Explorations in Japanese Culture
Growing up in the American public school system, the idea of wearing a uniform was always nothing more than a threatening rumor among my classmates and I. It seemed that a least once a year rumors would begin to spread around the school that faculty was considering instating a uniform policy, which never failed to anger students. My first experience with Japanese school uniforms came through watching anime, and I was always curious about how much of it was true and how common the sailor suit really was. To my surprise, I find now that it is nothing short of a national standard in Japan. These uniforms have been around for almost a century and have a unique history behind them.
As I mentioned above, the Japanese school uniform is nothing new and have been around for almost a century, making their first appearance in 1920. The uniforms are a way to make all the students look the same regardless of their economic background. Also, the uniforms are much more practical than the traditional Japanese clothing worn by students prior to the early 19th century. While in the beginning it was mostly the male students who were required to wear uniforms, girls were given much more choice and allowed to wear wither a suit top with skirt, kimono or sailor uniform. Though, it can be noted that some sources say that the earliest school uniforms were worn by boys in Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1873. Of course, it is of no surprise that if you look at the timing of the uniform institution in Japanese history, it takes place near the end of the Meji era, which represents a time in Japan’s history that it began to open up the the rest of the world and western culture to make significant changes in its culture.
The boys uniform is pretty basic. Know as a gakuran, the uniforms are common for many middle school and high school boys in Japan. The elementary school uniforms are different, but more on that later. The uniforms are made up of a pair of black pants, a black button up jacket and a white dress shirt. Sometimes the pants and jacket can come in dark blue. The buttons on the jacket are decorated with the school emblem to show respect for the school. Some schools may even require the students to wear pins on their collar that represent their school or denote their class rank. Sometimes the outfit it topped off with a matching cap, but this is becoming much less common today. Though one of my favorite parts of the gakuran are the romantic traditions that come along with the buttons.
The second button from the top of the boys uniform is often given away to the girl that he is in love with, and this is considered a way of confessing ones emotions. The second button is the closest to the heart and is said to contain all the emotion from the the years of school attendance. This button exchanging practice, is said to have gained its popularity from a scene in a novel by Daijun Takeda. The girls sailor outfit does not have any of these same traditions, but comes with much more of a fashion sense in terms of how it is worn and what it means to many girls.
Like the boys uniform, the girls sailor suit is more commonly worn by middle and high school students, but can still make an appearance with elementary school children. Similar to the boys uniform, it was first introduced in 1920, but was modeled after the uniform of the British Royal Navy at the time. The uniforms were bought over by school principal Elizabeth Lee of Fukuoka Jo Gakuin University, who first saw the uniforms while in United Kingdom as an exchange student. The uniform generally consists of a shirt with a sailor style collar and a pleated skirt. Variations on the necktie exist in the form of bolo ties, neckerchiefs, and bows. Common colors of the uniform are navy blue, white, gray, light green and black. Along with the outfit often come uniform shoes, socks and other accessories. There is a new trend involving the addition of “loose socks” that some girls wear with their skirts as a way to show rebellion for the strict dress codes. Since the short sleeved sailor outfits do not offer much of a protection from winter, there is a seasonal shift in the uniforms that occurs twice yearly for summer and winter.
Schools have both summer and winter versions of their uniform. The summer versions are often a bit more minimal than the heavier layers of the winter uniforms. For the boys, often simply a white shirt without the accompanying jacket of the gakuran is allowed in the summer and in the winter they wear the full matching jacket and pants. The girl’s sailor outfit in the summer is just the lighter single white shirt, but in the winter they are given a heavier long sleeved version of the shirt. Interestingly enough, you will still see the skirts worn year round, though in the winter they may be longer. Girls will also sometimes wear longer stalkings to keep their legs warm in the cold.
Often individual students look for ways to show their rebellion in how they wear their school uniforms. They can either intentionally wear the uniforms incorrectly or can add prohibited elements to the uniform. Girls may shorten their skirts temporarily by wrapping the waist band or by permanently hemming them. Boys may wear their pants lower around their hips, not wear ties or wear their shirts unbuttoned.
Elementary school uniforms are separate from Middle and High uniforms for the most part, and often offer much looser standards. David La Spina has a great post on uniforms and he does the best job of describing the elementary school uniforms. The clothes are very casual, but are topped off with a brightly colored hat, often red, yellow or orange. Having a yellow hat for school is common, but other color hats may be take on field trips. The bright hat, as La Spina describes, is simply so cars can easily see them as they walk to school (alone most of the time!) and so that they can be easily identified as school children.
There is so much of a sub-culture when it comes to the school uniforms in Japan, I wish I had more time to research and write all about them. In the future I plan to read the book Wearing Ideology, which looks at the subject very in-depthly. My good friend Maki told me a story about her time wearing a sailor uniform in a private all girls high school. She said that in the summer her and her classmates would get hot in their uniform and would just take them off and run around school in their underwear. Now, you may think I am making this up from watching to much anime, but I swear it is the truth! I would love to hear about any one else’s experiences with uniforms in Japan!