the history of Japan's school uniforms

Coming from California, where school uniforms are rare, getting used to a country where they’re common was strange at first. Huge swaths of Japanese society wear uniforms, including bank tellers, female office workers and Japan Rail employees. (I kept mistaking the latter for police officers my first few weeks here). Here are some questions that J-List’s Facebook and Twitter users had about Japanese school uniforms.

Why do Japanese wear school uniforms?

In the currently-airing Kobayashi-san’s Dragon Maid, Kobayashi-san takes Kanna shopping for school supplies. “Everything here is all the same. Why?” Tohru asks, and Kobayashi replies, “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s to remove the distinctions between all students. Male and female. Japanese and foreigner.” She doesn’t say it, but “rich and poor” is another reason uniforms exists: so all students can be educated the same, no matter what their parents’ background happens to be.

How do the different styles of uniforms work?

The two main types of uniforms are “sailor suit” (with a sailor-style collar) and blazer (without the collar). Uniforms are worn in junior high and high school, never in elementary school. There are summer and winter uniforms, and nearly all students make the switch on the same day (October 1st and April 1st).

Where did sailor suit uniforms come from?

It’s often the case that things from Japan that seem unique or odd to us originally came from Great Britain. In the 19th century, it was fashionable to dress children up in boys’ sailor suits and have them photographed or painted. This was very kawaii to Meiji-era Japanese, who adopted the practice. The first modern sailor-type school uniforms appeared in 1920. Sadly sailor uniforms are dying out, being slowly replaced by blazer-type uniforms.

Do students really wear sukumizu?

School-designated swimsuits are a thing, but the “skirt type” swimsuits (the kind of the line across the bottom) are no longer used. While still a fixture in anime and cosplay, they’ve become an otaku dream, not unlike the legendary Anna Miller’s waitress uniforms. *wipes a tear*

Uniforms in anime are often very stylish. Are they like that in real life?

While public schools will usually have plain vanilla school uniforms, it’s quite common for private schools to hire Paris-trained designers to create beautiful custom uniforms for the school, to help recruit more students.

Why are skirts sometimes very short?

As with all things, hem lines rise and fall with fashions. As is commonly seen in anime, schools have teachers and class representatives who hassle students who have shortened their skirts beyond regulation. Once a teacher got on my daughter’s case for dying her hair blonde, but it was her natural color.

Do all schools have uniforms?

I believe so. Sometimes they schools take a relaxed approach to them. My son’s high school just said, “Everyone wear some uniform, we don’t care what kind.” So most students used their old junior high uniforms.

Do girls do like they do in anime, always wearing a specific star-shaped pin or hair ribbon or something?

The J-List staff say no, no one would do that, it’s a gimmick used to create a “charm point” for the character in question. I’m pretty sure Japanese girls don’t standardize what color shimapan they wear, either, like anime characters seem to do.

What’s up with girls asking boys for their second button at graduation? 

In an emotional scene in our excellent game Kana Okaeri, a girl asks the main character (who she likes) for the second button on his school uniform as a keepsake. This is commonly done on graduation day.

Does J-List carry school uniforms?

We do! We’ve got several full uniforms in stock (in female and otokonoko sizes), plus you can get those uwabaki school shoes and official school bags on the site.

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About the Author

Peter Payne profile image
Peter Payne
Owner and Top Otaku at

I live in Japan and I run J-List, an anime shop famous for shimapan and Tentacle Grape. I love being able to bring Japanese culture to the world.