Despite or perhaps even because of its prevalence in anime, the traditional sailor-style school uniform, or sailor fuku, is one of the more misunderstood articles of clothing out there, particularly by those viewers who may watch anime only now and again or have little to no direct knowledge of Japanese daily life. I must admit, even as someone who consumed anime voraciously prior to my actual move to Japan, I was still surprised by some of the things I discovered firsthand, especially when it came to things like school-specific rules around sailor fuku and what students could/could not get away with.
I’m a bit of a history geek, so let’s dive into some of that first (I’ll try and keep things succinct, I promise!). The sailor fuku was originally introduced in the early 1920s by Elizabeth Lee, then the principal of Fukuoka Jo Gakuin University (Fukuoka Academy for Women) as a more convenient and comfortable alternative to the kimono, as well as a means of equalization among students of different social backgrounds. If you’re thinking these outfits were (and continue to be) reminiscent of a military-style naval uniform, you’re absolutely right – the sailor fuku was in fact directly modeled after the uniforms worn by the Royal Navy, which Lee had seen during her time as an exchange student in the U.K.
Fast-forward roughly a century and Japanese school uniforms, initially prescribed only for boys before the traditional sailor fuku came along, are of course today universal in both the public and private Japanese school systems, usually required from middle school through to the end of high school (as well as being adopted by plenty of elementary schools to boot). Although the girl’s sailor fuku as we know it was first worn and popularized by older students, it’s now generally associated with junior high school students, the vast majority of Japanese high schools having since switched to a more Western-style uniform for girls, mostly featuring plaid skirts and blouse/blazer combos. (Girls’ elementary school uniforms, on the other hand, if a school chooses to have them, tend to be on the simpler side – for example, a white polo shirt or blouse worn beneath a plain navy-colored pinafore.)
As in plenty of other countries and regions around the globe (my home country of New Zealand being one such example), school uniforms, or more specifically how they’re worn, are often viewed as a potential fashion statement, and it’s not unheard of for girls in Japan to select which junior high school they attend based on the uniform itself. Personalizing the sailor fuku also plays a healthy role in Japanese culture and has done so for decades, with uniforms, just like any other item of clothing, sometimes being modified by the wearer as a means of showcasing their individuality and experimenting with image and self-identity.
However, it’s well worth noting that the more strict, exclusive, or otherwise conservative the school, the less likely such modifications are to be tolerated by its teachers. While anime is rife with students both shortening and lengthening their skirts, removing or altering their shirt ribbons/neckties/bows, wearing non-uniform sweaters or blazers atop their shirts, and switching up the color or style of their socks or stockings (among many other things), these kinds of changes to the standard uniform certainly aren’t customary in every school. As a brief personal anecdote, I was once slightly taken aback when I sat in on a junior high school teacher’s meeting about the state of students’ hair – specifically, the girls’ fringes were apparently getting too long, and every student without exception was ordered to get their bangs trimmed to above a certain length by the start of the following week. So zealous are some schools at upholding convention that there have been various stories reported on over recent years regarding Japanese schools and their rules about student underwear color.
Of course, as with any fashion statement, what’s considered popular or trendy is constantly shifting with the times, and the sailor fuku is no exception. For instance, in the late 1960s and early 70s, it was the sukeban style that was in vogue, with young women who wanted to emulate the girl-gang look wearing their skirts down to their ankles and cropping their tops to bare their midriffs – ex-gang member Arisa from Fruits Basket is a good example of this. In contrast, gyaru fashion, which reached peak popularity in the mid-1990s, dictated that school skirts be worn short by rolling up the waistband and that loose white socks be fixed below the knee with the aid of a special sock glue. People imitating this particular style – one designed to intentionally subvert traditional Japanese standards of feminine beauty and modesty – also commonly darkened their skin, bleached their hair, and wore copious amounts of pale make-up, as seen by Ran in Super Gals! (typical kogal style) or the three heavily made-up high school girls making semi-regular cameo appearances in Durarara!! (ganguro style).
Over the past couple of decades, there’s even been a steady market for “nanchatte” sailor fuku, or “just kidding” uniforms. Students who want to self-coordinate their own uniforms to wear outside of school hours, or people who want to use school uniforms for cosplay purposes, can easily buy such outfits from non-academic catalogs and stores like CONOMi. Indeed, since 2013, CONOMi has held an annual contest to determine which students (both male and female) in Japan best suit their respective school uniforms, with the Grand Prix winners and runners-up becoming that year’s catalog and image model.
So why are sailor fuku so prevalent in anime, even in those titles where a good amount of screentime is given to students’ lives outside of school? Surely not everyone is so wrapped up in fashion that they’re all going out to buy nanchatte sailor fuku for their after-hours escapades? Well, there are several reasons for this. First, there’s the simple matter of Japanese TV being tailored for its audience. A huge amount of anime resolves around school-aged protagonists precisely because this is the target viewership – since students tend to have more time to watch TV in comparison to working adults, this is by default anime’s largest age demographic. Another equally valid point to make is that it’s far less time-consuming and less costly for an anime production team to have their characters wear one type of outfit rather than designing an entire wardrobe for everyone on screen.
However, there’s more to it than just that. Unlike in many other parts of the world, Japanese societal rules dictate that school uniforms often be used as student formal-wear, meaning they’re typically donned on any occasion that could have some bearing on the school itself. Sailor fuku are therefore usually expected to be worn during club activities conducted before classes begin or after they end for the day, at many sports and cultural events, and even to some weddings and funerals. Moreover, it’s quite common for schools to sometimes hold classes or other school activities during the weekend, and for students to attend late afternoon or evening cram school (juku) after their regular school classes. Look in any standard Japanese student handbook and you’ll no doubt find included something along the lines of: “Before and after class, no matter where you are, you represent our school.”
Finally, there’s no getting away from the fact that the sailor fuku has also long been turned into a popular fetish item, both by some Japanese people as well as by fans of the outfit or general pop culture abroad. The image of a schoolgirl whose skirt is caught in the wind and lifted to reveal her underwear, or of a student bending to pick something up from the ground so that her ultra-short skirt is raised above her thighs, is by this point beyond clichéd. Plenty of shounen and ecchi anime like Highschool of the Dead, Samurai Girl: Real Bout High School, and Tenjho Tenge (not to mention countless pornographic titles) are more or less sold on this kind of premise alone – although admittedly, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where straight fanservice ends and parody begins.
Meanwhile, outside of the anime universe, secondhand sailor fuku have been known to be brokered through underground shops known as burusera (a word combining “buruma” as in bloomers and “sera” as in sailor), and even the occasional vending machine has played a part in this fetishized clothing business. However, you won’t find these kinds of stores or infamous vending machines on every dodgy street corner – since both of these things have been largely illegal in Japan since the 90s, this likely isn’t something you’re about to see just by wandering the backstreets of Japan’s seedier city districts.
It should also probably be mentioned that the way in which the sailor fuku has been repeatedly turned into a sex symbol by both men and women of all ages and from the world over has not been lost on Japan – as alluded to earlier, parodying of the trope occurs frequently in anime as well as in real-life pop culture. A solid example of this can be found in one of the singles performed by the Onyanko Club (Kitty Club), a large Japanese girl idol group from the 1980s. Its members often set new lows of political incorrectness through their songs and appearances on evening television shows, with the single ‘Sailor Fuku wo Nugasanaide’ (‘Don’t Take Off My Sailor Fuku’) earning moderate infamy for its cheeky lyrics. This song was later even covered in 2010 by the still-current mega-idol group AKB48 (then-“face of AKB” Maeda Atsuko front and center), and again by HKT48 in 2014.
Getting back to anime, the medium can and often does, as is to be expected, exaggerate the sailor fuku for effect. Altering the skirt length or other uniform details, either for the sake of fanservice or to emphasize or complement a particular character’s personality or archetype, is very common, as is giving the overall design a far more colorful palette than it would have in real life – God forbid an anime school uniform actually be boring. However, as an item of clothing in its own right, the sailor fuku is neither hypersexual in connotation nor intended to be particularly conspicuous. It’s simply one part of daily life for the majority of female junior high school students in Japan – albeit also one that has permeated the fabric (pun fully intended) of Japanese pop culture at large.
Note: This article is an edited version of a post that was originally published on this blog in 2013, primarily as a way of revisiting and updating past work.