*** Japanese schools Japanese Education Japan

Japanese Schools

Japanese school uniform
Figure 1.--Japanese state schools may or may not require school uniforms. Almost all private schools do require uniforms, these boys are from a prestigious Tokyo private school.

Japan has undergone sweeping changes in the past century, emerging from a feudal society to an industrial powerhouse. This journey took western countries a millenium but the Japanese negotiated the sweeping social changes in only a century. One thing remained constant throughout that journey until well into the 1980s. Japan's much-lauded modern education system is considered by many to have been one of the key elements in the country's emergence as a highly industrialized nation. Industry has long have recognized the value of broadly trained workers. Landed aristocrats often want to restrict education, byt industrial planners see the need for an educated--if not always well paid work force. And Japan in the late 19th century was determined to industrialize. Individuals likewise saw education as the means to achieve personal advancement. In the Japanese system, where one attends school largely determines one's ultimate social status and financial success. As a result, students from a young age work extremely hard to qualify for the best possible schools.The Japanese paid extraodinary attention to attire fitting one's station in life. Artists, teachers, businessmen, housewives, young unmarried women, athletes all have their instantly recognizable ways of dressing--and when the country's public education system was established, this was applied to children as well. For secondary school students, that meant Prussian cadet uniforms for boys and English sailor suits for girls. Japan was the only major country to outfit its school children in military uniforms. And for younger boys, school uniforms meant short pants. The Japanese at the on set of public education strongly believed in uniforms for both elementary and secondary school children and this tradition continues unabated. 


Most Japanese children go to the country's excellent state schools.  The private sector is relatively small, except for after school cram schools.  Japan does not have the deep-seated social problems and resulting serious discipline standards in its schools that face American and some European parents--causing them to flee the state system. Japanese schools have high standards and produce excellent results, even from students from low-income families. Japanese scgools have been criticized, however, for the great pressure put upon students and the failure to engender creative thought.

Historical Trends

Educational establishments existed in fedual Japan. The modern educational system began to yake shape after the last Shogan, Hitotsubashi Yoshinobu, resigned in 1867 and the Emperor, Mutsuhito, assumed the powers of the actual head of state. Mutsuhito took the name Meiji ("Enlightened Government") to designate himself and his reign. Feudal fiefs were surrendered to the Emperor who ininitated a series of political and social reforms aimed at transforming Japan into a modern state. One of these steps was the creation of a public education system by the enactment of an education law in 1872 which mase 4 years of compulsory education manditory. This was extended to 6 years in 1907. Primary education was coeducationanal and free. No uniforms were required for primary children, but many schools adopted them. Those primary schools requiring school uniforms in the 20th century have usually required short pants for boys. After World War II a style of short short pants based on European boys clothes were commonly adopted and continues to be commonly used in many schools. Secondary education involved fees and girls could attend separate schools. The Japanese approach toward education was clearly shown in the choice of uniforms for secondary school children. The growing importance of the military and the preceived need to regiment and mold children is apparent in the choice of military styled uniforms. Prussia was at the time the leading military power in Europe and had succeded in forming a new German Empire after crushing France in a brief war. Thus Prissian cadet uniforms were chosen for Japanese secondary school boys. England was the primary naval power of the day and English sailor suits were chosen for the girls. The power of tradition is apparent when you consider that Prussia no longer exists, Prussia/Germany has been demilitarized, Geman youth would not think of wearing such uniforms to school, Japanese militarists have been descredited and Japan demilitarized, yet Japanese school children still march off to school in military uniforms.


We have few details on the Japanese education system at this time. Of course the organization and age of the children has canged over time. We have littleinformation on earlier periods. We have some information on the modern system. We do not know how common nursery schools are. There seem to be quite a number of kindergartens. I an mot sure if kindergrten is required. Presumably the children would be about 5 years old. Smocks are not a common school grment in Japan, but they are cmmonly worn in Japanese kindergartens. We believe that children begin primary school at age 6. There are currently 6 years of primay school which mean children in the final years are 11-12 years old. There are then 6 years of secondary school. Generally this is split into junior and senior high schools. Japanese students graduate at age 17-18 years of age agter 12 years of primary and secondary schools.

Figure 2.--These boys at this Japanese private school wear grey short pants suits with dark knee socks. As it is after school, most of them have let there knee socks fall down.

Tradition and Change

Japan as a country has a fascinating mixture of tradition and ulta modern technological change. Confronting modernity began with Commodore Perry and his Black Ships (1853) and then the Mejii Restoration (1867). The country's schools are also an interesting mixture. As part of the Mejii reforms, Japan began building a modern school system. Education authorities chose uniforms basdon the great military powers of the day. Boys wore a kind of Prussian cadet uniform and girls wore a uniform based on that of the BRItish RoyalNavy. Many schools are tradition bound despite the fact that the country's left wing teacher's union is very influential. Teaching method are traditional and include extenive wrote learning. Left wing influence has had little impact on the traditional role of the teacher as an authoraitarian figure. Japan must have been the only country in the world that because of the association with militarism did not for years fly the flag or sing the national anthem Kimigayo at schools. Even after being ordered by the Ministry of Education to include the flag and anthem in graduation and other ceremonies, the left-wing teacher's unions resisted. Yet school children were usually taught a version of history that portrayed the country as a victim of World War II rather than a perpetrator of terrible attrocities. Only at the end of the century has flying the flag and singing the national anthem began to become common place at Japanese schools.

Age Conventions

Modern Japanese schoolwear and school uniforms vary signifivantly depending on age. We do not yet have historical information before World Wwar II, but age differention is notable after the War. Generally primary children wore short pants uniforms and then long pants for junior and senior hifh high school. Some junior high schools in the 1950s and 60s had short pants uniforms, but long pants were more common. Another major change was the shift to the Prussian-styled milkitary uniform when school children began junior high school. Junior highs adopted the English sailor style. Most Japanese school children attend different schools for primary, junior high, and senior high schools. A few private schools offer all these different levels in one school. Here the uniform is age greaded with yhe primary children wearing short pants and the secondary-level students wearing similar styles, but with long pants.


We note school wear at Japanese schools for a range of school activities. Here we including coming and going to school as well as classroom wear. Children of course take off their caps and their jackets for class. We assume the same was true for blazers in the schools that had them. Primary children oalso take off their shoes. We are less sure about secondary students. There are also specialized classes, school trips as well as a range of other activities. The most destinctive clothes are of course for gym, but schoolwear also varied depended on other activities at the school.


Many but not all Japanese schools have seasonal uniforms are make seaonal adjustments. This of ourse only occurs at those schools with uniforms and is most common at private schools. Some schools have entirely different uniforms for summer and winter. Most schools make only minor changes such as adding seaters as jackets to the summer school uniform. Most of this occurs at state primary schools. The secondary schools have essentially the same uniforms for both summer and wnter.

Types of Schools

Uniform styles are very different in the elementary and secondary schools.  The decision on the uniform is up to the individual school. There is a wide variety of styles in the elementary schools, but the secondary schools are more uniform. I'm not sure why there is such uniformity if the decision is up to the individual schools. Not only are uniforms required, but most schools, again especially the secondary schools, rigorously enforce the regulations adopted. Many secondary schools in the 1990s have begun to adopt new uniforms with a British look and move away from the former military styles worn at almost all schools.

Regional Trends

Schoolwear Styles

We note a variety of schoolwear styles. These styles have changed over time with differeing attitudes toward school wear as well as adjustments affected by fashion trends. Regional trends are aldso a factor. Most Japanese studemnts wore school uniforms in the early 20th century. These were simple unoiformds with a simple military style. The boys worn uniforms with A prussian look--especially the secondary schools. The girls wore British looking sailor dresses. After World war II, attitudes changed. Manu primary schools dropped uniform requirements. Quite a number of schools continued to require a uniform, but the uniforms adopted at most schoolds no longer had a military look. The styles adoopted had a European look. Most secondary schools, however, retained the military looking school uniform. These military uniforms are still widely worn at secondary schools, but some schools have adooted British-style blazers.


We have developed some basic information about the garments worn by Japanese school. For the most part the basicgarments are the same as those worn in other countries, although the styling has tended to follow a different time line than in the West. The most destinctive aspect of Japanese school uniforms has been the headwear worn by the children. Many Japanese school children, about two-thirds of the primary school children, since World War II do not wear school uniforms. Rather they wear their regular clothes to school. Thus dress at these schools follow the fashion trends of the day. Boys at these schools wore the short cut short pants popular until the 1990s. Boys are now wearing the longer cut shorts or even long pants like boys in Europe. Japanese school uniforms vary depending on age, type of school, and gender. They basically wear uniform garments adopted from western countries, although in some cases styles that are well over 100 years old. Many public elementary schools do not wear uniforms, but just their ordinary clothes. Most other school children do wear uniforms.


Japan did not have a public school system until the late-19th century. There were a range of traditional institutions such as temple schools. And Japan developed the higest literacy rate in Asia (mid-19th century). As far as we know, the chilkderen mostly boys wore their own clothese to these schools--tradituional robes. Only with the Meiji Resoration did Japan begin to build a public school system based on Western education models (1869). This took some time, althoughthe Japanese rapidly expanded the system, eventually including children from low-income families and girls. At first the children continued to wear their tradutional clothes to school, although the reachers (mostly men) were instructed to wear Western clothes. Fir a considerable period the only western clothes the children wore were that the boys wore Prussian styled cadet caps. Japan had by the the turn of the-20th cenbtury creared a substantial public education system, porimaroily a primary system. After the turn-of-the 20th century Japan began expanding the secondary system, at first mostly for boys. And in these schools they introduced uniforms, cadet schools for boys and sailor outfits for the girls. Gradually the primary children also began wearing unifirms. After Workd War II, the primary schools no longer had mandated uniforms. Private schools mostly continued to have uniforms. Some of thhe state schools over time adopted basic uniforms, but most did not. The children began wearing Western styled clothes. The secondary schools continued to have uniforms. mostlky the pre-War cadey styles and sailor outfits.


We do not yet have any information on the material used for Japanese school clothing. Hopefully our Japanese readers will provide us some information on this subject.

standard Japanese school uniforms
Figure 3.--These outfits are typical elementary schoolwear available from national oufitters. Most public schools will select a style like this rather any expensive or distinctive style.

Gender Trends

Before the Meiji Restoration very few Japanese children attnded schools. The Meiji Restortion by a historical accident occurred at the same time that the Europeans were building pubkic school systems. This had begun in the German states and America and by the mid-19th century Britain and France were following suit. As part of the modernizing impulse, Japaan began building a public school system, the only one in Asia at the time. It was ahenomenal step for a still virtually feudal society. The Japanese followed the European convention of creating separat schools for boys and girls rather than the American coeducational approach. In practice, however, there was a goof bit of coeducation from the beginning. While separate schools predominated in the cities. In the countyside, village schools were coeducational, largely because it was expensive to create separate schools in lightly populated areas. these of course were primary schools. Gradually coeducational promary schools became accepted. And this laid the foundation for educating girls. And when educated together there tended to be kless curriculum differentials. Parents were more accepting of local schools and the Japanese people were perhaps more than any other people willing to comply with government instructions. Secondary education was primarily for boys, but over time this true expanded for girls. Most school children wore their traditional clothes. Over time, Government mandated uniforms began to take hold, at first in the cities and the secondar bschools. The unifiornms were gender specific and here the Japanese selected mukitary uniforms from ghe two countries they most respected: Prussian cadet uniforms for the boys and British Royal Navy uniforms for the girls. After the Pacific War when many primary schools adopted more modern European styles, they often decided to coordinate oufirs, often short pants for the girls and sinmilar skirts for the girls.

Individual Schools

We have some limited information on school uniforms and school wear and a number of individual Japanese schools. Uniforms at individual schools provide some examples of the types of uniforms worn by Japanese school boys. Public schools are less individualistic than private schools. Only about a third of Japanese public elementary scghools require uniforms. Those that do only require white shirts and usually blue and grey short pants. The styles available from the nation-wide outlets are quite similar with only minor stylistic differences. Private school uniforms are often brought at specialized shops and usually more expensive. Private primary schools, all of which I believe are located in cities, sport a wide variety of uniforms -- indeed, Japanese private primary schools serve almost as a living encylclopedia of boys' fashions over the past century. Once a school settles on a uniform, it seems to stick with it forever. I have heard of one private school that permits (uniform) long pants in the winter, but virtually all the others require short pants year round. Most of them require some sort of jacket from October 1 through May 31, and permit shirtsleeves in the summer. I don't have information on specific private schools outside the Tokyo Metropolitan area, but I believe conditions are similar in Osaka/Kobe/Kyoto.

School Interviews

Getting in to the right school is very important to Japanese children and their parents. If the children get into the appropriate elementary feeder school they can avoid the exam hell that so affects the childhood of many Japanese children. It can also ensure entrance into prestigious universities, assuring job offers from Japan's largest corporations. Thus it is critical that the children and parents make a good impression at school interviews. Department schools offer guidance on how the children and their parents should dress. There are even fairs with different stores offering fashion advice. One of the most critical factors on whic most stores agree is that the boys should wear conservative suits or blazers with short pants.


Many of the Japanese schools which require uniforms have seasonal requirements. I do not yet have details on seasonal changes. The most common is to wear jackets during the colder months. Generally the boys wear shorts whether it is winter or summer. The boys might wear kneesocks rather than ankle socks in the winter. Younger boys might wear tights.

Japnese short pants suits
Figure 4.--These Japanese boys are participating in their primary school graduation. This was a uniform school and the boys are wearing their blazers. Note the flowers they received. It must have been a chilly day as one boy wears gloves. I'm not sure how boys dressed for their graduation at a non-uniform school.


There are a number of interesting ceremonies at Japanese schools. Our information is incomplete at this time, but we have begun to collect some basic information. An ceremony of considerable importance is when children begin primary schools. This is certainly a major even in the life of every Japanese child. Many parents buy a suit for the occassion which afterwards is often rarely worn. There is also a ceremony when a child graduates from primary school. Boys at uniform schools wear their best uniforms, in some cases blazers. We are not sure how boys at non-uniform schoold dress for this occassion. The children receive a graduation certificate. The boys pictured here also received flowers (gigure 4). We know less about secondary school. I am not sure if there is an important first day ceremony, but of course gradution is very important. Hopefully our Japanese readers will provide us some insights into these ceremonies.


The authors have little information in what Japanese boys think about their school uniforms. Some reports indicate that some boys object to wearing short pamts in cold wather. Other reports suggest that many boys consuder short pants to be childish. Thus most are very happy about entering junior high school so they can wear long pants. The fact that few boys wore short pants at home after entering junior high school is an indication that they were not very popular with the boys. This has begun to change somewhat in the late 1990s as boys do wear the long baggy shorts as casual wear. Boys above elementary school age no longer wear the shorter style still worn as part of school uniforms.

Unknown Images

We note a variety of images of Japanese schools that we do not fully understand. It is not clear to us just what is being depicted in the schools. This includes both images taken in school and school activities outside of school. Hopefully our Japanese readers will provide us some insights as to what is happening in the images.

University Preparation

The Japanes prise higher education, perhaps more than any other national group, certainly more than Americans. The two great former imperial universities--Tokyo and Kyoto--represent for most Japanese the peak of academic success. Graduates of these universities are considered the best prospects by public and private employers. The demanding high-school curriculum is largely designed as preparation for the difficult and highly competitive university entrance examinations. There is a grrat dealmof rote memory work. Japanese highschools donot stress or even incourage creative work. The final university exams are especially rigorous. Many students attend one of the large number of extracurricular "cram" schools (juku) that help them prepare for the examinations. Well to do Japanese parents might send their less acasdemically inclied boys overseas to study. Clever boys, however, always go to Japanese schools so they can gain access to a prestigious national university. High-school graduates who do not pass the examinations on their first attempt often study intensively for a year and retake the tests; a growing number of passed-over candidates, however, pursue undergraduate degrees at foreign universities. Interestingly, while Japanese highschools are much more demanding than American schools, Japanese universities are often less demanding.

Foreign Students

There are a substantial numbers of foreign families in Japan. These families are associated with the diplomatic corps, foreign compaies, academics, missonaries, and others. Most of the children go to special schools or foreigners which are taught in English or other foreign languages. Both because of the language and different educational program, few foreigners attend Japanese schools. I'm not sure here if there are some nationalities that are more prone to enroll their children into Japanese schools. Some parents are interested in the cultural experience thatv attending Japanese schools afford the children, but the great majority of foreign parents opt for the security of one of the internatiinal schools. There are also mixed couples where foreigners have marroed Japanese. Here we have little information. Generally speaking therec are relatibely few such marriages as the Japanese are extremelly racially concious and many look down on marrying people of other races.


Some basic vocabulary may be helpful for English readers in better understanding Japanese education and school uniforms. Here is a basic lesson in a Japanese language class about school in Japan. As the book says, let's talk about school in Japan. The school year runs from the beginning of April to the last week of March. School is year 'round, with several breaks and vacation times.

Terror in Japan

HBC's assessment of Japanese schools would be incomplete without addressing the horendous incidents being reported at the county's vaunted schools. Japanese parents had thought that their children were save virtually anywhere. Very young children commonly walked to school or took public transport. Often they would wear brightly colored caps to make sure that motorists saw them. It was inconceivable to nearly all Japanese that their children would be rndarger at school. This was seen by the Japanese to be a problem in violence-plagued America, not their own safe society. Until recently they were correct. What has happened in Japan?

Personal Experiences

We have acquired few personal experiences from Japanese reasders. We have archived a Japanese graduation scene in 1939. A Japanese aid worker in the Philippines, Hiro Kawashima, asks the question, "Is school uniform necessary? He comments on his school in the Philippines as well as his own experiences in Japan. In Japan, apparently student leaders helped enforce the uniform regulations. We also have found some individual portraits, although we do not have any biographical details to go with many of these portraits.

Vintage Garments

Each Japanese school decides if its wants a uniform and if so what the uniform should be, There are various options for the primary schools. Many primary schools chose a uniform of white shirt and blue shorts for the boys and white blouse and blue skirt for the girls. Thus these coninations are often offered in catalogs and mass market stores. Basic white shirts and blue shorts have been a common style at primary schools since the 1960s. A good example is the white shirt and blue shorts displayed in an unidentified internet catalog during 2010.

Information Needed

Unfortunately the Web Master has received few comments from the many Japanese visitors to this website.  Perhaps the language is the problem. This is unfortunate as other than Americans, Japanese visitors are by far the most frequent surfers at HBC and apparently there is substantial interest on the subject.  Hopefully future Japanese visitors will provide more detailed observations on their country's school uniforms. Two Japnese visitors have made very valuable contributions to our website, but we incourage more Japanese visitors to do do.

Additional Information

Related Links: Careful this will exit you from the Boys' Historical Clothing web site, but these sites are highly recommended

New Zealand E-book: New Zealand schools eBook available
School Uniform Web Site New Apertures Press E-book on British schools in progress
Boys' Preparatory Schools: Lovely photographic book on British Preparatory Schools during the 1980s with over 200 color and black and white images.
British E-book: British preparatory schools eBook available


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Created: June 5, 1999
Last updated: 6:03 PM 11/2/2020