They are a famous symbol of Japanese culture…odd since they were modeled after French and Prussian military uniforms. The Japanese school uniform is everywhere in manga, anime, and how we think about Japan. The uniform held many meanings throughout the 20th century. It started as a way for Japan to show other nations how upright its citizen are. Only the best and most national citizens would wear their country’s military uniform everyday. It was only a short jump to make all school age children where it with that way of thinking.
After World War II, the school uniform was a visual link with the past. The idea that only the most upright citizen wore the uniform continued…which left a strange dynamic since mostly children and teens wore the uniform.
Guys wore uniforms modeled after the Japanese Army. Girls wore uniforms modeled after the Japanese Naval uniform. Girls didn’t wear uniforms other than traditional kimono until 1920. Their uniforms were modeled after the 19th century English naval uniform. They were certainly more practical for movement than the kimono – one of the main reasons why they were adopted. The uniform also formed a bridge between traditional Japanese dress and the more casual Western clothing that was making inroads during the 1920s.
Over time the uniforms became less militarized as they became normal wear. This happened during the rise of the American blue jean in the 1950s if you want some contrast.
Over time, the uniform became associated with being chaste because only children and teens wore them. That chasteness gave rise to the sexual fetish that surrounds the uniform. It also gave rise to the Lolita complex in literature and popular thinking. Uniformed girls and boys were considered a wholesome part of family life. Anything wholesome and innocent can become a target for a sexual fetish. The 1950s saw the rise of erotic manga, photos, and illustrations depicting this fetish. The 60s and 70s saw the fetish take a harder turn toward rape by monsters, school masters, and elderly relatives.
The fetish of old men for uniformed boys and girls leeched into the way those teens view themselves. The Lolita complex culture in particular had an influence. The “bible” of the Lolita complex, the erotic manga Hizashi, by Azuma Hideo sparked an interest of otaku men in the lolita culture. It opened the door to works like Sailor Moon and other manga.
The landmark book for uniform culture was Tokyo High School Girl Uniform Fieldbook that featured drawings of official uniforms of different high schools. The book led to private school began to offer designer uniforms featuring plaid skirts, different length blazers, and other changes to the traditional uniform to draw in students. Over time different length blazers and skirts began to be associated with “hooligans.” Oddly long skirts are worn by the “bad” girls. Perhaps so they can pummel people more discretely?
Throughout the 90s, uniform styles for girls changed to match and counter media portrayals. What continues in media, manga, and anime is the focus on the uniformed girl. Guys also see some fixation, but not to the same extent as females. Their time was during the early 1900s. The uniformed teen stereotype changes with each decade. Some people view the uniform with anxiety and fear as teens become more molded by marketing and materialism.
Although that isn’t anything new. The Japanese school uniform was ultimately a product of marketing.
Kinsella, Sharon (2002). What’s Behind the Fetishism of Japanese School Uniforms? Fashion Theory. 6. pp. 215-238.
Japanese Delinquents. TVTropes. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/JapaneseDelinquents
Japanese School Uniform. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_school_uniform