This week marked the end of the first term at my high school. Since there are only two terms a year, this a pretty big deal. Everyone is busy. On top of compiling grades and correcting tests teachers are also helping seniors prepare resumes and job applications in hopes that the students will find something enjoyable to do after graduation in the spring. The students worked hard through the final push and were rewarded with a two-day vacation in the middle of the week. When they returned on Friday we celebrated a fresh start with a ceremonious assembly in the morning.
Autumn has arrived in Aomori-ken and that means the students will be required to wear the winter version of the school uniform from now until spring. For boys this means gray slacks, light blue button-up dress shirt, dark blue sweater vest, black sports coat, and a red clip-on tie. No exceptions. Female students must wear a gray skirt, black leggings, light blue button-up shirt, black sweater, and a clip-on red bow-tie. Again, no exceptions. Each student owns one uniform for winter and summer. The total cost for the uniforms comes to about $550 per student and they end up wearing the same set of clothes for the duration of their three year high school career.
As I looked into the crowd at the assembly, the solidarity was striking. The gym floor resembled a giant black rectangle. However, if you take a closer look you’d notice that several students were pushing the envelope with their uniforms. For instance many of the boys attempted to wear their pants lower than they should be. Similarly it has become popular for girls to wear skirts a little higher than intended. With everyone in the same place at the same time, teachers took the opportunity to inspect the students and isolated those who needed to change their appearance. In addition to the uniform issues, many students were selected because of their hair. Male students who had hair covering the ears, forehead, or neck were told to get it trimmed. Any student who had subtle brown highlights or an unorthodox styling was also given a stern warning.
After we sang the school song and the teachers were rounding up students who needed to change their appearance, a coworker asked me what I thought about the uniforms — knowing full-well that we had no such dress code where I taught in Oregon. I told her that, as a teacher, I liked it. The uniforms promote unity and also create a more professional working environment. I should also point out that I have had to dress more professionally in Japan as well. I have worn a shirt and tie every day at work and feel underdressed on the days I don’t bring a sports coat. It’s great. I take more pride in myself and my job because of it.
Also, as my mom pointed out to me in a recent conversation, the school uniform helps level the economic playing field. When I taught in Oregon, and also when I was a student in Alaska, it was quite easy to tell which students came from families with lower incomes. I’m sure there are students in my school in Japan who are more well off financially than others, but I have no way to identify them. It’s great.
With that being said I also told my coworker that although I like the uniforms as a teacher, as a student I would probably hate it. She nodded and then shared something interesting with me. Apparently about ten years ago, some schools in Japan abolished the school uniform. The expensive burden of constantly buying new clothes, behavior issues, and student requests to return to the uniforms ultimately killed the experiment.
“When they are required to wear uniforms, they want to wear whatever they want. When they have to wear their own clothes, they want the uniforms back,” she said as we walked out of the gym. We shared a brief laugh over this observation as I nodded and said I understood.