The annual hit to the family’s finances has certain households dreading the start of each new school year.

While some public schools allow pupils to choose what clothing they’ll come to class in, once they reach junior high almost all students in Japan wear uniforms. Proponents of uniforms point to a number of claimed advantages, such as fewer distractions for young minds, decreased chances of bullying based on perceived differences in economic class, and instilling a sense of unity and pride throughout the school. There’s also the cultural phenomenon that, in Japan, a crisp, snappy school uniform is the ultimate symbol of innocent vitality and youthful dreams.

But there’s also a huge downside to uniforms: their cost. Japanese schools with a uniform system don’t just dictate what sort of blazer, slacks, or skirt the students have to wear. Many institutions also designate what style of bag that students are allowed to use to carry their books to and from class. If they want to bundle up with a vest or sweater in the winter, those are often required to be a specific design which bears the school’s crest. Once summer rolls around, most schools let students leave their blazers at home and switch to short-sleeved polo shirts, but these again must be the designated model which includes the school emblem. Oh, and for P.E. class, odds are there’s not only a school athletic uniform that has to be purchased, but also a specified pair of athletic shoes to be worn with it as well, as chosen by the school.

Making things worse is the fact that sellers have a captive market. Parents have to buy a school’s uniforms if they want to send their kids there, and there’s little incentive for retailers who sell the uniforms to lower their prices since it won’t significantly increase their sales volume. In a recent study on parental attitudes about junior high uniforms by Asahi Shimbun Digital, many parents reported spending around 100,000 yen (US$970) for the complete set of winter, summer, and athletic uniforms which are mandatory at their children’s schools. And since these are all being bought for kids who are just about to hit a growth spurt, uniforms can be a yearly expense as their wearers’ grow out of them every 12 months.

The burden is especially large on families with multiple children who differ in ages such that they enter new schools in the same year. Some families are able to curb their expenses by having younger children wear hand-me-downs from their older, same-sex siblings, but even that plan can run into a number of potential problems. For one, the younger sibling may differ in size from the older one was at that age. Also, having to wear a uniform every single day at school means it only gets dry-cleaned during extended vacation periods, and all of that wear and tear is definitely going to stick out next to wealthier classmates’ brand-new uniforms, which negates any anti-bullying effect of wearing a uniform.

Most frustrating of all, the school may decide to update or otherwise alter its uniform, meaning that an older sibling’s is suddenly in violation of school rules. One mother in the survey said this happened with her second son, who’d been accepted at the same junior high her eldest had graduated from. Six months before the start of the school year, parents were informed that a new uniform was being implemented, so everyone who’d planned on using hand-me-downs had to shell out for the new version instead.

A few of the study’s respondents pointed out money-saving strategies. One women said her school’s PTA gathers uniforms that graduates no longer need and provides them to financially struggling families. Certain uniforms can also be tailored in a way that allows for alterations so that children can continue wearing them for all three years they’ll be at junior high.

All the same, many parents expressed a desire for schools to relax regulations and allow their kids to at least wear non-official sweaters or polo shirts, as discount clothing shops sell such articles of clothing at far more affordable prices than their school crest uniform versions command. “Isn’t is enough to say that the shirt has to be white, or the slacks or skirt has to be navy, and leave it at that?” asked one women, but it looks like Japanese schools will be sticking with detailed uniform regulations for the foreseeable future.

Source: Asahi Shimbun Digital via Jin
Top image: Pakutaso

Casey’s junior high school didn’t have uniforms. Find out if he’s able to write intelligible sentences anyway by following him on Twitter.