop, said that students wear their uniforms on the weekends because they often have to go to extracurricular activities where they have to be in proper attire.
As schools merge and student population numbers drop, the market for uniform sales companies does not look so great. Back to Takeshi Tsukada of Hanae Mori Associates. He stated that since parents are having fewer children, they are willing to spend more money on their kids’ uniforms than before – making some interesting sales opportunities for uniform manufacturers.
To attract parents, companies have been adding some interesting new gimmicks to their uniforms. Tsukada recalls going to a uniform trade exhibition and seeing many new devices: a uniform skirt with an elastic snap device, which would automatically snap a heightened skirt back to a lower, more modest length; uniform slacks with a metal clip that would prevent boys from wearing their pants too low; shirttails and button openings embroidered with the school’s name so that, if untucked or unbuttoned, the uniform would reveal the school’s name – and thus embarrass the student.
A while ago, one company even started making Japanese uniform jackets equipped with a GPS system, allowing parents to locate their children at all times!
As symbols of youth and tokens of school-age identity, uniforms will undoubtedly remain an evergreen of the academic and pop culture of Japan and surely outlive society’s changes.
Special thanks to Conomi School Goods Shop!