Sailor Fuku: The Long and Short of it

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Despite or perhaps even because of their prevalence in anime, the humble sailor fuku is one of the more misunderstood articles of clothing out there, particularly by those viewers who watch anime only now and again and have little familiarity with Japanese culture as a whole. The two most common questions seem to be, ‘why is her skirt so short?’, and ‘why do the characters wear their school uniforms even when not at school?’ As a result, the idea that the sailor fuku acts primarily as some sort of fetish item seems to be a reasonably common one. Yeah, Sailor Moon has a lot to answer for.

First introduced in 1921 by Elizabeth Lee, then the principal of Fukuoka Jo Gakuin University, the sailor fuku was modelled after the uniforms worn by the Royal Navy which Lee had seen during her time as an exchange student in the United Kingdom. Today, school uniforms are almost universal in both Japanese private and public school systems, required from after elementary school right through to the end of high school. Although the well-known sailor style collar and tie is not necessarily a part of every uniform (many school uniforms consist of a basic skirt and blouse/blazer combo with a thin ribbon or Western long-tie like in Toradora, or else a pinafore dress over a blouse as in Evangelion), all styles may still be correctly referred to as sailor fuku.

The sailor fuku circa 1921.

Just like in many other places around the globe (my home country of New Zealand being a fine example here), school uniforms in Japan are often viewed as a fashion statement, and it is not unheard of for girls to select which junior high school they attend based on them. Personalised sailor fuku also play a large role in Japanese youth culture and have done so for decades, with uniforms sometimes modified by students as a means of exhibiting individualism and experimenting with their image and identity. Of course, the more strict or exclusive the school, the less likely these modifications are to be tolerated by teachers. The shortening or in some cases lengthening of the skirt, the removal of the ribbon, necktie, or bow, and the hiding of patches and badges beneath the collar are some of the more widespread changes that are made to school uniforms by their wearers.

Over the past several years there’s also been a steady market for ‘nanchatte’ sailor fuku, or ‘just kidding’ uniforms. Students who want to self-coordinate their own uniforms to wear outside of school hours can easily buy them from catalogues and stores like CONOMi, as seen here advertising their 2009 brand collection.

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As with any other fashion though, what’s considered trendy is constantly changing. In the late 1960s and early 70s it was the sukeban style that was in vogue, with ‘bad girls’ who wanted to emulate the girl gang look wearing their skirts down to their ankles and cropping their tops to bare their midriffs, – much like Fruits Basket’s ex-gang member Arisa. In contrast, the various gyaru fashions, which reached their peak in popularity during the mid-1990s, dictated that school skirts be worn short by rolling up the waistband and that loose white socks be fixed below the knee with the aid of a special sock glue. Students imitating this particular style also tanned their skin, bleached their hair, and wore a lot of pale make-up – as seen by Ran in Super Gals! (kogal style) or the three heavily made-up high school girls making cameo appearances in Durarara!! (ganguro style).

The sailor fuku as worn in the general kogal style.

So why are sailor fuku so prevalent in anime? The most obvious answer to this is because such a large amount of anime and manga revolves around school life, or at least school-aged children and teenagers. Because of the amount of time school-aged people have to watch television in comparison to working adults, this is by default the largest age demographic of anime in Japan – it’s essentially just a matter of TV being tailored towards its audience.

However, there’s also more to it than that. Unlike in many other parts of the world, Japanese societal rules dictate that school uniforms be used as student formal-wear, and are typically donned for any occasion that may have some bearing on the school itself. Before and after school club activities, sports and cultural events, weddings, and funerals are some of the occasions you can expect to see sailor fuku worn to. It’s also common for school classes to sometimes be held on Saturdays, and for students to attend late afternoon and evening cram school (juku). Look in any standard Japanese student handbook and you’ll no doubt find included something along the lines of “Before and after class, no matter where you are, you represent our school.” It’s therefore not particularly odd for anime characters to be seen wearing their sailor fuku even when not in immediate context with a school setting.

There’s no getting away from the fact that the sailor fuku is also a popular fetish item, both in Japan and abroad (although I’d argue that this is not its intended or primary function). The image of a schoolgirl whose skirt is caught in the wind and lifted up to reveal her underwear, or of one intentionally bending over so that her ultra-short skirt is raised to her waist, is beyond clichéd by now. Anime like Highschool of the Dead, Samurai Girl: Real Bout High School, Tenjho Tenge, and countless pornographic titles are practically sold on this premise alone (although it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where straight fanservice ends and outright parody begins). Meanwhile, outside of the anime universe, second-hand outfits can be brokered through underground shops known as burusera (a portmanteau of ‘buruma’ as in bloomers and ‘sera’ as in sailor), and even vending machines have been known to take part in this fetishised clothing business. Both of these have been illegal since 1993 however, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to find any without knowing precisely how to go about finding them.

The way in which the sailor fuku has been repeatedly turned into a sex symbol by men and women of all ages and from all over the world has not been lost on Japan. Parodying of the trope is common in both anime as well as in real life – a good example of this can be found in one of the singles performed by The Onyanko Club, a large Japanese pop idol group of the 1980s. Its members often set new all new lows of political incorrectness through their songs and appearances on evening television shows, with ‘Sailor Fuku wo Nugasanaide’ (‘Don’t Take Off My Sailor Fuku’) earning moderate infamy for its cheeky lyrics and later being covered in 2010 by none other than current mega-idol unit AKB48 (click here for an English translation of the lyrics).

As with other fictional medium, anime can and often does exaggerate the sailor fuku for effect. Making the skirt longer or shorter either for the sake of fanservice or to complement a particular character archetype is commonplace, as is giving the overall design a far more colourful palette than it would have in real life – god forbid an anime school uniform actually be boring. However, as an item of clothing in its own right, the sailor fuku is neither hypersexual in connotation nor intended to be particularly conspicuous. It’s simply another fact of daily life in Japan.

Question of the post: What’s your favourite sailor fuku design from an anime series? Have there been any you’ve particularly disliked for whatever reason? And if you live/have previously lived in Japan, how do you think the sailor fuku in real life stacks up against those seen in the more realistic of anime titles in terms of general style?

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22 thoughts on “Sailor Fuku: The Long and Short of it

  1. I was fairly let down by the sailor fuku while I was there. It seemed boring and plain because I had been over exposed to it on Anime. However, the variety of male school uniforms did interest me a lot more in real life than in anime. Anime males tend to wear just a pair of pants and a white shirt in most occasions. Yes, sometimes they would don their blazer, but generally only one style of blazer was seen. In Japan though, I saw so many different blazers and some of them were frankly so much cooler than others. I unfortunately was forced to wear a lame version, and was envious of the school down the road as they had the cooler uniform. I can’t think of anything else to add on the topic.

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    • You’re right, the majority of school uniforms seen in anime have made and probably will always make the sailor fuku in real life seem fairly dull by comparison. Even the more realistic anime sailor fuku still tend to be quite flashy in contrast to the sailor fuku I see in real life, with brighter colours and somehow more charm. That said, I’ve seen some quite cute sailor fuku while I’ve been out and about, from both junior and senior high schools.

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  2. I feel more educated on anime now:p
    Favourite design, that’s a tough one actually. Hanasaku Iroha, Hyouka and Sakurasou no Pet, those were pretty decent(if I remember correctly). I don’t pay much attention to the fashion in a series actually. I don’t judge upon a setting of a series with the designs of clothes in mind.

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    • I agree, Hanasaka Iroha’s sailor fuku design was good. I tend to prefer relatively clean and simple designs like that – they seem nice and fresh, and not too unrealistic. For that reason I think one of my favourites is the one from Toradora (and a great anime overall to boot).

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  3. “it’s essentially just a matter of TV being tailored towards its audience.” I see what you did there 😄

    Well, my favorite sailor fuku design…I’ll just go ahead and choose Nichijou. For some reason I just like the light beige color.

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  4. Awesome post. It was good learning more about the Japanese culture and the way parts of it are integrated into the mediums Japan produces.
    Anyway, I for one don’t understand the Ganguro/gyaru subculture (maybe I should try caking my face with makeup or something to reach an epiphany moment).

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    • Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂
      The ganguro sunculture is quite an interesting one – at some point, I’ll be writing an article on that too.

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