JIN-462 -- Uniforms and Uniformity

J@pan Inc Newsletter
The 'JIN' Japan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends
in Japan.
Issue No. 462 Wednesday April 23, 2008, Tokyo

Uniforms and Uniformity

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Deciding what to wear to work can be tough - particularly on
the first day. However, in Japan the potential for making a
clothing decision that one lives to regret is greatly reduced
by the social convention for new employees' attire, or the
company's provision of a uniform/dress code. For jobseekers or
new employees, it is expected that they wear simple black suits
with a white shirt; the men must wear dark, unremarkable ties
while the sleeves of the women's jackets fall to a standard
length cut a few centimeters below the wrist, sneaking over the
base of the hand. Later on in their careers they will have the
option to vary color and style somewhat, but compared to many
other countries, the continued prevalence of the suit is
notable. This is partly because of the importance of age and
rank - it is socially easier to be able to indicate position
through appearance rather than having to go through the
embarrassing process of asking (although the obligatory business
card exchange acts as a buffer). For those working in the
emergency services, construction, all manner of retail outfits,
from banks to convenience stores, and even some conventional
companies, a uniform is required.

Uniforms in Japanese society have long been an important aspect
of fashion, often reinforcing social structures and having
historical significance. Most obvious is the school uniform,
worn by the majority of students from junior high, although
elementary schools, and even kindergartens, often require the
wearing of standard hats, bags and other accessories. The junior
high and high school boys' uniforms are normally dark in color
and based on the nineteenth century Prussian military uniform,
with a standing collar jacket. For girls there is the sailor
outfit, first introduced by the missionary principal of Fukuoka
Jo Gaukuin University, Elizabeth Lee. Many students see their
uniforms as cool and can be found wearing them long after school
hours and even at weekends (though this is sometimes a
requirement)whilst pure fashion uniforms, particularly for
girls, are popular on the mainstream as well as the fetish
scene. Rituals and myths have grown up around the school uniform
such as the significance attached to the second button of a
boy's jacket. Closest to the heart, it is said to contain his
emotions and is thus often given away to a sweetheart on

Uniforms in schools, and arguably in any institution are
designed to maintain a particular public image, instill
discipline, create outward harmony and also promote equality.
Yuichi Tamura, writing in the journal 'Youth & Society,' argues
that school dress codes contradict efforts encouraging students
to express individuality and have become an anachronism. Tamura
observes, school dress codes were an integral part of a
society strategy toward industrialization and modern
development. However, once a society achieved industrial and
modern development, educational benefits associated with dress
codes no longer corresponded to the economic and cultural
realities of youth. On the other hand, Tamura perhaps neglects
the uniform-related counter-culture. The meanings of uniforms
have evolved and school children have for a long time been
expert at manipulating the imposed uniform to express
individuality, quick to find spaces for freedom such as altering
skirt size, changing hair styles and even varying styles for
socks. Meanwhile, uniforms feature prominently on the adult
entertainment scene from maid cafes to nurse bars, and more
recently even school boy cafes (http://tinyurl.com/5g38r5).

The dynamic between uniforms as imposing uniformity and uniforms
as a source of counter-culture, as seen in the case of the
school uniform, is interesting to explore. In some ways uniforms
nowadays actually turn their original concept on its head in
the sense they are often being worn as an expression of
individuality and identity, albeit associated with a group.
For example in Okinawa, traditional shirts, known as
'kariyushi wear' similar to Hawaiian shirts, are tolerated as
formal dress, and important leaders of institutions wear them
to work - they are even worn by the staff in banks. In this way,
uniforms simultaneously allow expression of identity at the
same time as being an aesthetic imposition. Furthermore, the
punks and goths at Yoyogi park, and even the yakuza, all wear
their unconventional clothes, make-up, tattoos and hair styles
with a degree of uniformity that seems to be more pronounced in
Japan than in other cultures. This favors a more relative
definition of individuality. The question of personal identity
relates more to which group one identifies with, and which group
one has rejected, rather than being 'groupless.'

Among the most striking features of the uniform in Japan is the
common practice for all kinds of drivers and guides to wear
white gloves, the green overalls worn by construction workers,
the branded overalls worn by gas station attendants, the blue
jumpsuits worn by right-wingers, the mini-skirts and hot pants
worn by girls giving out promotional materials and, of course,
the office ladies' uniform. Taken together, the unique uniforms
of Japan make an interesting snapshot of the nation.

Peter Harris

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