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Sunday, September 07, 2003

School uniforms
Japanese girls love them
Singapore students can't wait to shed this manifestation of conformity but in Japan, it's the opposite. Todd Zaun. AWSJ.
Aug 17, 2003

TOKYO - Browsing in the trendy 109 department store in Tokyo, 16-year-olds Sumie Tanaka and Saki Sanao are wearing what look like typical Japanese school uniforms: white blouses, navy-blue pleated miniskirts, knee-high socks and matching penny loafers.

But the outfits aren't the teenagers' real school uniforms. They are uniform-like clothes that the two girls from the Tokyo suburb of Saitama have specifically picked out to wear on their shopping trip.

"Everyone is wearing uniforms," says Ms. Tanaka. "They're cute and easy to coordinate."

Once seen as a symbol of conformity and oppression, the school uniform has over the past two years become ultrachic among young Japanese girls.

Many are wearing uniforms, or clothes that look like uniforms, on weekends and after school. Some girls wear uniforms even though their schools have no dress code.

Ozakishoji Co., a uniform maker in western Japan, is seeing stronger-than-expected sales despite a shrinking population of students.

Suddenly, it is incredibly hip to be a high-school girl.

After years of riding the cutting edge of Japan's fickle fashion waves, schoolgirls are seen as the ultimate arbiters of what is cool, and their tastes are monitored by everyone from fashion designers to electronic companies.

Schoolgirls were behind the rise of pop icons like Hello Kitty, and were early and enthusiastic users of e-mail messaging over cellphones.

In the matter of school uniforms, they dream of staying just as they are.

"They know they're under a spotlight," says Yasuko Nakamura, who studies high-school students at Boom Planning Co., a marketing consulting company.

"They cherish their three years in high-school and want others to know" they are students, she says.

The uniform-as-fashion trend hasn't caught on with high-school boys, who aren't caught on with high-school boys, who aren't considered trendsetters.

The uniform's popularity may also be a sign of anxiety about growing up. Japan's long economic slump has severely constrained career opportunities for the young, especially for women.

Uniform Code

Eighteen-year-old Eri Ishida, a student at Chiba Keizai High School east of Tokyo, says she dreads the day she will no longer be able to put on her navy-blue miniskirt, white blouse and burgundy bow.

"When I think that this is my last chance to wear a school uniform, I want to say in school longer," says Ms. Ishida, who plans to study fashion design after she graduates next March.

Matter of Choice

Uniforms weren't always so cool. Decades ago, the school uniform was widely reviled as the most visible symbol of the strict control schools exercised over students.

In addition to imposing inflexible dress codes, many schools forbid students to wear makeup and jewelry.

In the 1970s and 1980s, some students fought, without much effect, to shed their uniforms.

Mikiko Morimoto, now 28, gained national attention in1988 when she refused to wear a uniform to her junior high school in the western city of Takatsuki. "I thought it was important to show I had an identity of my own," she says.

Ms. Morimoto, who now studies physics at a university in western Japan, is bewildered by the sudden popularity of uniforms.

But she says there is a big difference between being forced to wear a uniform and wearing on voluntarily. "If they're wearing uniforms because they want to, what's wrong with that?" she says.

Meanwhile, schools have loosened or eliminated dress codes in an effort to attract students, as Japan's aging society has led to fewer children.

Some tried to update their image by hiring famous Japanese designers to create more fashionable uniforms, with shorter skirts and colorful bows.

Tatsuo Inamasu, a sociology professor at Hosei University, says some students may be embracing the discipline associated with uniforms as backlash against the loosening of school rules.

"They believe it's cool to control themselves to a certain degree by wearing uniforms at a time when you see so much freedom," he says.

Black Market

Of course, that doesn't mean the girls want to dress exactly alike.

In fact, more girls are putting together their own unique uniform ensembles. That is creating a black market in used uniforms.

Many schoolgirls barter with their friends at other schools for skirts, scarves and blouses. Others raid the closets of older sisters or cousins.

To expand her collection, 16-year-old Mina Ozawa recently sneaked into a used uniform sale at a friend's school to shop for skirts and bows. Such sales aren't officially open to outside students.

"I don't care where it comes from, as long as it has a cute pattern or nice color," she says.

One of the most coveted uniform designs is the traditional sailor suit, which features a dark blue skirt, a white blouse that resembles a navy uniform, and a colored kerchief.

Tokyo Jogakkan high school, where female students have worn this style for 70 years, now asks its graduating seniors to refrain from selling their uniforms to students from other schools, according to Masao Maruyama, the school's vice principal.

Tokyo Jogakkan students must also identify themselves when buying uniforms at the two campus shops.

The school implemented the ID check after teens from another school posed as Tokyo Jogakkan students to buy the school's silk kerchiefs - and later sold them on an Internet auction.

The quest for uniforms baffle school administrators, who are struggling to create a curriculum that fosters greater creativity.

"This trend is not good in the sense that [students] may lose some of their own personality," says Hiroshi Oguri, the principal of Tokyo 's Shinjuku high school.

His school has a designated blazer, although students don't have to wear it. But up to 60% of them wear it on any given day.

Still, girls like Sumie Tanaka and Saki Sanao, the pair from Saitama, say they see plenty of leeway to express their individuality through uniforms.

In addition to their miniskirts and white tops, Ms. Tanaka wears a big, burgurdy-colored bow that she chose herself.

Ms. Sanao's white shirt is actually her father's old dress shirt, which gives her uniform a baggy, grunge look.

The outfits, they say, are a world apart from their real school uniforms - knee-length, plaid skirt an feminine blouse - which they tucked away in their school bags during their Tokyo to shopping trip.
The real school uniforms, says Ms. Tanaka, "aren't as cool." ENDS.

(This article: "High-school confidential: Japanese girls in uniforms aren't necessarily students" was published in Asian Wall Street Journal on Aug 5, 2003.)
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