Japanese School Uniforms (The Start Of Unity And Conformity In Japanese Society)

Unlike in America and many western countries, most schools in Japan have a school uniform as a requirement of attendance and have been in place for more than one hundred years. The tradition remains firmly in place today.

The Japanese school uniform is designed to resemble European-style naval uniforms in appearance. It was initially worn in Japan in the late 1800s when the traditional kimono was phased out. School uniforms are now widely used in both public and private Japanese schools.

In this article, we will explore the history of school uniforms in Japan, covering the birth of the uniform, why they are so important as an aspect of the Japanese education system, and how they are worn in schools today.

The history of school uniforms in Japan

The origin of school uniforms in Japan was actually a feature that was born out of a desire to be seen as having a higher social status. The school uniforms were adopted by elite schools as a way of distinguishing their pupils from others. 

This occurrence happened more than one hundred years ago, but the policy has now been adopted by the vast majority of public and private schools in Japan and no longer serves as an indication solely of elite institutions.

The reason why elite schools wanted to introduce school uniforms was to enforce a set of rules, to make the students look presentable, demonstrate who was from which school, and show affluence.

School uniforms were an expense that not everyone could afford and so by wearing a school uniform pupils were demonstrating their family’s wealth and income level. 

The very first school in Japan to enforce a uniform dress code was a school for children of noble families called Gakushuin in Tokyo in 1879. 

The original school uniform was for male students and was made up of a jacket with a high collar, a cap, and a pair of trousers. The original design behind this uniform was supposed to mimic a naval officer’s uniform.

This style of clothing was actually more Western orientated than Eastern, meaning that at that time it was very costly to purchase and produce.

In 1886 one of Japan’s main universities also adopted a similar uniform. Again this was purely a male uniform as education was predominantly male-oriented (the standard pre World War 2).

As the years went on more and more institutions began to adopt the policy of the school uniform in a bid to not be outdone by the elite schools.

As the majority of universities adopted uniforms the trend eventually trickled down into high schools and then junior high and middle schools.

The female school uniform

Given that the origins of the school uniform in Japan were entirely restricted to male students in the educational institutions, the birth of the female school uniform came much later in the 1900s. 

Unlike the Western-orientated naval uniforms that the men wore, the female school uniforms were based on more traditional Eastern-style clothing, specifically the hakama which is a pleated skirt (or pair of trousers) that is worn over the top of a kimono.

One of the reasons for adopting the hakama was that physical education had risen in importance in the school system. The traditional kimono was very restrictive and did not allow the girls much movement.

The hakama was much freer and allows the girls to exercise much more easily than the kimono. At the same time, the modest length of the hakama meant that the girls were still modestly covered.

However, the elitist origins of the female school uniform reflected those of the men’s as the hakama was traditionally worn in the Imperial Court and was restricted to the upper classes.

The very first hakama for school uniforms were similar to the men’s version but its associations with samurai meant that some people objected on moral grounds and suggested that the crossover of clothing was tantamount to cross-dressing, leading to the creation of the female uniform version. 

However, there was a major shift in the 1920s when the desire for more Western-style clothing increased. Here the introduction of naval-styled uniforms was founded and clothing items such as jackets were introduced.

The modernization of school uniforms

As with anything the school uniforms quickly developed over time and with Japan’s sudden modernization so too did school uniforms have a sudden change. The introduction of more Western ways of life, such as infrastructure and fashion, were major influences in the country and school uniforms were no exception.

With this modernization, more and more Japanese citizens began to enroll in educational institutions and this caused a shift in Japan’s textile industry with the need for increased production of school uniforms. 

However, with this shift, the meaning behind school uniforms changed dramatically. What was once used as a symbol of wealth and elitism was now being used to hide wealth differences, allowing all pupils the same opportunity and to give each of them an equal footing in the educational system. 

Another shift occurred in the 60s and 70s when protests began about the use of school uniforms, with students claiming that it was a method of stifling their individualism and a technique used by an authoritarian government. 

As a result, many schools began to get rid of their uniform policy or switch it to a much more relaxed dress code with smart clothing and blazers. 

Why are school uniforms still used today?

There are still ongoing debates today about the use of school uniforms in Japanese schools. For younger children in the education system, such as those in elementary schools, there is a much more relaxed approach to their appearance with only 15% of elementary schools actually upholding a uniform policy.

However, uniforms are still the norm for the majority of schools. There are good arguments both for and against the implementation of school uniforms.

A reason why uniforms remain a good idea is that it allows every to look respectable and presentable. For example, it stops the adoption of unnatural hair colors, unusual designs, and inappropriate clothing in the school, enforcing a clear and strict guide about how the students are supposed to look and dress.

Another argument is that it prepares the students for dressing smartly before they enter the workforce, teaching them what is acceptable and what is not.

A final reason why many advocate for the use of school uniforms is that they allow every pupil to focus on their education and their personalities rather than their family’s income or lack thereof as it does not highlight who has money and who does not through the way they dress. 

However, there are also convincing arguments against the implementation of a dress code and uniforms in schools. Some of these include the expense that some uniforms incur.

According to the school that the child attends the parents may have to spend a significant amount of money on school uniforms, especially over the years as their child grows regularly, which is an expense that many struggle to afford.

Another reason against uniforms is that it stifles the pupils’ individuality, making them all one and the same and not allowing them to express themselves.

How To Wear A Japanese School Uniform

Of course, the extent to which this argument is true will depend on the individual school and how strict or relaxed they are with the use of accessories and alterations.

Although uniforms are adopted by the vast majority of higher institutions the exact uniform can still be used to indicate which school you attend and as such, it can still be used as an elitist symbol of affluence. 

Japanese School Uniforms Via Japanology

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.