School Uniforms

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Mami Bamba

    Main guest

    Mami Bamba is a professor at Kyoto Kacho University, specializing in the history of clothing, apparel culture theory, and the history of women’s lifestyles. Bamba studies fashion trends to gain insight into the historical background of different time periods. She has released several publications on school uniforms. These include one that looks at the spread of school uniforms and their role in post-World War II Japan and another that evaluates them from the perspective of gender.

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December 18, 2018

School Uniforms

*You will leave the NHK website.

If you’ve visited Japan—or watched one of the myriad anime or live-action series set in a Japanese school—you’ve no doubt noticed the country’s distinctive school uniforms. In Japan, the majority of students attending both public and private middle and high schools wear uniforms, and the story behind those uniforms reveals a great deal about youth culture and Japanese society at large. In this edition of Japanology Plus, we button up and take a look.

As we learn on the program, the tradition of wearing school uniforms, modeled on those used in the military, began in the 1800s, as Japan opened up to the outside world and began to modernize in the Meiji era. But it wasn’t just students whose clothing changed dramatically. Adults from the Emperor down began dressing in Western-style garb—there was even a memorandum from the Empress stating her belief that Western clothes were, in fact, closer than kimono to the clothing of ancient Japan.

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This style of boys’ uniform debuted at the Tokyo Imperial University, now the University of Tokyo.

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Host Peter Barakan and expert guest Mami Bamba talk uniforms.

As expert guest Mami Bamba notes, another goal in those days was for girls to grow up to become "good wives and wise mothers." For this reason, schools adopted female uniforms that allowed for a range of movement, improving girls’ health (ostensibly in preparation for motherhood) through exercise.

The phrase "good wife, wise mother" was coined by educator and writer Masanao Nakamura, who was also known for translating into Japanese the influential book Self-Help by Samuel Smiles. "Good wife, wise mother" may sound old-fashioned by today’s standards, but Nakamura was involved in improving education for girls and even founded a school.

Fast-forward about a century, and we find ourselves in Japan’s post-World War II economic boom. In this period, Japan as a whole was rising to the challenge of national development and improving quality of life. One of the images we see is the Shinkansen, or bullet train, speeding between Tokyo and Osaka in its inaugural year, 1964. That technological feat, inspired in part by the Tokyo Olympics that same year, allowed travel at speeds of up to 210 km/h. These days, Tokyo is gearing up for another Olympics, and work is underway on the maglev-powered Linear Chuo Shinkansen, which is expected to travel at 505 km/h!

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Early girls’ uniforms combined kimono and hakama, a traditional men's garment halfway between skirt and trousers.

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The so-called sailor uniform for girls is iconic, but less common than in its heyday.

But before we speed too far off the original topic, school uniforms, as noted on the program, are most common in middle and high school. Although some grade schools (primary schools) also have uniforms, it’s much more common to see the youngest pupils in everyday clothes. One will notice, however, a few interesting pieces of apparel: uniquely-shaped school satchels, which we covered on a recent edition, and brightly-colored hats. The idea behind these hats, most often yellow or red, is to make students more visible, especially to motorists, when walking to and from school. Much has been made of how young Japanese children commute to school on their own, and innovations like these visibility-enhancing hats help make that possible.

Uniforms are about, well, uniformity, and increasingly strict dress codes in the late 1970s onward made some rebellious young Japanese teens bristle. As we see in a dramatized sequence, these teens began to modify their uniforms to give adults a piece of their minds. Again, if you’ve taken in any anime, manga or other pop culture from the period, you have likely seen examples. Two acts of small rebellion featured on the program are short sleeves for boys and long skirts for girls (yes, wearing skirts that were too long was also an infraction). In the '90s, girls began wearing long loose socks, while boys donned baggy, rap-inspired shirts and pants.

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Some rebellious uniform modifiers.

These days, with more personalization and styles allowed, there appears to be less insubordination, but issues surrounding school uniforms do remain. For one, there is increasing awareness of students who may not be comfortable wearing either specifically male or female uniforms (one school presented on the program offers a potential solution). For another, many parents find themselves experiencing sticker shock when it comes to the price of uniforms, especially when they have multiple children of school age. Some even question why schools continue to use uniforms at all. But with some 150 years of history, for now uniforms seem to be a fundamental part of school life in Japan.

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A lineup of modern uniforms.

*You will leave the NHK website.