An emerging number of Japanese schools are introducing unisex uniforms or flexible uniform codes in an effort to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
School officials hope the move will ease the mental anguish of such students, who are usually required to wear gender-based uniforms typified by jackets with stand-up collars and trousers for boys, and sailor-type outfits with skirts for girls.
At Kashiwanoha Junior High School, which opened in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, in April, students can freely choose whether to wear skirts or slacks or ties or ribbons with blazers, regardless of their sex.
Originally, the school did not intend to make students wear a uniform, but had to change course because nearly 90 percent of parents and prospective students surveyed wanted one.
A panel of parents, teachers, prospective students and education board members was set up to discuss the uniform designs. Some said consideration should be paid to LGBT students and that girls should also be allowed to wear trousers because they are more practical and warmer in winter.
“We thought it would be better to let students wear something they feel comfortable in if they have to struggle to come to school because of uniforms,” said Koshin Taki, the vice principal of Kashiwanoha Junior High. “We chose a subdued color and check patterns so the uniform would be suitable for any student.”
Similar moves are spreading in Japan, with a junior high school in Fukuoka Prefecture preparing to abandon the stand-up collars and sailor suits for blazers that will let students mix and match with skirts or trousers when the April 2019 school year kicks off.
In Tokyo, the Setagaya Ward Board of Education is set to follow suit in April, while boards of education in the cities of Osaka and Fukuoka plan to broach the topic in the near future.
Anri Ishizaki, who heads FRENS, a nonprofit organization supporting LGBT people, said trying to fit all students in gender-specific uniforms can be a burden to sexual minorities who are afraid to come out.
“Some students are embarrassed and cannot concentrate on their studies because of uniforms. In some cases, they stop going to school,” said Ishizaki.
“Although uniforms are not the only factors tormenting them, it is a significant element as they are required to wear them all the time,” added Ishizaki, noting that offering students more options is likely to provide “a sense of ease.”
In 2014, there were 606 cases of consultations related to gender dysphoria, according to a survey by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry covering elementary, junior high and high schools across Japan.
The following year, the ministry issued a notice encouraging schools to improve support for sexual minorities and pay consideration to their clothing, hairstyles, and bathroom use.
Tombow Co., the uniform maker picked by Kashiwanoha Junior High, said it began developing unisex uniforms after schools began making more inquiries about them around the time of the ministry’s 2015 notice.
Ayumi Okuno, a designer at Tombow, said she found in interviews with LGBT students that many do not want to wear uniforms that clearly differentiate male and female shapes and silhouettes, so she tries not to highlight certain aspects, such as curves that emphasize femininity.
“We are also offering various suggestions to schools so they can select what works best for them,” said Okuno, noting that it can accommodate flexible dress codes like the one at Kashiwanoha Junior High, styles that suit the gender identity of each student, or even the frequent use of gym clothes except for ceremonies and formal occasions.
About 50 percent of Tombow’s uniforms are the stand-up collar and sailor skirt types, but more schools across Japan are introducing slacks for girls, the company said.
Although the two schools mentioned above allow female transgender students to wear skirts, Okuno believes such a product will be difficult to develop and market.
“Even if schools and students accept such a uniform, it is likely to be frowned upon by many people in society,” she said.
While the introduction of a new dress code is seen as a positive step forward, it will be difficult to take such measures without accidentally outing sexual minorities, experts say.
In the 2014 survey, only about 20 percent of the students in the 606 consultations on gender dysphoria had revealed their gender identities to their peers, and around 60 percent were in the closet.
Kashiwanoha Junior High’s Taki said he is carefully monitoring students’ reactions to the new dress code as some of the female students are fearful about drawing special attention for wearing trousers.
He emphasized that the dress code offers options not only to transgender students but also to those who want to be practical.
“I hope it will help students choose what they want to wear without necessarily disclosing their gender identity,” he said.