What's with all the school uniforms in anime?
by Justin Sevakis,
I have noticed that a large percentage of Japanese anime and manga series that I have followed feature schools, and almost invariably, the students at those schools wear uniforms (with Dragon Ball being the only series that I can recall where students do not wear uniforms). Being an American, I take the idea of individual expression very seriously, so I find it to be somewhat odd that nearly every Japanese school (and even schools in fictional worlds modeled after Japan) requires its students to wear uniforms. Why are school uniforms so prevalent in Japan, and are there any Japanese schools that do not require uniforms?
Nearly every Japanese school up through the high school level have required school uniforms as early as the late 1800s. The uniforms, and indeed structured schooling in general, came about during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), which was a time when the country was very deliberately trying to modernize itself by studying and adapting how things worked in Western society. This era was also one of international imperialism, so militarism was something that was seen as aspirational. When it came time to design the school system, it stood to reason that good kids would model themselves after the military: rigid in structure, professional, and ready for action.
School uniforms were common in some, but not all European countries of the era, but the idea worked well in Japan, since large areas of the country were still pulling themselves out of peasantry, and so the uniforms would command a sense of respectability and modernism for the youth of the era. In that way, the first uniforms for students were a reflection of the hopes and dreams of their parents. Originally, they were just for boys, and their design was intended to mimic that of the Japanese army, which was itself modeled after those of the French. These uniforms, known as gakuran, were dark navy blue, with a straight-collared button-down outer coat, matching trousers, and a cap. Some schools also require pins on the collar to indicate class or rank.
Initially girls just wore kimono to school, but it seemed odd that girls were in traditional Japanese dress while the boys weren't, and wearing a kimono really restricted their movement. Around 1920 a girls' equivalent uniform, modeled after the British Royal Navy uniforms, was made standard. That's where the once-ubiquitous "sailor suit" came from.
After World War II, when Japan lost its military ability, the uniforms were relaxed to make them less militaristic. The caps for the boys were done away with. Schools started introducing more variation in each of their styles of uniform, both for the comfort of the students and to differentiate their kids from those of other schools. Summer versions, with light white short-sleeve outer-shirts were introduced, as were standardized gym clothes - T-shirts, and shorts for boys and "bloomers" (which, unlike Western bloomers, were really just short shorts) for girls.
Aaaaand we all know what happened next. The sailor suit, a symbol of youth and purity, became the official sexual fetish of Japan. The first erotic photos and manga portraying the sailor suit as something sexy surfaced in the 1950s, and in the following decades grew into a bizarre national obsession. Obviously the sailor suit was front and center in most high-school based hentai manga and anime, but love of sailor suits was far more than just an otaku thing.
The national unwholesome love of the sailor suit finally resulted in a large push in the late 90s away from the sailor suit, and the military garb in general, towards the more modern look we commonly see in Japan today: sweater vests, ties, blazers, and tartan slacks and skirts -- basically the same style you see in European schools or in American private schools. Bloomers were deemed to be too revealing, and now the girls wear shorts in gym class as well. There are still schools that employ both sailor suits and gakuran, but they're mostly middle schools.
The uniforms have taken on a wide range of meanings over the years. Gang members, or yankii, would often wear their blazers way too large or too small, and kept them unbuttoned or otherwise subtilely not up to standards. Boys would give the second button from the top of their gakuran to a girl they liked as part of their love confession -- that button being the closest thing to their heart from their years at school, of course.
Most elementary schools don't require uniforms, but nearly all middle and high schools do. There are a select few, mostly private, schools that let students wear street clothes like most American schools, and that number is slowly rising. As you imply in your question, Japanese society (and Asian societies in general) doesn't prioritize free-thinking individualism nearly as much as we do. However, there are definitely some educators that see such things as essential for new ideas and originality, and subsequent rebirth of the Japanese economy.
There are a lot of differing opinions on the usefulness and effects of requiring students to wear uniforms, both in Japan and worldwide. Somewhat ironically, this comes at a time when more and more American schools are requiring uniforms, to cut down on the amount of fashion-related student-on-student theft and assault.
It's hard to think of anime and manga without thinking of school uniforms. I remember when I first visited Japan and saw actual kids in actual school uniforms, I had to remind myself that they weren't in cosplay. They're so iconic at this point that I think doing away with them would freak out just about everyone.
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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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