Seifuku (制服) is the Japanese word for “uniform” and refers to any set of clothes that identify the members of any organization, particularly when they are performing their intended activities. It is used to address any kind of uniform, including those worn by school students.
Even the usual Japanese school uniforms, which are formal pieces of clothing intended to keep the solemnity of educational institutions, have traits that distinguish them highly from the ones seen in western countries. As such, they can be quite eye-catching for the public outside of Japan.
Fiction works like manga, anime and videogames have done a great work popularizing such school uniforms around the world, as they are protagonized many times by young people who are students. This has arised an interest for their history, their facts, and even where to buy authentic pieces of Japanese school outfits online.
As they are certainly interesting, I hope this page will be able to answer as many questions as possible for you.
A brief about education in Japan…
To better understand the use of real uniforms in Japan, I will start with a short explanation about how Japanese grades and levels work.
Education for children usually starts around the age of 3. They remain in a kindergarten level for three years until age 5.
From then on, elementary school is started to last for six grades. Each grade corresponds to an academical year, and students are about 12 years old when they finish.
To that follows a level which is called middle school or junior high school, which lasts for three more grades and ends around the age of 15.
After that comes upper high school, sometimes referred just as high school, which lasts for three more grades until about age 18.
Elementary and middle (or junior high) levels are compulsory by law. Upper high school is not, but it is also undergone by the overwhelming majority of students in Japan.
After finishing both high school levels, graduates can continue their studies in a university, vocational school, or any other option of superior education.
In which schools or levels are uniforms used?
Curiously enough, kindergarten children are often required to wear a uniform, and to change clothes depending on the activity that they are performing. The styles for these outfits vary, but commonly they include a bright colored hat when outside of the school building. It is usual for Japanese kindergarten children to do lots of activities outside — the bright colored hat is intended for them to be seen easily, thus protecting them from traffic!
If you are interested in more details about such attire, you can visit our Japanese kindergarten uniforms page.
Elementary school students are not usually required to be uniformed, but it’s traditional for them to bring a specific kind of backpack to school, called a randoseru (ランドセル). Randoseru backpacks are sturdy, made of leather-like materials, and traditionally follow a color code: black for boys and red for girls. They had been required by many schools in the near past.
In most recent years, other colors of randoseru have become popular for both genders. Schools have also become less strict in their requirement, yet as a tradition, they are still widely used. Given their special construction — sturdy and often handmade, they are also quite expensive for a backpack! Yet, they are designed and capable to last usable for many years.
If you are interested to know more about this traditional Japanese item, feel free to check our Japanese randoseru backpack page. Info on where to buy authentic randoseru backpacks is also included.
Opposed to the elementary level, it could be almost safe to say that both high school levels always require their students to be uniformed. Despite minor differences in color and shape of the details, those uniforms follow a very similar pattern country-wide.
As they are the most searched for kind of Japanese uniform, I will detail them in the following sections.
The traditional Japanese high school uniform for boys
Called a gakuran (がくらん), typical middle and high school uniform for boys consists in black or very dark blue trousers paired with a same-colored jacket with buttons. Those buttons are made of a visible metallic color, aligned in a vertical column at the center of the jacket, and sometimes have the logo of the school engraved on them.
An extended and detailed page about the gakuran can be found on our Gakuran: The Japanese high-school uniform for boys section.
It also includes information on a Japanese graduation ceremony tradition of romantic implications, performed by some, which involves one of the buttons of the gakuran. Such tradition is quite unknown outside of Japan — even some Japanese people don’t know of it!
The traditional Japanese high school uniform for girls
In the case of middle and high school girls, a typical uniform is called a sailor fuku (セーラー服) consists mainly of a pleated skirt and a sailor-neck blouse with a laced ribbon in the chest. Black, blue, grey and white are the most recurrent colors for such attire, but other colors are sometimes seen, depending on the school.
Because of the skirt, socks are visible on this kind of uniform. Schools may also require an specific style and color for the socks, usually white or navy with ankle or knee lengths.
For more detailed information about the sailor fuku, you can check our Sailor Fuku: The Japanese high-school uniform for girls section.
It also includes facts on fashions regarding changes in the length of the skirt or the type of socks, performed by students and not necessarily permitted by school rules — something that many times has fallen short of stopping rebellious girls.