Breaking the dress code: the changing role of Japanese school uniforms

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Japanese school uniforms were first adopted over a century ago to distinguish students attending elite institutes. The outfits have changed over time and are now standard clothing in junior and senior high schools across the country. Loved by some and derided by others, they remain a central aspect of student life.

School uniforms are ubiquitous in Japan. First adopted over a century ago, the distinctive outfits are used in the majority of public and private secondary schools as well as in about 10-15% of public primary schools. Uniforms help define a school’s identity and are revered symbols of youth. However, some people question the need for students to dress identically. The school dress debate was poignantly illustrated earlier this year when a public elementary school in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district caused a stir by adopting Armani uniforms as an option for students. Below I look at the history of school uniforms in Japan and wonder why they remain a central aspect of school life.

Japan’s first school uniform

In Japan, school uniforms usually consist of a jacket, pants for boys and a skirt for girls. Although their design is broadly similar, the individual uniforms are distinguished by subtle variations in aspects such as color, style and school logo that define the look of each school. Over time, they have become a convenient way to categorize a person according to the school they attend.

Establishing a uniform dress code requires the establishment and application of rules. It also places a significant financial burden on families who have to provide outfits for their child. It is therefore no coincidence that the first Japanese school to adopt uniforms was Gakushūin, an academy in Tokyo intended for the Japanese nobility.

Created in the early Meiji era (1868-1912), GakushÅ«in in 1879 adopted a uniform for male students based on the formal attire of Japanese naval officers – cap, high-necked jacket, pants – to complement his education as a military style. . As outfitting a child with Western clothing was an expensive and affordable endeavor only to members of the upper class, the uniform distinguished GakushÅ«in students as an elite, and over time other schools adopted it as a model.

An Imperial University student in uniform in 1906. (Courtesy of the author)

The standardization of the naval-style school uniform was further facilitated when it was adopted by Imperial University, the forerunner of the University of Tokyo, for its all-male student body in 1886 – single-sex education was the norm in Japan until the end of World War II. At the time, only upper-echelon students continued their studies at university, and the sight of young men in well-tailored uniforms was an enviable reminder of their high social status. Other prominent institutes quickly followed suit, introducing formal attire, and the style then spread to junior and senior high schools across Japan.

The rise of uniforms in male-only schools was part of a wider spread of Western dress during the period of rapid modernization in Japan, a trend that was spearheaded by the upper class. First adopted by the gentry as a mark of social rank, uniforms impart elite status and the promising future of the wearer to society.

Change of look for students

From around 1900, women’s high schools also adopted uniforms for their students. Instead of Western-style military uniforms, however, the trend was to hakama, traditional pleated pants or a skirt worn over a kimono.

A drawing from around 1900 showing a female student wearing a typical brown hakama. (Courtesy of Ochanomizu University)

Physical education has become an important part of the curricula of girls’ schools in order to promote the health of the students. The kimonos were too restrictive and got messy during exercise, so the students opted for hakama which allows greater freedom of movement while ensuring, for decency purposes, that the legs remain sufficiently covered.

An additional call from hakama was its association with the imperial court and the Japanese royal family. Many upper-class girls grew up admiring the colorful designs of the nobility and Imperial lineage dressed for court in hakama, and the images are believed to have influenced what has become the standard design for female students. At first, some students imitated the images of their childhood by wearing hakama to the classroom as a fashion statement, while others lobbied school principals to make pants the official school uniform. As hakama Caught, schoolgirls developed a preference for imported cashmere wool and included accessories like ribbons and umbrellas, turning the clothes into hybrids of Japanese and Western fashion.

In the early Meiji era, female students dressed the same hakama like men instead of the skirted types typically worn by women. However, this was heavily criticized on moral grounds – the style was strongly tied to the samurai class and some considered the practice to be tantamount to cross-dressing – and a female version was eventually devised.

Women’s school uniforms began to change in the 1920s, with Western-style clothing increasingly becoming the norm. Many students at the time enthusiastically received the sailor suits, helping to establish the look as the standard uniform. The passage of hakama to skirts and jackets, however, created a new dilemma for school administrators. Students keen to express their individuality pushed the boundaries of dress codes by modifying the hems and pleats, setting in motion a cat-and-mouse game between teachers and students that continues today.

The changing face of the uniforms

The story of the early days of school uniforms in Japan is an amalgamation of school policies and students’ aspirations and self-expressions. As the nation gradually modernized over the following decades, college and high school enrollment increased and the growth of the Japanese textile industry made Western clothing the norm throughout society. The result was that the uniforms went from one-off items worn by elite students to symbols of homogeneity meant to mask the socio-economic and class disparities they once represented.

From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, school uniforms faced a sort of crisis as members of the student movements opposed their use as symbols of an authoritarian education system. As a result, a number of predominantly urban schools have phased out uniforms, although most institutions have maintained their dress codes. In the late 1980s, schools began to switch from traditional sailor uniforms to blazers, increasing the variety of outfits and improving their reputation.

Uniform aesthetics

School uniforms come with a myriad of regulations. They are also more expensive than regular clothes. This raises the question of why schools still use them.

While there is no simple answer to this question, while researching the topic, I have found that nostalgia plays an important role. People often tell me that they feel pressured to speak with a student wearing their old school uniform or that they are fiercely opposed to changing the original design. For many, they represent the young people they once were and trigger sentimental memories of their school years. Simply put, emotional attachments are the reason so many people continue to support the use of uniforms.

Not everyone shares fond memories of school uniforms, of course, or deems it necessary to subject students to a prescribed dress code. Other issues like lack of free speech, cost and growing awareness of the needs of LGBT students also need to be addressed. However, at the start of each school year, people willfully dismiss these concerns and indulge in sentimental scenes of students in new uniforms participating in school entry ceremonies. Perhaps spending years steeped in the culture of school uniforms fosters this contradictory attitude towards outfits. For better or worse, school uniforms remain a deeply rooted part of the Japanese education system.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: High school students pose in front of a blackboard. © Aflo.)

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