The Japanese high-school uniform for boys
If you have seen any Japanese middle or high school students both in real life or depicted in some form of popular media, you may have noticed that their uniforms are quite unique when compared to those dominantly worn around the world.
Such particular Japanese styles for uniforms came into existence in the early 20th century as a part of a modernization process of Japan, which was started in the Meiji era — a time of change and opening to the world that took place from mid 19th century to 1912. Back then they became the standard for the country, and are still used today in many schools for these levels.
From now on, this page will focus only and deeply in the gakuran, which has been the traditional boy’s uniform in Japan since those days to the present time. For the traditional girl’s uniform, called a sailor fuku, you can visit its specific page here. For a general view about the education and uniform use of Japan, you can visit our main article here.
Traits and anatomy of a Gakuran uniform
The essential parts of a gakuran outfit consist of a white shirt, a straight-lined dark jacket to be worn over it — usually black, but sometimes a very deep shade of blue; and straight-lined trousers, always in a matching shade with the jacket.
Additionally, the jacket has a vertical alignment of buttons, usually standing out in a bronze or golden color, which are metallic and sometimes depict the school’s crest on them.
Traditionally, a matching military cap is also used, always in the same general color of the outfit. Such caps can still be seen today, but their use has decreased over the years — along with the strict formality of many students and institutions.
Origins and meaning of the Gakuran
To fully understand what created the uniqueness of the gakuran some facts have to be taken into account.
First of all, adopting new styles for school uniforms was an attempt to modernize the clothing styles of Japan also for students, something that had been previously done with uniforms for some official jobs. In a social context of growing interaction with western cultures, such modernity was understood as imitating their styles.
Yet, instead of taking western typical school uniforms as a base, its inspiration was taken from military uniforms used in central Europe at the time. A choice like this seemed right in the context, and was probably made looking for something simple enough to be easy to sew, mass-produce and wear — all while maintaining a feel of solemnity and order.
The name the new uniform received, gakuran (学ラン), has a simple but meaningful origin from two japanese words — gaku (学), which means learning; and ran (らん or ラン), which used to refer to the Netherlands, but got an extended meaning of other western countries.
A cultural curiosity of the Gakuran’s second button
Sometimes, gakuran uniforms lacking one of their buttons — the second one starting at the top, can be seen. Maybe you could find a young man wearing one in the streets, but specially, they may be present during graduation ceremonies. When such a button is missing, the cause is probably a curious tradition that consists in a boy cutting it off from his uniform and giving it to his girlfriend as a romantic gift — or even maybe to a girl he likes, as a declaration of romantic intentions.
Even if a meaning like this is known by many young people in current Japan — yet not widespread enough to be known by all, it seems that the story about its origin has got somewhat lost along the way, at least in some cases.
The first known cases of a boy giving the second button from his uniform to his loved one were sadly during the Second World War, where those young men were about to enter the army and possibly lose their lives while in combat. The button they chose was the one nearest to their heart, and they gave it to their girlfriends as a symbol of their life and feelings — precisely, their heart; for them to have it and to keep it safe, with the hope of being reunited again.
About Gakuran use in current days
Despite their convenience, history and their long-lasting status as a standard, gakuran uniforms have slowly been losing much of their omnipresence in later years. Many current schools are newly favoring a change towards more western-looking uniforms for students in Japan, not as a political regulation but as a preference in style.
The basic reason for this change is a preference — even from students, for a more refined style, even if this means losing some of the uniqueness that Japan has had from its own uniform style during many decades. This preference seems to be born from two contextual aspects.
One of them is how gakuran uniforms are popularly associated to adolescence as a young age, maybe of immaturity — despite it is a beautiful part of life. For this reason, gakuran are still quite widely used in middle schools, while a majority of high schools are seeking a more mature look.
The other one has come along eradicating a somewhat bad image that has been associated to this uniform and specially to its feminine counterpart, the sailor fuku, due to rebellious groups of adolescents modifying and wearing them inadequately on the streets.