[From April Issue 2011]
Most middle and high school students in Japan wear “uniforms” their schools have chosen. Some exceptions to that rule include private middle and high schools that allow street wear, and elementary schools that also prefer uniforms. The most common colors for school uniforms are black or navy, with summer uniforms costing between 20,000 to 30,000 yen, and winter uniforms between 40,000 to 50,000 yen. Additionally, Japanese school uniforms are considered formal attire, so students can wear them to attend funerals and other similar formal events.
School uniforms were first introduced in Japan during the late 19th century. This was because a more comfortable western alternative was needed to replace Japan’s more formal attire, kimono. Thus the uniforms took on a military design, with hard collared shirts for boys and sailor-style uniforms for girls. Additionally, since there was also a wide economic gap between the rich and poor back then, uniforms helped everyone seem equal to one another.
In the 60’s, students demonstrated their opposition to obligatory uniforms declaring that “uniforms were mere tools to control the students.” As a result of this movement, some schools decided to abolish them. But after a while, the students’ crusade faded as more fashionable uniforms, including suits and jackets, became popular. Today, even some private schools that initially permitted students to wear street clothes have reintroduced the uniform, while other schools have enticed prospective students just because of their attractive clothing.
However, sometimes students get a bad reputation for the way they wear their uniform, such as when girls “wear their skirt hems too short.” There are even schools that impose strict guidelines on such “dressing down” alterations. Some teachers may measure with a ruler the length of a skirt while others stand watch outside school grounds.
“The interpretation of the school uniform differs from school to school,” says NISHI Kentaro, the editor of “Koukousei Shimbun (High School Newspaper).” “There are some schools that strictly police such actions while others give freedom to uniforms that resemble street clothes. Schools in Tokyo compared to schools in other cities, and public schools rather than private schools, tend to have more freedom.”
“Uniforms have the power to control the overall atmosphere of a school,” says Nishi in analyzing their effects. “When schools become rowdy, teachers police hairstyles, uniforms and tardiness, which really calms students down. That is why I understand when some schools get strict on such matters.”
“I was told to wear my school uniform when I went to town,” says student TAKEDA Shiori from Oita prefecture. “That is why everyone stayed out of trouble. Because of the knowledge that people would immediately recognize which school you went to, it was a good break from temptation.”
When Takeda was attending school, the “in” thing was to tie the uniform ribbons very short. “There is at least one student in each class who is the trend setter. With time, everyone dresses like that person. I think the short ribbon became popular because it made everyone look taller,” she explains.
But Takeda herself was not influenced by this trend. “I am tall so I felt longer ribbons looked better on me. Since everyone wears the same uniform, I became more interested in expressing my individuality. I looked at how I could wear the uniform to better suit me. Sometimes I looked at other girls and thought ‘I should be careful not to dress like her. It looks sloppy,’ and thanks to that I was able to look at myself objectively,” she says.
HARUTA Nana is a manga (comic) artist who has written stories that take place in middle and high school. She arranges the way her characters wear their school uniforms based on their personality. “I put active characters in hoodies and t-shirts under their uniforms to make them look casual. On the other hand, I will not let mature characters dress down their uniforms,” she explains.
Haruta debuted as a comic artist when she was in 9th grade and continued writing throughout her high school years. “The uniforms that I was issued for middle and high school were dreary, navy, jacket-style blazers. I longed to wear sailor-type tops and checked skirts so I wrote a lot of that in to my work. But in those days, I did not know that students living in other parts of Japan dress themselves differently, so all I drew was what was ‘in’ in my town,” she laughs.
“Manga is written in black and white. So, some cute clothes do not look as adorable as I want them to be, which can be a concern,” she says. “But uniforms have an invincible cuteness,” she continues. “Now that I am no longer a school girl, I cannot help myself from being attracted to all kinds of uniforms, even dull jackets and sailor style.”
“Everyone is in school for sometime in their life, but once you graduate, you can never go back. That is why adults long for the “student” look and the students understand that they are in their prime. Uniforms are a representation of this look and that is why they are so attractive,” says AIURA Takayuki, president of Conomi Co., Ltd.
His company sells standard uniform items including ribbons, cardigans and sailor-style outfits under the CONOMi brand name. “Silhouettes, materials and manufacturing style make these uniforms unique,” says vice president YOKOYAMA Toyoko. “For example, cardigans for students have looser weaves. Tighter weaves give cardigans an office girl look. And while uniforms do evolve, some things remain unchanged over time. The school uniform is a combination of unchanging elements – that is why it has a universal ‘uniform’ look.”
“I was active in the freedom of clothing choice when I was in high school,” says Aiura. “When I was in school, uniforms were uncool, so the students who hated them chose to dress them down, which the teachers strictly supervised and scolded us for. But today’s uniforms are adorable. So students are happy to wear them with care, and the teachers are relieved. I think both sides of the party are happy now,” he concludes.
“Uniforms should be more than good looking. It is school clothing so it must be easy to move in and comfortable to wear so students can enjoy their life at school. But it is also fashion and must be socially acceptable,” Aiura explains about his company’s policy. “It’s fashionable clothing but within the standard dress code appropriate for school.” So, it seems that students won’t stop wearing contemporary uniforms anytime soon.
Text: SAZAKI Ryo