“Seifuku” (制服) the schoolgirls’ and schoolboys’ uniforms are one of Japan’s most fascinating cultural phenomena; I doubt there is any other image showcasing so fully the modern Japanese culture in all its contradictions, its Western influences but also its borderline obstinate insistence to preserve elements it considers important for its image both to the outside and to the inside. The kimono and the classic hairstyles (or “nihon-gami”/日本髪) have been limited to specific circles, the omnipresent dark suits are as generic as the sarariman wearing them and the uniforms of the various other professional groups are unnoticeable minorities in a country this populous. But it is hard to not notice the schoolboys and schoolgirls even when they aren’t in groups: the image is so antiquated and so (apparently) out of context in today’s Japan that even unwillingly, the eye pauses and the mind needs to reboot.
Even if someone hasn’t studied sartorial history, they can see in the navy uniforms of girls and the military uniforms of boys the influence of 19th century’s West; together with the national education system, the government of Emperor Meiji imported these clothes from France and Prussia respectively because they let out an air of gravity and fit the image of a society that has seriously started on a course to modernization and renovation –at the same time, they gave out a sense of order and homogeneity that, indirectly, insinuated solidarity to the common cause. That the above would later get perverted to fit the vision of the Showa government was of course something that no one could predict but even if someone could, I doubt if things would have been different: the same ideas of conformity to the rules and of viewing diversity as something potentially problematic continue being strong even today.
What is even more interesting is that the uniforms managed to resist not only the new currents that came from the West, especially after the 1960s but also against the adolescents’ determination for individuality. Even the various conversions (the changing of the skirt’s length, the thick, loose white socks, the half-worn penny loafers, the handing of the jacket’s second button to the high-school sweetheart or the loose neckties) are movements –or trends: large groups of students adopt them at the same time and after a while they abandon them to adopt, again en masse, something else, converting diversification to rule and therefore, negating its meaning. In reality nobody wants to stop wearing a uniform because rejection of the uniform also means rejection of the idea of the team that identifies with this uniform and adolescence is the time when this idea gets rooted in people’s consciousness and opens the road for the broader conformity that will come later, with the integration in the productive class; the necessary break for the passage from one uniform to the other will be provided by the college years…
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.