School uniforms in Japan

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A typical sailor fuku with long sleeves for autumn and winter

The Japanese school uniform is modeled in appearance similar to that of the European-style naval uniforms. It was first used in Japan in the late 19th century, replacing the traditional kimono.[1] Today, school uniforms are common in many of the Japanese public and private school systems. The Japanese word for this type of uniform is seifuku (制服).


Bankara students in 1949, wearing hakama and uniform caps

The majority of Japan's junior high and high schools require students to wear uniforms. The Japanese school uniform is not only a symbol of youth but also plays an important role in the country's culture, as they are felt to help instill a sense of discipline and community among youth. There are many types of uniforms that range from standard to unique ones varying in the ensembles used.

Japanese school uniforms have been around for 150 years.

Originally students just wore standard everyday clothes to school; kimono for female students, with hakama for male students. During the Meiji period, students began to wear uniforms modelled after Western dress.[2]

Shimoda Utako in hakama; she was an advocate for dress reform.[3]

Initially, in the 1880s, female students wore Western dress, but this was rather impractical.[4] Utako Shimoda (1854–1936), a women's activist, educator and dress reformer, found traditional kimono to be too restrictive, preventing women and girls from moving and taking part in physical activities, harming their health. While western dress was being adopted at the time, she also believed corsets to be restrictive and harmful to women's health.[3] Utako Shimoda had worked as lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōken from 1871 to 1879.[5] She adapted the clothing worn by ladies-in-waiting at the Japanese imperial court, which included hakama, to make a uniform for her Jissen Women's School. During the Meiji period (1868–1912) and the following Taishō period (1912–1926), other women's schools also adopted the hakama.[3] It became standard wear for high schools in Japan,[4] and is still worn by many women to their university graduations.

A 1917 gakuran with cap

During the Taishō period, male students began to wear gakuran (matching black trousers and a tunic with a standing collar and five gold buttons, and geta). These, apart from the footwear, are still worn today.[2]

There was then a fashion for European-style naval uniforms, called serafuku in Japanese, and first introduced in 1920. The idea was taken from scaled-down sailor suits worn by children coming from royal European families. It was relatively easy to sew and thus was easily adopted in the country. Talking about junior and senior high school uniforms, the traditional attire was taken from the Meiji period consisting of military-style uniform for boys and sailor outfit for girls. After which, many schools adopted a more Western-pattern Catholic uniform style.[2] Girls started wearing white blouses with ties, blazers with their school crests, and skirts. Boys also wore white shirts with ties, blazers, and tailored trousers. Schools in Japan do not have gender-exclusive locker rooms; thus, it is quite difficult to change from classroom uniforms into sports uniforms. As a result, most students wear their sports uniforms under their classroom uniforms. Some schools are very particular with the hairstyles as well as the footwear, too. Traditionally, school uniforms were worn outside of school.[citation needed]

The gakuran and sailor-style dress have always been a part of Japan's "growing modern" culture due to its formal appearance and its existence as a concept. Old-fashioned textbooks state that the uniforms were based on the Imperial Japanese Army uniform rather than the European uniforms. The sides of the uniform are similar to existing styles of Japanese dressmaking and the collar had straight lines. Many home economics classes in Japan up until the 1950s gave sewing sailor outfits as assignments. Girls sewed sailor outfits for younger children in their communities. In the 1980s, sukeban gangs began modifying uniforms by making skirts longer and shortening the tops, and so schools began switching to blazer or sweater vest style uniforms to try to combat the effect. As of 2012, 50% of Japanese junior high schools and 20% of senior high schools use sailor suit uniforms. The Asahi Shimbun stated in 2012 that, "The sailor suit is changing from adorable and cute, a look that 'appeals to the boys,' to a uniform that 'girls like to wear for themselves.'" As of that year, contemporary sailor suits have front closures with zippers or snaps and more constructed bodices. The Asahi Shimbun stated that "the form is snug to enhance the figure—the small collar helps the head look smaller, for better balance."[citation needed]


In almost all schools, Japanese students are required to take off the shoes they wear outdoors and wear different indoor shoes. At some schools, students wear uwabaki, a kind of soft slipper meant to be used only indoors.

The Japanese junior and senior-high-school uniform traditionally consists of a military-styled uniform for boys and a sailor outfit for girls. These uniforms are based on Meiji-period formal military dress, themselves modeled on European-style naval uniforms. The sailor outfits replace the undivided hakama (known as andon bakama (行灯袴)) designed by Utako Shimoda between 1920 and 1930.[6][better source needed] While this style of uniform is still in use, many schools have moved to more Western-pattern Catholic school uniform styles. These uniforms consist of a white shirt, tie, blazer with school crest, and tailored trousers (often not of the same colour as the blazer) for boys and a white blouse, tie, blazer with school crest, and tartan culottes or skirt for girls.

Regardless of what type of uniform any particular school assigns its students, all schools have a summer version of the uniform (usually consisting of just a white dress shirt and the uniform slacks for boys and a reduced-weight traditional uniform or blouse and tartan skirt with tie for girls) and a sports-activity uniform (a polyester track suit for year-round use and a T-shirt and short pants for summer activities). Depending on the discipline level of any particular school, students may often wear different seasonal and activity uniforms within the same classroom during the day. Individual students may attempt to subvert the system of uniforms by wearing their uniforms incorrectly or by adding prohibited elements such as large loose socks or badges. Girls may shorten their skirts, permanently or by wrapping up the top to decrease length; boys may wear trousers about the hips, omit ties, or keep their shirts unbuttoned.[citation needed]

Since some schools do not have sex-segregated changing- or locker-rooms, students may change for sporting activities in their classrooms. As a result, such students may wear their sports uniforms under their classroom uniforms. Certain schools also regulate student hairstyles, footwear, and book bags; but these particular rules are usually adhered to only on special occasions, such as trimester opening and closing ceremonies and school photo days.

It is normal for uniforms to be worn outside of school areas, but this is going out of fashion and many students wear casual dress outside of school.[7] While not many public elementary schools in Japan require uniforms, many private schools and public schools run by the central government still do so.[citation needed]


An ōendan cheerleader in gakuran
A cosplayer in gakuran

The gakuran (学ラン), also called the tsume-eri (詰襟), is the uniform for many middle-school and high-school boys in Japan. The colour is normally black, but some schools use navy blue.

The top has a standing collar buttoning down from top-to-bottom. Buttons are usually decorated with the school emblem to show respect to the school. Pants are straight leg and a black or dark-coloured belt is worn with them. Boys usually wear penny loafers or sneakers with this uniform. Some schools may require the students to wear collar-pins representing the school and/or class rank.

Traditionally, the gakuran is also worn along with a matching (usually black) student cap, although this custom is less common in modern times.

The gakuran is derived from the Prussian Waffenrock or the Christian clergy cassock.[citation needed] The term is a combination of gaku () meaning "study" or "student", and ran (らん/蘭) meaning the Netherlands or, historically in Japan, the West in general; thus, gakuran translates as "Western style clothes for student (uniform)".[8]

The original model of the present day gakuran was first established in 1873 for students of all schools . During the Japanese occupation, such clothing was also brought to school in Korea, pre-1980s Taiwan, Manchukuo and pre-1949 China. Nowadays, the gakuran is still worn in some South Korean high schools.

While the gakuran is associated solely as the boys' uniform of both most middle schools and conservative high schools nowadays, blazers began to be adopted in most number of high schools in Japan (both public and private).

Sailor fuku[edit]

Masako Nakata in Sailor fuku, c. 1928
A group of Japanese schoolgirls in sailor suits

The sailor fuku (セーラー服, sērā fuku) (lit.'sailor outfit') is a common style of uniform worn by female middle school students, traditionally by high school students, and occasionally, elementary school students. It was introduced as a school uniform in 1920 at Heian Jogakuin (平安女学院)[9] and 1921 by the principal of Fukuoka Jo Gakuin University (福岡女学院),[10] Elizabeth Lee. It was modeled after the uniform used by the British Royal Navy at the time, which Lee had experienced as an exchange student in the United Kingdom.

Much like the male uniform, the gakuran, the sailor outfits bear a similarity to various military-styled naval uniforms. The uniform generally consists of a blouse attached with a sailor-style collar and a pleated skirt. There are seasonal variations for summer and winter; sleeve length and fabric are adjusted accordingly. A ribbon is tied in the front and laced through a loop attached to the blouse. Several variations on the ribbon include neckties, bolo ties, neckerchiefs, and bows. Common colours include navy blue, white, gray, light green, and black.

Shoes, socks, and other accessories are sometimes included as part of the uniform. These socks are typically navy or white. The shoes are typically brown or black penny loafers. Although not part of the prescribed uniform, alternate forms of legwear (such as loose socks, knee-length stockings, or similar) are also commonly matched by more fashionable girls with their sailor outfits.

The sailor uniform today is generally associated solely with both most middle schools and conservative high schools, since a majority of high schools have changed to more Western-style tartan skirts or blazers, similar to the Catholic school uniform.

Genderless uniforms[edit]

Historically, school uniforms in Japan are decided on the basis of sex, with trousers for male students and skirts for female students. However, in April 2019, public junior high schools in Tokyo's Nakano Ward began allowing students to choose their uniform regardless of sex. This started with a sixth grader who did not want to wear skirts in junior high school and asked her female classmates for their opinions on uniforms. The responses showed that most of her classmates also wanted the freedom to choose their uniforms. The young student delivered the survey results to the mayor of Nakano, and all of the principals for the ward's public junior high schools agreed on the proposal, allowing students to freely choose their uniforms.[11]

Schools allowing trousers for female students rose to 600 in 2019 from only four in 1997,[12] and over 400 schools adopted genderless uniforms for 2022's fiscal year.[13] There was a lot of support from female students for the adaptation of genderless uniforms and the implementation of slacks since it allowed for more comfort by keeping their legs warm and making it easier to ride their bicycles.[14] The decision for genderless uniforms is also in consideration of sexual minority students.[12]

In addition to changes made in the uniform, schools made adaptations to the school bags and uniforms for outside-of-class activities. In 2022, genderless swimwear was introduced at a few high schools and has quickly spread to more schools throughout Japan.[15] Genderless swimwear gradually evolved from the need to protect against sunburn to a desire to deemphasize body shape by adding more coverage.

Cultural significance[edit]

Kogal culture: Japanese schoolgirls wearing short skirts and loose socks.

School uniform varies throughout different schools in Japan, with some schools known for their particular uniforms. School uniform can have a nostalgic characteristic for former students, and are often associated with relatively carefree youth. Uniforms are sometimes modified by students as a means of exhibiting individualism. This is done in ways such as lengthening or shortening the skirt, removing the ribbon, hiding patches or badges under the collar, etc. In past decades, brightly coloured variants of the sailor outfits were also adopted by Japanese yankii, sukeban and bōsōzoku biker gangs.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Katarina Kottonen (August 25, 2017). "Seifuku". Chance and Physics. Archived from the original on February 18, 2018. Retrieved November 5, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c "From Tradition to Today: Japanese School Uniforms". LearnJapanese123. December 23, 2020.
  3. ^ a b c Racel, Masako N. Thesis (2011). Finding their Place in the World: Meiji Intellectuals and the Japanese Construction of an East-West Binary, 1868-1912 (Thesis). Georgia State University. Source says:"See Shimoda, "Honbō joshi fukusō no enkaku本邦女子服装の沿革 [The Historical Development of Women’s Clothing in Japan]," Part I, Onna, 31 January 1901, in Shimoda Utako chosakushū, vol. 1, 1-3; "Joshi no tainin no han’i ni tsukite," Nihon Fujin, 25 April 1900, in Shimoda Utako chosakushū, vol. 4, 107-127."
  4. ^ a b "History of Gakushuin". The Gakushuin School.
  5. ^ Suzuki, Mamiko (June 1, 2013). "Shimoda's Program for Japanese and Chinese Women's Education". CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture. 15 (2). doi:10.7771/1481-4374.2212. Retrieved July 17, 2021.
  6. ^ "制服でたどる百年" (in Japanese). Archived from the original on December 10, 2016. Retrieved January 19, 2022.
  7. ^ Sazaki, Ryo (April 2011). "Uniforms - The Japanese Fashion Everyone Loves". Hiragana Times. Vol. 294. pp. 12–15. Archived from the original on January 20, 2022. Retrieved January 19, 2022.
  8. ^ Mackintosh, Jonathan D (2011). Homosexuality and manliness in Postwar Japan. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-42186-7. OCLC 741525402.
  9. ^ 女子生徒に洋装制服登場、大正モダン Archived 2009-06-09 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ "平安女学院(京都)と福岡女学院(福岡)の間で、セーラー服の起源を巡る論争が勃発!" (in Japanese). October 7, 2007.[user-generated source]
  11. ^ "Junior high schoolers in Tokyo's Nakano free to choose skirt or pant uniform from spring". Mainichi Daily News. January 26, 2019. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  12. ^ a b "Gender-free uniforms at schools? Yes, it's happening | The Asahi Shimbun: Breaking News, Japan News and Analysis". The Asahi Shimbun. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  13. ^ "Record number of schools update their uniforms to be more inclusive | The Asahi Shimbun: Breaking News, Japan News and Analysis". The Asahi Shimbun. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  14. ^ "Schools across Japan work on adopting pants as option for all | The Asahi Shimbun: Breaking News, Japan News and Analysis". The Asahi Shimbun. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  15. ^ Kamimoto, Moe (January 31, 2023). "Genderless uniform trend accelerating in Japan | Sustainability from Japan". Zenbird. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  16. ^ Grigsby, Mary (1998). "Sailormoon: Manga (Comics) and Anime (Cartoon) Superheroine Meets Barbie: Global Entertainment Commodity Comes to the United States". The Journal of Popular Culture 32(1):59–80. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1998.3201_59.x.

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