How did Japanese school uniforms start? Why have they become such an iconic symbol of anime and cosplay fans? Some of the facts behind this trend might surprise you.
Japanese School Uniforms Are Not Japanese
One of the most common sights in Japan is girls in sailor outfits and boys in military-style uniforms trekking to and from school. What's puzzling about this is that the outfits are not Japanese in origin. The trend started in 1920, when Principal Elizabeth Lee of the Fukuoka Jo Gakuin University had her students adopt the sailor outfit which she'd experienced while an exchange student in England. The boys uniform (the gakuran) was modeled after Prussian army uniforms and was part of the change in nationalistic Japanese culture shortly after World War I.
Over the decades, the outfits have lost any association with their European origins and become completely identifiable as Japanese school uniforms. Unlike many social scientists in the West, the idea of having all the children in schools wearing the same uniforms makes perfect sense in Japanese culture. Focusing on being part of a specific group, and identifying with the giri or duty to that group, has been a part of Japan for millennia.
Components of the Uniform
While different schools have some variations in style through different fabrics and design elements, for the most part the uniform elements for a Japanese student are very similar. Other Asian countries such as China and Korea also use the uniform style for their students in both public and private schools.
There are four main types of uniform:
- Winter Uniform: Usually including a tunic or blazer and longer trousers or skirts
- Summer Uniform: Usually a white shirt with no covering, plus a tie of some kind, and either shorts, light fabric trousers, or a pleated skirt for girls.
- Summer Athletic: A t-shirt and shorts in the school colors.
- Winter Athletic: These polyester track suits can also be worn over the summer athletic uniform.
A high-buttoned tunic (with the school seal imprinted on the buttons) in a dark wool or heavy polyester fabric is the most significant part of the boy's uniform. Matching trousers, black leather shoes, and a white shirt underneath complete the uniform. While the original style of boy's uniforms was militaristic, in the last twenty years the high-buttoned tunic has been replaced in some areas by a white shirt and tie with or without a businessman-style suit coat. Some schools also require that their students wear a cap as part of the uniform.
The sailor outfit for girls usually consists of a pleated skirt or culottes, either gray or in a tartan pattern, with a white blouse and a red neck scarf knotted loosely. High socks and patent-leather Mary Jane style shoes also are part of the outfit. There are many variations of the school uniform, however, including wearing blazers, small ties instead of neck scarves, and a cap.
Most schools also have their school crest printed somewhere on the uniform, usually over the left breast pocket.
A Strange Appeal in Japan and Abroad
Unlike many students in the U.S., Japanese students usually do not mind wearing their uniforms outside of school as well. Some have even customized their uniforms when outside of school to reflect both their personal style as well as their pride in their school. Other traditions have also developed out of the wearing of uniforms, such as boys giving their girlfriends the second button of their tunic because it's the one closest to their heart.
Even stranger is the way that Western culture has become fascinated by the uniforms, usually through their portrayal in popular anime series such as Sailor Moon. Many online retailers sell replica Japanese school uniforms, and there is even a black market of genuine school uniforms called the burusera. However, the government is trying to stop this kind of trade, preferring that only actual students possess real uniforms.
This doesn't stop sites like Jbox from offering a wide variety of Japanese-style school uniforms for fans of the anime and Manga comics. The cosplay community uses this along with many do-it-yourself home craft techniques to make uniforms that are even more complex than the original.
For a utilitarian outfit, designed to standardize student appearance, the Japanese school uniforms have become amazingly popular and iconic throughout the world.