Schoolgirl Uniforms

Donna Tsai

Within modern popular culture, the Japanese schoolgirl uniform has evolved from an article of clothing to a symbol of innocence and fashion, often with implications of sexual promiscuity. In particular, the schoolgirl skirt has undergone many changes from the European introduction of serafuku/セーラー服 (sailor uniform) to Japan during the Meiji period. Beyond solely a symbol of adolescence, the outfit has strong ties to the fetishism of schoolgirls and has been worn by the “Ambassadors of Cute” selected by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as cultural ambassadors representing Japanese society. This article will investigate the culture and history surrounding the schoolgirl uniform and how it relates to Japanese cute, or kawaii, culture.

Figure 1. A photo of a kimono uniform versus serafuku from around 1920. 

Chinese and Korean culture first influenced how individuals should wear certain types of clothing during the Heian (794-1185) and Edo period in Japan (1603-1867).[1] During the Meiji period, Japan began to import foreign technology and concepts, including military firepower and European naval uniforms. Soon after, boys were required to wear navy-inspired uniforms while girls wore traditional kimonos until Akuri Inokuchi, a teacher sent abroad to the U.S., introduced sailor-styled outfits to enable more functionality and bodily movement back in Japan (see Figure 1). In 1915, Elizabeth Lee, an American principal at a Christian high school in Fukuoka, popularized the traditional sailor uniform.[2] The uniform would undergo many more stylistic changes as decades passed. During the 1960s and 1970s, students demonstrated their individuality by incorporating accessories or cutting up uniforms. With Japan’s growing economy in the 1980s, the uniform became more an item of functionality. Each school had a different variation of the uniform, and by the 1990s, the uniform began to embody the modernized, familiar look of a short skirt accompanied by a blazer. The kawaii aesthetic is apparent in the uniform in its representing youth and denoting a sense of helplessness and vulnerability commonly associated with schoolgirls. The appeal of the schoolgirl uniform is deeply rooted in sentimental elements of the psyche of Japan as a nation, as the inception of the idea had strong ties to militarism and nationalism. Postwar Japan’s fascination with kawaii organized this aesthetic around small, helpless objects and people, representing the nation’s sense of self among leading global powers.

The schoolgirl uniform soon became commodified as a result of the uniform’s popularity and that of the schoolgirl figure. Multiple stores and boutiques sold unofficial uniforms, capitalizing on the fashion trend of bowties, vests, blazers, and skirts. The term burusera, a combination of buruma, meaning bloomers or the bottom of a gym suit, and serafuku, was coined in the 1990s.[3] Burusera shops capitalized on the fetishism of schoolgirls and sold second-hand clothing and undergarments, quickly transforming the relationship between men and adolescent girls into one of buyers and sellers and commercializing sexuality and youthfulness. Buyers were arguably attracted to the identity that the schoolgirl uniform denotes. Additionally, in the 1990s, the phenomenon of enjo kosai, or subsidized dating, emerged. Middle and high school girls went out on dates, which included activities from eating dinner and going to karaoke to engaging in sexual activities, with middle-aged men for money or gifts.[4] This action seems to connect schoolgirls and their sexual behaviors to materialism and consumerism; an investigation by the Tokyo government found that four percent of female high school students had engaged in enjo kosai in 1996.[5] The schoolgirl uniform quickly expanded from being a symbol of adolescence and freedom to cuteness, innocence, and submissiveness, becoming a physical reminder of the value of women or girls in their youthfulness. Japanese feminist scholar Chizuko Ueno notes that male participation in enjo kosai leads to “male fetishism attached to innocence” and “creates an additional value to juvenile girls.”[6]

Figure 2. Japanese girls wearing the kogyaru style.

Contrastingly, some view the sexual nature associated with the schoolgirl uniform as less of an agent of control and discipline and as one of empowerment. Kogyaru/コギャル culture, a subculture of Japanese fashion involving schoolgirl uniforms, began in response to media interest surrounding enjo kosai and the scandal of young girls engaging in sexual acts for money (see Figure 2).[7] Kogyaru culture was unique, as girls defied norms of innocence and obedience associated with cute, weak-girl femininity and transgressed through their sexuality. Girls wore shorter skirts, created loose socks that fell over shoes, styled their hair, and applied makeup.[8] These images of the so-called deviant high school girls in their rolled-up skirts and customized uniforms flooded the media. Magazines covered the rise of a new discourse following schoolgirl fashion and were sold in bookstores and convenience stores, working to popularize the kogyaru fashion. Importantly, that all girls could participate in kogyaru ultimately allowed it to gain such popularity. Any girl could become a model and grace a magazine cover as long as she attracted attention with her uniform on. Moreover, the uniforms not only allowed others to perceive the girls as kawaii, but also made the girls themselves feel kawaii, giving the uniform a kind of social power. Scholars such as Sharon Kinsella have attributed the customization of adding and customizing kawaii assemblages as “a resistance to adulthood and infantile regression.”[9] According to this view, kogyaru fashion may be an attempt for its wearers to act vulnerable to emphasize immaturity and dependency, which would have been a way to undermine existing gender and power ideologies.[10] Yet, others believed that the unconventional kogyaru fashion was a kawaii aesthetic in its transforming the mundane world of uniforms into something much more playful and creative and therefore freeing and empowering. Guided by individual feelings and experiences, schoolgirls were able to have agency in what they wore and how they portrayed themselves to the world as a demonstration of individual identity and power. 

At its peak, kogyaru content shifted toward sex and pornography, which could have presented schoolgirls as part of a new world of self-gratification and empowerment as well as introduced the concept of cute-sexy.[11] However, the increased power and centrality of young women may have also led to a subconscious, reactive desire to see young women “disarmed, infantilized, and subordinated.”[12] Pornography featured and advertised innocent schoolgirls in sailor uniforms, and uniformed girls were popular in erotic manga, illustrations, and novels, an apparent societal renegotiation of power. It is potentially ironic that the public viewed the act of schoolgirls engaging in enjo kosai as demeaning and shameful, yet some young female participants spoke of financial gain and opportunity through enjo kosai on national television.[13]

Manga and anime culture experienced vast growth around this same period, specifically works featuring female leads. A specific genre of anime called maho shojo showed schoolgirls transforming into beings with magical powers; a popular example is Sailor Moon, one of the early animes that expanded to Western media (see Figure 3). Many criticized this maho shojo anime for inviting female viewers to see themselves as consumers of kawaii culture and entice and attract male audiences due to its particular female depictions.[14] Although not all popular manga during this time included schoolgirl or uniform-wearing leads, the characters were typically young and wore less conservative, revealing outfits. In addition, the message that cuteness is inherently good is predominant in Japanese contemporary media.[15] The cuteness of the heroine is often emphasized and proportionate to her effectiveness as an action figure, especially in contrast with the more beautiful and mature villain.[16] Anime and manga culture thus perpetuated the symbolism of cuteness and innocence existing on the side of goodness, while beauty and adult sexuality signified evil. Since manga and anime were highly accessible and considered a part of daily life, Japanese society evidently believed cuteness and youthfulness to be desirable and achievable; becoming cute could be as simple as donning a uniform.

Figure 3. Female characters from various maho shojo anime series.

The popular culture of the schoolgirl uniform and the figure of the schoolgirl were not unique to Japan and soon spread to Western media around the late 1990s. The uniform became a cultural, gendered, and corporate product representing Japanese culture and its soft power. Japan’s soft power, or the ability to indirectly influence behavior or interests through culture or ideological means, played a significant role in the market of youth culture.[17] The Japanese Foreign Ministry hoped to capitalize on the popularity of cute, inherently Japanese things and selected three women as “Ambassadors of Cute,” including a uniform-wearing actress.[18] This raises the question of the type of international message that is broadcasted when a nation like Japan perpetuates ideas of cuteness, youth, and femininity as representative of its entering the global market.[19] The culture of schoolgirl uniforms spread to Western media following the import of anime series such as Sailor Moon and Studio Ghibli movies that largely featured female protagonists. Western representations of Japan primarily focused on stereotypical ideas of cuteness, and Japanese schoolgirls were deemed childlike by association since they favored small, childlike things and characters such as Hello Kitty or Totoro. Thus, the emerging representation of the Japanese schoolgirl in the West placed an even greater emphasis on youthfulness. The identity of the schoolgirl reifies the uniform as something cute, feminine, and perhaps even distinctly Japanese. 

The schoolgirl uniform is more than a simple article of clothing, instead symbolizing Japanese history and societal issues that developed in postwar Japan. Nevertheless, a proper analysis of the uniform in popular culture and media requires an examination of the socially constructed figure of the schoolgirl in a global context. The popularity of the schoolgirl uniform and the schoolgirl identity has serious implications for past and present discourse on adolescent girls. Largely shaped by male perspectives, the narrative surrounding the schoolgirl figure highlights an uneven gender dynamic that has existed throughout history. While the uniform in question is specific to Japan in several ways, further analysis of the uniform may help to address the discourse of cuteness for women on a global scale.

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] Brian Ashcraft and Shoko Ueda, Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential: How Teenage Girls Made a Nation Cool (North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 2016), 12.

[2] Ashcraft and Ueda, Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, 16.

[3] Mary Reisel, “Girl Power, transgression and the embodiment of the image: The rise of Enjo-kōsai and hyper-sexual economy in post-bubble Japan,” East Asian Journal of Popular Culture 3, no. 1 (April 2017): 23.

[4] Sarah M. Hamm, “The Japanese Schoolgirl Figure: Renegotiation of Power Through Societal Construction, Masking a Crisis of Masculinity” (PhD diss., University of Washington, 2013), 9.

[5] Hamm, “The Japanese Schoolgirl Figure,” 17.

[6] Hamm, “The Japanese Schoolgirl Figure,” 18.

[7] Sharon Kinsella, “What’s Behind the Fetishism of Japanese School Uniforms?”, Fashion Theory 6, no. 2 (2002): 215.

[8] Reisel, “Girl Power,” 18.

[9] Kinsella, “What’s Behind the Fetishism,” 221-22.

[10] Kinsella, “What’s Behind the Fetishism,” 241.

[11] Reisel, “Girl Power,” 20.

[12] Hamm, “The Japanese Schoolgirl Figure,” 30.

[13] Reisel, “Girl Power,” 23.

[14] Sharon Tran, “Kawaii Asian Girls Save the Day! Animating a Minor Politics of Care,” MELUS 43, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 19.

[15] Kanako Shiokawa, “Cute but Deadly: Women and Violence in Japanese Cartoons,” in Themes and Issues in Asian Cartooning: Cute, Cheap, Mad, and Sexy, ed. John A. Lent (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999), 120.

[16] Shiokawa, “Cute but Deadly,” 118.

[17] Christine R. Yano, “Wink on Pink: Interpreting Japanese Cute as It Grabs the Global Headlines,” The Journal of Asian Studies 68, no. 3 (August 2009): 683.

[18] Ashcraft and Ueda, Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, 23.

[19] Yano, “Wink on Pink,” 684.