School uniforms remain a cultural conundrum

November 27th, 2009 by Jason Jenkins

The schoolgirl uniform means different things to different people

The schoolgirl uniform means different things to different people

Ah, the Japanese schoolgirl, that perennial trendsetter and object of adoration. Few items of clothing evoke such a spectrum of emotions as her attire (be careful when Googling it). Once considered a sartorial example of the East’s rigid conformity, Japan’s schoolgirl uniform has now reached such a globally iconic status that earlier this year the government tried harnessing its powers through “Kawaii Diplomacy.”

For better or worse, it may be working. On Tuesday, the Asahi Shimbun reported that CONOMi, the Niigata-based company making nanchatte seifuku (fake school uniforms) has seen its business booming, not only here in Tokyo but in China, South Korea, Australia and Brazil.

There are dozens of ways to extrapolate why this is, and for each there seems to be a journalist and TV producer poised to explain it to us. But beware, culture critics and Asian-desk correspondents, for Momus is on to you. On his fantastic blog, he vents his frustration with Western documentaries that claim insight into Japanese street style, of which the schoolgirl uniform is an integral component:

“Every Western documentary that purports to be about Japanese style is in fact a documentary about the Western concept of free will.”

A hyperbolic statement to be sure, but the point is valid: Western journalists almost invariably project their own ideas of conformity onto the schoolgirl’s fashion choices, but if they really wanted to know what uniforms mean in Japan today, they should ask the people who actually wear them. The simple fact is that schoolgirl and kogyaru style do not fit neatly into the conformist vs. rebel dichotomy set up by so many aspiring documentary makers. The lines between the traditional and evocative have blurred too far, and there’s a case to be made that many of the blazer-and-skirt-wearing tribe are not “rebelling” against anything, but are instead reveling in the spotlight that society has placed on them.

If this is the case, then the government-funded “cute diplomacy” program is the biggest spotlight yet.

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