Re-imagining the Empire of Japan through Japanese Schoolboy Uniforms




Japanese, schoolboys, military uniforms, kimono, gurakan

How to Cite

King, E. L., & Rall, D. N. (2016). Re-imagining the Empire of Japan through Japanese Schoolboy Uniforms. M/C Journal, 18(6).
Vol. 18 No. 6 (2015): re-imagine
Published 2016-03-07


“From every kind of man obedience I expect; I’m the Emperor of Japan.” (“Miyasama,” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical The Mikado, 1885)

This commentary is facilitated by—surprisingly resilient—oriental stereotypes of an imagined Japan (think of Oscar Wilde’s assertion, in 1889, that Japan was a European invention). During the Victorian era, in Britain, there was a craze for all things oriental, particularly ceramics and “there was a craze for all things Japanese and no middle class drawing room was without its Japanese fan or teapot.“ (V&A Victorian). These pastoral depictions of the ‘oriental life’ included the figures of men and women in oriental garb, with fans, stilt shoes, kimono-like robes, and appropriate headdresses, engaging in garden-based activities, especially tea ceremony variations (Landow). In fact, tea itself, and the idea of a ceremony of serving it, had taken up a central role, even an obsession in middle- and upper-class Victorian life. Similarly, landscapes with wild seas, rugged rocks and stunted pines, wizened monks, pagodas and temples, and particular fauna and flora (cranes and other birds flying through clouds of peonies, cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums) were very popular motifs (see Martin and Koda). Rather than authenticity, these designs heightened the Western-based romantic stereotypes associated with a stylised form of Japanese life, conducted sedately under rule of the Japanese Imperial Court. 

In reality, prior to the Meiji period (1868–1912), the Emperor was largely removed from everyday concerns, residing as an isolated, holy figure in Kyoto, the traditional capital of Japan. Japan was instead ruled from Edo (modern day Tokyo) led by the Shogun and his generals, according to a strict Confucian influenced code (see Keene). In Japan, as elsewhere, the presence of feudal-style governance includes policies that determine much of everyday life, including restrictions on clothing (Rall 169). The Samurai code was no different, and included a series of protocols that restricted rank, movement, behaviour, and clothing. As Vincent has noted in the case of the ‘lace tax’ in Great Britain, these restrictions were designed to punish those who seek to penetrate the upper classes through their costume (28-30). In Japan, pre-Meiji sumptuary laws, for example, restricted the use of gold, and prohibited the use of a certain shade of red by merchant classes (V&A Kimono).

Therefore, in the governance of pre-globalised societies, the importance of clothing and textile is evident; as Jones and Stallybrass comment: 

We need to understand the antimatedness of clothes, their ability to “pick up” subjects, to mould and shape them both physically and socially—to constitute subjects through their power as material memories […] Clothing is a worn world: a world of social relations put upon the wearer’s body. (2-3, emphasis added)

The significant re-imagining of Japanese cultural and national identities are explored here through the cataclysmic impact of Western ideologies on Japanese cultural traditions. There are many ways to examine how indigenous cultures respond to European, British, or American (hereafter Western) influences, particularly in times of conflict (Wilk). Western ideology arrived in Japan after a long period of isolation (during which time Japan’s only contact was with Dutch traders) through the threat of military hostility and war. It is after this outside threat was realised that Japan’s adoption of military and industrial practices begins. The re-imagining of their national identity took many forms, and the inclusion of a Western-style military costuming as a schoolboy uniform became a highly visible indicator of Japan’s mission to protect its sovereign integrity. A brief history of Japan’s rise from a collection of isolated feudal states to a unified military power, in not only the Asian Pacific region but globally, demonstrates the speed at which they adopted the Western mode of warfare. 

Gunboats on Japan’s Shorelines

Japan was forcefully opened to the West in the 1850s by America under threat of First Name Perry’s ‘gunboat diplomacy’ (Hillsborough 7-8). Following this, Japan underwent a rapid period of modernisation, and an upsurge in nationalism and military expansion that was driven by a desire to catch up to the European powers present in the Pacific. Noted by Ian Ferguson in Civilization: The West and the Rest, 

Unsure, the Japanese decided […] to copy everything […] Japanese institutions were refashioned on Western models. The army drilled like Germans; the navy sailed like Britons. An American-style system of state elementary and middle schools was also introduced. (221, emphasis added)

This was nothing short of a wide-scale reorganisation of Japan’s entire social structure and governance. Under the Emperor Meiji, who wrested power from the Shogunate and reclaimed it for the Imperial head, Japan steamed into an industrial revolution, achieving in a matter of years what had taken Europe over a century.

Japan quickly became a major player-elect on the world stage. However, as an island nation, Japan lacked the essentials of both coal and iron with which to fashion not only industrial machinery but also military equipment, the machinery of war. In 1875 Japan forced Korea to open itself to foreign (read: Japanese) trade. In the same treaty, Korea was recognised as a sovereign nation, separate from Qing China (Tucker 1461). The necessity for raw materials then led to the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), a conflict between Japan and China that marked the emergence of Japan as a major world power. The Korean Peninsula had long been China’s most important client state, but its strategic location adjacent to the Japanese archipelago, and its natural resources of coal and iron, attracted Japan’s interest. Later, the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), allowed a victorious Japan to force Russia to abandon its expansionist policy in the Far East, becoming the first Asian power in modern times to defeat a European power. The Russo-Japanese War developed out of the rivalry between Russia and Japan for dominance in Korea and Manchuria, again in the struggle for natural resources (Tucker 1534-46).

Japan’s victories, together with the county’s drive for resources, meant that Japan could now determine its role within the Asia-Pacific sphere of influence. As Japan’s military, and their adoption of Westernised combat, proved effective in maintaining national integrity, other social institutions also looked to the West (Ferguson 221). 

In an ironic twist—while Victorian and Continental fashion was busy adopting the exotic, oriental look (Martin and Koda)—the kimono, along with other essentials of Japanese fashions, were rapidly altered (both literally and figuratively) to suit new, warlike ideology. It should be noted that kimono literally means ‘things that you wear’ and which, prior to exposure to Western fashions, signified all worn clothing (Dalby 65-119). 

“Wearing Things” in Westernised Japan

As Japan modernised during the late 1800s the kimono was positioned as symbolising barbaric, pre-modern, ‘oriental’ Japan. Indeed, on 17 January 1887 the Meiji Empress issued a memorandum on the subject of women’s clothing in Japan: “She [the Empress] believed that western clothes were in fact closer to the dress of women in ancient Japan than the kimonos currently worn and urged that they be adopted as the standard clothes of the reign” (Keene 404). The resemblance between Western skirts and blouses and the simple skirt and separate top that had been worn in ancient times by a people descended from the sun goddess, Amaterasu wo mikami, was used to give authority and cultural authenticity to Japan’s modernisation projects. The Imperial Court, with its newly ennobled European style aristocrats, exchanged kimono silks for Victorian finery, and samurai armour for military pomp and splendour (Figure 1).

The Meiji Emperor, Empress and Crown Prince resplendent in European fashions on an outing to Asukayama Park. Illustration: Toyohara Chikanobu circa 1890 ( accessed 28 November 2015)

Figure 1:  The Meiji Emperor, Empress and Crown Prince resplendent in European fashions on an outing to Asukayama Park. Illustration: Toyohara Chikanobu, circa 1890.

It is argued here that the function of a uniform is to prepare the body for service. Maids and butlers, nurses and courtesans, doctors, policemen, and soldiers are all distinguished by their garb. Prudence Black states: “as a technology, uniforms shape and code the body so they become a unit that belongs to a collective whole” (93). The requirement to discipline bodies through clothing, particularly through uniforms, is well documented (see Craik, Peoples, and Foucault). The need to distinguish enemies from allies on the battlefield requires adherence to a set of defined protocols, as referenced in military fashion compendiums (see Molloy). While the postcolonial adoption of Western-based clothing reflects a new form of subservience (Rall, Kuechler and Miller), in Japan, the indigenous garments were clearly designed in the interests of ideological allegiance. 

To understand the Japanese sartorial traditions, the kimono itself must be read as providing a strong disciplinary element. The traditional garment is designed to represent an upright and unbending column—where two meters of under bindings are used to discipline the body into shape are then topped with a further four meters of a stiffened silk obi wrapped around the waist and lower chest. To dress formally in such a garment requires helpers (see Dalby). The kimono both constructs and confines the women who wear it, and presses them into their roles as dutiful, upper-class daughters (see Craik). From the 1890s through to the 1930s, when Japan again enters a period of militarism, the myth of the kimono again changes as it is integrated into the build-up towards World War II.

Decades later, when Japan re-established itself as a global economic power in the 1970s and 1980s, the kimono was re-authenticated as Japan’s ‘traditional’ garment. This time it was not the myth of a people descended from solar deities that was on display, but that of samurai strength and propriety for men, alongside an exaggerated femininity for women, invoking a powerful vision of Japanese sartorial tradition. 

This reworking of the kimono was only possible as the garment was already contained within the framework of Confucian family duty. However, in the lead up to World War II, Japanese military advancement demanded of its people soldiers that could win European-style wars. The quickest solution was to copy the military acumen and strategies of global warfare, and the costumes of the soldiery and seamen of Europe, including Great Britain (Ferguson). It was also acknowledged that soldiers were ‘made not born’ so the Japanese educational system was re-vamped to emulate those of its military rivals (McVeigh). It was in the uptake of schoolboy uniforms that this re-imagining of Japanese imperial strength took place.

The Japanese Schoolboy Uniform

Central to their rapid modernisation, Japan adopted a constitutional system of education that borrowed from American and French models (Tipton 68-69). The government viewed education as a “primary means of developing a sense of nation,” and at its core, was the imperial authorities’ obsession with defining “Japan and Japaneseness” (Tipton 68-69). Numerous reforms eventually saw, after an abolition of fees, nearly 100% attendance by both boys and girls, despite a lingering mind-set that educating women was “a waste of time” (Tipton 68-69). A boys’ uniform based on the French and Prussian military uniforms of the 1860s and 1870s respectively (Kinsella 217), was adopted in 1879 (McVeigh 47). This jacket, initially with Prussian cape and cap, consists of a square body, standing mandarin style collar and a buttoned front. It was through these education reforms, as visually symbolised by the adoption of military style school uniforms, that citizen making, education, and military training became interrelated aspects of Meiji modernisation (Kinsella 217). 

Known as the gakuran (gaku: to study; ran: meaning both orchid, and a pun on Horanda, meaning Holland, the only Western country with trading relations in pre-Meiji Japan), these jackets were a symbol of education, indicating European knowledge, power and influence and came to reflect all things European in Meiji Japan. By adopting these jackets two objectives were realised:

  1. through the magical power of imitation, Japan would, by adopting the clothing of the West, naturally rise in military power; and 
  2. boys were uniformed to become not only educated as quasi-Europeans, but as fighting soldiers and sons (suns) of the nation.

The gakuran jacket was first popularised by state-run schools, however, in the century and a half that the garment has been in use it has come to symbolise young Japanese masculinity as showcased in campus films, anime, manga, computer games, and as fashion is the preeminent garment for boybands and Japanese hipsters.

While the gakuran is central to the rise of global militarism in Japan (McVeigh 51-53), the jacket would go on to form the basis of the Sun Yat Sen and Mao Suits as symbols of revolutionary China (see McVeigh). Supposedly, Sun Yat Sen saw the schoolboy jacket in Japan as a utilitarian garment and adopted it with a turn down collar (Cumming et al.). For Sun Yat Sen, the gakuran was the perfect mix of civilian (school boy) and military (the garment’s Prussian heritage) allowing him to walk a middle path between the demands of both. Furthermore, the garment allowed Sun to navigate between Western style suits and old-fashioned Qing dynasty styles (Gerth 116); one was associated with the imperialism of the National Products Movement, while the other represented the corruption of the old dynasty. In this way, the gakuran was further politicised from a national (Japanese) symbol to a global one. While military uniforms have always been political garments, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as the world was rocked by revolutions and war, civilian clothing also became a means of expressing political ideals (McVeigh 48-49). Note that Mahatma Ghandi’s clothing choices also evolved from wholly Western styles to traditional and emphasised domestic products (Gerth 116).

Mao adopted this style circa 1927, further defining the style when he came to power by adding elements from the trousers, tunics, and black cotton shoes worn by peasants. The suit was further codified during the 1960s, reaching its height in the Cultural Revolution. While the gakuran has always been a scholarly black (see Figure 2), subtle differences in the colour palette differentiated the Chinese population—peasants and workers donned indigo blue Mao jackets, while the People’s Liberation Army Soldiers donned khaki green. This limited colour scheme somewhat paradoxically ensured that subtle hierarchical differences were maintained even whilst advocating egalitarian ideals (Davis 522). 

Both the Sun Yat Sen suit and the Mao jacket represented the rejection of bourgeois (Western) norms that objectified the female form in favour of a uniform society. Neo-Maoism and Mao fever of the early 1990s saw the Mao suit emerge again as a desirable piece of iconic/ironic youth fashion. 

An example of Gakuran uniform next to the girl’s equivalent on display at Ichikawa Gakuen School (Japan). Photo: Emerald King, 2015.

Figure 2: An example of Gakuran uniform next to the girl’s equivalent on display at Ichikawa Gakuen School (Japan). Photo: Emerald King, 2015.

There is a clear and vital link between the influence of the Prussian style Japanese schoolboy uniform on the later creation of the Mao jacket—that of the uniform as an integral piece of worn propaganda (Atkins).

For Japan, the rapid deployment of new military and industrial technologies, as well as a sartorial need to present her leaders as modern (read: Western) demanded the adoption of European-style uniforms. The Imperial family had always been removed from Samurai battlefields, so the adoption of Western military costume allowed Japan’s rulers to present a uniform face to other global powers. When Japan found itself in conflict in the Asia Pacific Region, without an organised military, the first requirement was to completely reorganise their system of warfare from a feudal base and to train up national servicemen. Within an American-style compulsory education system, the European-based curriculum included training in mathematics, engineering and military history, as young Britons had for generations begun their education in Greek and Latin, with the study of Ancient Greek and Roman wars (Bantock). It is only in the classroom that ideological change on a mass scale can take place (Reference Please), a lesson not missed by later leaders such as Mao Zedong.


In the 1880s, the Japanese leaders established their position in global politics by adopting clothing and practices from the West (Europeans, Britons, and Americans) in order to quickly re-shape their country’s educational system and military establishment. The prevailing military costume from foreign cultures not only disciplined their adopted European bodies, they enforced a new regime through dress (Rall 157-174). For boys, the gakuran symbolised the unity of education and militarism as central to Japanese masculinity. Wearing a uniform, as many authors suggest, furthers compliance (Craik, Nagasawa Kaiser and Hutton, and McVeigh). As conscription became a part of Japanese reality in World War II, the schoolboys just swapped their military-inspired school uniforms for genuine military garments.

Re-imagining a Japanese schoolboy uniform from a European military costume might suit ideological purposes (Atkins), but there is more. The gakuran, as a uniform based on a close, but not fitted jacket, was the product of a process of advanced industrialisation in the garment-making industry also taking place in the 1800s:

Between 1810 and 1830, technical calibrations invented by tailors working at the very highest level of the craft [in Britain] eventually made it possible for hundreds of suits to be cut up and made in advance [...] and the ready-to-wear idea was put into practice for men’s clothes […] originally for uniforms for the War of 1812. (Hollander 31) 

In this way, industrialisation became a means to mass production, which furthered militarisation, “the uniform is thus the clothing of the modern disciplinary society” (Black 102). There is a perfect resonance between Japan’s appetite for a modern military and their rise to an industrialised society, and their conquests in Asia Pacific supplied the necessary material resources that made such a rapid deployment possible. The Japanese schoolboy uniform was an integral part of the process of both industrialisation and militarisation, which instilled in the wearer a social role required by modern Japanese society in its rise for global power. Garments are never just clothing, but offer a “world of social relations put upon the wearer’s body” (Jones and Stallybrass 3-4).

Today, both the Japanese kimono and the Japanese schoolboy uniform continue to interact with, and interrogate, global fashions as contemporary designers continue to call on the tropes of ‘military chic’ (Tonchi) and Japanese-inspired clothing (Kawamura). 


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Author Biographies

Emerald L. King, Victoria University at Wellington

Dr Emerald L King is a lecturer in Japanese at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She studied in both Australia and Japan before receiving her PhD from the University of Tasmania in 2012. Emerald’s research interests include violence in text; masochistic theory and kimono in Japanese literature. Her recent interest in uniform and costume arose from her active participation in cosplay (costume play) in Japan and Australia. She has published articles on cosplay and manga including “Girls Who Are Boys Who Like Girls to be Boys…” (2013) and was invited to guest lecture on cosplay and costume in Australasia by Yokohama University (Japan) in January 2015. Portions of this were presented by Emerald L. King at the Un-Thinking Asian Migrations Conference at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand (24-26 August, 2014). 

Denise N. Rall, Southern Cross University

Dr Denise N. Rall is an adjunct lecturer in the School of Arts & Social Sciences at Southern Cross University in Lismore, NSW. She holds a PhD in Internet Studies from Southern Cross University as well as an MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin. Her eclectic research interests include textiles, fashion and wearable art, as well as how technology impacts on women’s roles in computing, domestic work, craft and social protest. Rall recently edited the book, Fashion & War in Popular Culture (2014, Intellect) which surveys conquest and military warfare as it appears in fashion, textiles, bodies, art and design through the lens of popular culture. This paper contains concepts outlined by Denise N. Rall and Emerald L. King at the Popular Culture Australia and New Zealand [PopCAANZ] Conference, Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand (1 July, 2015).