What Is Seifuku? [Definition, Meaning]

Ah, school uniforms. They’re a quintessential part of anime culture. Perhaps no style is more famous than seifuku, a Japanese school uniform modeled after European-style naval attire. Seifuku school uniforms are seen in almost every anime that takes place in a modern day middle school or high school setting. Though the women’s sailor style dress (a white blouse, tie, blazer with school crest, and tartan culottes or skirt) is probably more recognizable across the fandom, the men’s gakuran (a white shirt, tie, blazer with school crest, and tailored trousers) has a pretty distinct style as well.

Regardless of style, all seifuku uniforms come in two flavors: winter and summer. The winter variation is the standard uniform, while the summer version ditches any jackets or sweaters and offers students the option of a blouse or shirt with shorter sleeves. Occasionally, there will be a gym variation of the seifuku uniform as well. However, it has become common practice for schools to provide students with a specified gym uniform during their P.E. classes as opposed to an athletic variation of the seifuku uniform.

To combat the uniformity that seifuku’s impose on them, many students take the opportunity to modify their school clothes to express their individuality. For example, girls may roll up their skirts to increase their sex appeal and boys might unbutton their shirts and ditch their ties for a more casual look. Provided students don’t make drastic changes to their seifuku, schools don’t seem to mind. Of course, there are always exceptions.

A Simpler Age, A Simpler Time

Japanese women traditionally attach a certain level of nostalgic charm to their school uniforms. Seifuku are looked upon as a symbol of carefree youth. They represent a period of time in a young woman’s life when she was free to express herself, spend time with her friends, and unreservedly become romantically involved with a partner of her choosing. There’s an implication that a girl in a sailor uniform is fun, youthful, confident, and innocent.

Slow Start

  • Episodes: 12
  • Aired: January 2018 to March 2018

In Slow Start, Hana Ichinose moves into an apartment building owned by her cousin Shion Kyouzuka. Hana is starting high school a year late, so she moves away to attend a school where no one will recognize her. Shion dotes on her younger cousin and cares about all the tenants living in her apartment complex as if they were her family.

Much like Hana, Shion took a “gap year” but it was for work. After graduating from college, Shion couldn’t find work so she’s running the apartment complex until she can find a job that she believes will better suit her. One of Hana’s neighbors in the complex, Hiroe Hannen is also suffering a gap. She missed her chance to get into the university of her choice so she became a shut-in to hide away from her friends who did go on to university.

As fellow adults who are both caught in a rut, Shion and Hiroe work together to push themselves forward towards their mutual goals. In an effort to recapture their youthful spirit and rediscover the drive they had as high schoolers, Shion convinces Hiroe that they should try on their old school uniforms. Hiroe doesn’t quite understand Shion’s reasoning but she agrees.

Though it takes some effort (especially on Shion’s part), both manage to squeeze into their uniforms. Neither one looks much younger (again, especially not Shion), but the experience does remind Hiroe of her love for school and gives her the confidence to study for university. The experience also helps Shion accept her position as the caretaker of the apartment complex and act more youthful for the rest of the season. That’s the power of the sailor uniform at work.

Slow Start PV

Cultural Significance and Fetishism of the Sailor Uniform

The female version of seifuku is referred to as sailor fuku (セーラー服) or sailor outfits. They’re used in almost every Japanese middle school, and they’re traditionally a part of high school attire as well. However, some high schools have opted for Western style plaid skirts and blazers instead of seifuku uniforms. This shift is reflected in a lot of anime that aired in recent years (such as Orange and Citrus). Elementary school girls do not wear seifuku uniforms. That’s why you won’t see younger anime girls (such as Rin from Usagi Drop or Kanna from Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon) wear a sailor fuku.

Kill la Kill

  • Episodes: 24
  • Aired: October 2013 to March 2014

You can’t talk about seifuku uniforms, their styling, and their effects on a Japanese woman’s individuality without addressing Kill la Kill. The entire overall plot of the anime has to deal with clothes and one of the main characters, Senketsu, is an anthropomorphic sailor uniform. It’s too perfect.

For the uninitiated, Kill la Kill follows the story of Ryuuko Matoi, a young vagrant who carries around a giant half scissor during her search for her father’s killer. She eventually arrives at Honnouji Academy, a high school that’s been structured like a dictatorship. Satsuki Kiryuuin rules at the top and relies on four powerful underlings to maintain a brutal competitive hierarchy. Satsuki and her Elite Four rely on special school uniforms that give them magical and/or supernatural abilities to keep unruly students in line with Satsuki’s ideals. However, after discovering that Satsuki has information concerning her father’s death, Ryuuko throws caution to the wind and decides to take on the entire school to find the answers she needs. Senketsu, a sailor uniform she finds in her father’s old workshop, joins her on her quest. By bonding with her through blood transfusion, he gives her the ability to transform into a magical girl with nearly unlimited potential and power.

Despite the absurd premise, Kill la Kill provides the perfect lens into the cultural identity of seifuku uniforms. In the anime, the students are the characters with the most power. Their school is a haven where they form their own society of rules and regulations, and the adults are forced to submit to the student body’s will. Their uniformity is used to symbolize their combined might as an army. It’s one that the adults can’t match. The members of the school with the most agency, Satsuki and the Elite Four, are also the ones who customize their school’s normal uniform. Yet, despite their personality, all the students at Honnouji Academy play by the rules they set for themselves. Freedom of thought is quickly suppressed and eliminated. That is, until Ryuuko arrives.

Ryuuko is the first character to wear a uniform that is completely different from what the other students are wearing. With the freedom her unique seifuku provides her, she’s able to overturn the status quo of the school bit by bit. As her obstacles change, so too does her uniform. It’s as if she’s able to transfer her carefree disposition into her clothes, and this ability to accept her youth makes her more powerful than anyone she comes across. Ryuuko hangs out with whom she wants and fights whom she wants and her vagrant behavior is transposed into the literal embodiment of her clothes. Ryuuko’s sexuality is also presented as pretty fluid in comparison to the other students. Though the anime doesn’t confirm her sexuality one way or another, Ryuuko does kiss more girls than boys, grows closer to her friend Mako Mankanshoku throughout the show, and agrees to go on a date with Mako in the final episode. Ryuuko is youthful and follows her own path, whether it’s for vengeance or for love.

However, with Senketsu’s passing, Ryuuko graduates into regular clothes and becomes a very different woman. She’s still aggressive, but she’s not as quick to anger. She’s more mature and thoughtful and even participates in more girly activities with Mako. She’s seemingly lost the agency she had as a high school student and moved closer to the subdued maturity that society demands of Japanese women. In fact, it’s not until the OVA that Ryuuko temporarily reverts to her younger warrior self. The voice of Senketsu reminds her of the power she held as a high school student and offers her the strength to succeed. It’s a lot like how real women rediscover long dormant passions of theirs when they gaze upon their old middle school or high school uniforms.

Of course, we can’t end the conversation on Kill la Kill without drawing attention to the final detail concerning seifuku uniforms: fetishism. Because the uniforms are associated with youth, they’ve also become a symbol for a virgin or pure girl. A girl in a seifuku is a girl who should be desired, as her body is probably still soft and supple. The fact that seifuku are designed to not be sexy somehow convinces others that the girl beneath them must be sexier than the norm.

This fetishism is highlighted in Kill la Kill through Senketsu’s transformation in the anime. Ryuuko already exposes a considerably larger amount of midriff in comparison to her classmates, but when Senketsu transforms her into a magical girl, her body is almost completely revealed. Ryuuko is literally parading the hidden sexiness of school uniforms every time she and Senketsu transform. The message is clever with how on the nose it is and contributes to Kill la Kill’s one long look at the overall cultural influence of the seifuku uniform. The anime is ludicrous, but it’s effective at what it’s trying to accomplish.

Kill la Kill Trailer

Final Thoughts

You could pick almost any slice of life, comedy, or romance anime at random and you’d find an anime that featured boys or girls in seifuku uniforms. They’re an accurate representation of how actual middle and high school students dress and the uniforms are easy to draw since they’re all based on the same basic design. Plus, they provide a simple way of establishing character backstories, motivations, and personalities.

If every character is wearing the same thing, then slight differences really stand out and inform the audience whether or not a particular character is flirty, reserved, well-mannered, a troublemaker, busty, muscular, relaxed, or strict. Seifuku uniforms aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. They’re too important to anime storytelling. Tell us, of all the seifuku across anime, which school design do you like the most? Which character wears that school uniform the best? We want to know!

by Jordan Ramée