I remember back in high school when we had a group of Japanese middle-school girls visit us. They all wore these incredible navy blue sailor suits. I thought then that maybe it was dress uniform, like how army generals years ago would dress in white tights and feathers for special occassions, but would really wear something more realistic in battle.
But no, that really was their winter uniform – they wore it everyday. Schoolboys too, I was told then, wore these black suits with high collars and shiny buttons that also smacked of the navy.
Only in Japan!
The reason for these militaristic uniforms (apart from the fact that they look kawaii, an important factor in Japan) goes back to the 19th century, when Japan was opening up to Western ideas, and had decided that modernising the country to western standards was first priority. Japan had close ties to European countries like Germany, Holland and Britain, and the first sailor suits (sailor fuku) were modelled after the British Royal Navy uniform.
Only girls in middle and high school are permitted to wear the sailor fuku, although it is often use in cosplay. The ones I saw back in high school were a classic example: Navy blue with a big white collar and a coloured ribbon at the front, then a navy pleated skirt.
School boys, on the other hand, wear a gakuran – again, modelled on European military uniforms. Unlike what is portrayed in anime, however, they’re usually worn only in all-boys schools. The collar is high and stiff, the trousers are straight leg, the entire suit is usually black. Buttons with the school crest run down the front of the uniform. Very nice if you have a thing for men in uniform, not that we here at 3Yen support paedophilia of any kind!
Sadly, these distinct uniforms are being phased out by schools to make way for uniforms often seen in schools in the West. That is, white shirt and tie, trousers for the boys, tartan skirts for the girls. It may take a while to get rid of them completely though, if manga artists and otaku have any say in it.
J-List, who sell authentic uniforms