Monday, March 14, 2011

Culture Shock - School Uniforms

In America, we pride ourselves on our individuality. This is a cultural aspect that emanates all aspects of American life, from our storytelling to the celebrities we admire. This focus on individuality also goes to the clothes that American children and teenagers wear at school, which is up to the individual to wear a set of clothes considered acceptable in school's dress code. There is a loose set of standards that is applied in school that is enforced only when these standards are grossly ignored. This difference leads to a slight culture shock for an American who is watching an anime series. In our culture individuality is sacred, so the idea for many people to have a standard school uniform is unheard of. I will examine Japanese School uniforms and explore why is it that the American school system does not have school uniforms.

School uniforms were introduced in Japan in the late 19th century and the country is known for the colorful and unique uniforms that the students wear in middle school and high school. In Japan, the male school uniform is based off a Meiji-style military uniform which was based off European military uniforms. This uniform typically has buttons from top to bottom and has pants of the same color. I use the term typically because it is not indicative of all uniforms which varies depending on the school. The female school uniform is known as the Sailor Fuku, and it is based off a British Sailor uniform. The female school uniform is typically a blouse with a sailor style collar, that is tied together with a ribbon. The lower half is normally a pleated skirt that can either be solid, or of various colors. In Japan, they have a uniform for winter that has more layers and in summer they have a different uniform that allows more air to flow in the uniform. Each school has a different uniform, with some schools having a reputation for the kind of outfits they have compared to other schools. School uniforms are also heavily fetishized because of the association with youth. It is also very popular in the otaku community because it is so heavily emphasized in anime, manga, japanese video games, and doujinshi.

C.C. wearing the Ashford Academy uniform
There is an innumerable amount of examples of anime, manga, video games, and doujinshi that features school uniforms. Well known examples of video games with school uniforms are series that take place in school settings like Final Fantasy VIII, Valkryia Chronicles 2, Persona 4, and many more. In anime and manga series, school uniforms are so ubiquitous that is much easier listing the series that are bereft of school uniforms. This is because a large majority of anime series takes place in a Japanese middle school or a Japanese high school where school uniforms are used the most. Even with the large amount of series featuring school uniforms, there are some that really stick out. One of the most famous of all of them are Sailor Moon, whose name is derived because Sailor Moon and all of her fellow senshi fight in Sailor Fuku. Another well-known school uniform that is seen often in Anime Conventions is the school uniform found in Code Geass's Ashford Academy. In fact, the school uniforms play such an important role in the identity of an anime that many manga artists and anime producers spend lots of time researching school uniforms. Long after anime series end, if cosplayers wear a school uniform as their cosplay, they usually do cosplay from something that is recognizable and memorable.

Awesome long-haired Haruhi in a uniform
 If school uniforms are so iconic, why is it that American schools don't use school uniforms? The answer is relatively simple, there are cultural, economic and legal reasons why. As I wrote in the introduction paragraph it is part of American culture to value individuality. To create this illusion of individuality, we promote the idea that kids in public school wear whatever clothes they want. I say "illusion" because we all know that during middle school and high school that there is heavy societal pressures for the teenager to fit in with modern fashions and tastes, so they are in effect being individual by following the collective whole. We promote individuality, at least in theory. In America, we also don't have an extensive history of school uniforms like Japan and many other countries do. The second reason is that having students wearing their own clothes is good for the economy because they feel the pressure to fit in the latest trends, so they buy new clothes. If they had to wear everyday clothes only two days of the week as opposed to seven days, they have less motivation to buy clothes to fit in. The third reason is the legal ramifications behind not wearing school uniforms. There was a legal ruling in 1969 by the supreme court that said that student have the right to free expression in a public school. This is why a private school like a Catholic school could have school uniforms, but a public high school wont likely push for high schools anytime soon. These three reasons combined means that school uniforms will remain mainly outside of America, and if they are in America, they are done in private schools.

When an American sees an anime, manga, video games, or doujinshi, they will notice the school uniform since it is not a norm in American society. In Japan, there is a long history behind the school uniform which explains why it holds a special place in the hearts of many people in Japan. It is so ubiquitous that it is harder naming a series from Japan that takes place in Japan that doesn't feature a character in a school uniform. In the USA, there are cultural, economic, and legal reasons why we don't have school uniforms the same way that they do in Japan. In the end, it makes things interesting because in America we get to see a window in Japanese culture through a small detail like wearing school uniforms.

If you have any comments, feel free to post a response in the bottom.

Culture Shock Series
Culture Shock #2 - Rail Transportation


Anonymous said...

I didn't really realize that this sort of culture shock existed; maybe more as a cultural oddity instead of a shock. heh Then again, I am a product of the private, Catholic school education you mention. I had to wear a uniform throughout grade/middle school, and had to adhere to a fairly strict dress code in high school.

Regardless, there are many many other ways for a person to express their individuality. At the expense of my own fashion sense, I'm glad to have done so through my creativity and personality.

SegaMon said...

Very good post, Kris. Many Americans will automatically recognize a Japanese cartoon (anime etc) purely because of the school uniforms (and maybe the big eyes and purple hair... maybe). :P

KrisZ said...

Well otacabulator, from your experience in Catholic school you feel more of a relation since you had to adhere to strict dress codes and wear a standard uniform. As a person going through a public middle school and high school, the idea of wearing a uniform for a regular uniform is completely foreign to me. I guess I forgot to add that using self-reference as a point your mileage may very in terms of culture shock.

Chris, I totally agree with you. Japanese manga artists and anime creators spend so much time for the uniforms for that reason. An iconic uniform will make your product memorable long after it finished. I could see a Sailor Moon cosplay from a mile away.