Why Are Japanese Schools So… English?

If you come to Japan, or if you’ve watched any school-based anime, you probably know what I’m getting at here: There are a few sights and sounds in Japan that they took directly from the English. From sailor uniforms to a familiar school jingle, Japan owes a lot of its iconic school culture to England.

Japanese Schoolgirl Uniforms: Sailor Uniforms

One of the most iconic parts of Japanese culture is the female school uniform. They come in a variety of flavors, but the two most popular are the Catholic school-inspired checkered skirt and the sailor uniform. The sailor uniform actually traces its origins back to just after the turn of the century in England.

The story begins in the fabled year 1920, when it was introduced as a student uniform at Heian Jogakuin (平安女学院), or Heian Women’s School. There was a bit of a controversy surrounding this, as a school in Fukuoka, Fukuoka Jogakuin, claims it was the first with the uniforms, and not the Kyoto-based Heian Jogakuin. However, after examining the evidence, the consensus is that it was indeed Heian Jogakuin, but that hasn’t diminished the contributions that the Fukuoka school has given to the uniform.

British Royal Navy sailor’s uniforms circa 1917
(courtesy of Ann Longmore-Etheridge via Flickr Creative Commons, all rights reserved)

The name most closely associated with the uniform in Japan is Elizabeth Lee, the principal of Fukuoka Jogakuin University (福岡女学院). She introduced the uniform to her institution in 1921, and was inspired by the British Royal Navy uniforms Elizabeth had seen when she was an exchange student in the United Kingdom. Elizabeth Lee herself was an American missionary who found herself in Japan and has her own story worth checking out.

Two women in the fabled uniform at Fukuoka Jogakuin University
(via Wikimedia Commons)

According to Tomoko Namba, a professor at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo specializing in school uniform history, uniforms weren’t mass-produced or ready-made at this transition point in the 1920s. That means that students and their families had to craft their own uniforms at home. Since the sailor uniform was relatively easy to make and customize in small ways, this lead to its ever-increasing popularity as Japanese people looked to incorporate more Western fashions into their everyday lives.

A more modern monotone style of the sailor uniform
(courtesy of Eliot et Zac via Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re interested in learning more about uniforms beyond the British sailor uniform, check out this video from Mina Lee about its complicated history:

Japanese School Bells: Westminster Quarters

One ubiquitous sound you will hear all across Japan are the school bells. Whether they are for elementary school, high school, or even universities, the sound to mark the start and end of classes is the Westminster Quarters, also known as the Westminster Bells. Or, if you’re in Japan, kin-kon-kan-kon (キーンコーンカーンコーン), a bit of an onomatopoeia of the sound the jingle makes.

How they came to be so widely used in Japan is a bit of a mystery: It’s a strange hodge-podge of folk history and scraps from the past that create a bit of a mosaic of understanding.

A portrait of William Crotch, the potential creator of the jingle
(via Wikimedia Commons)

The jingle traces back to 1793, where some believe that a young William Crotch, known musical prodigy, wrote the jingle. I can’t seem to find anywhere that concretely confirms this, but this appears to be the popular theory on most Japanese websites on the matter I encountered.

What we do know is that it was adopted in 1859 by Big Ben himself, forever cementing the association between the jingle and the famous clock tower.

How did it get to Japan then? First, the bell system had to be created, and that was made by Kunio Ishimoto to replace the old bells in schools. Apparently, those bells to signal the end of classes also doubled as air raid bells, so after World War II finished, the continued use of these bells found distressing results for their students. Another account said the sound was simply shrill and unpleasant and in need of a change. He got the idea to use the Westminster Quarters because he would often hear them on the BBC radio broadcasts, thought they were neat, and decided to use them in his new invention.

You telling me kids didn’t love this?
(Actually a French air raid horn)
(photo courtesy of Thomas Bresson via Wikimedia Commons)

Another account credits teacher Shobi Inoue for contacting Kazuo Kato to make the new bell system for their school in Tokyo’s Ota Ward. Regardless of who engineered the system, the first school seems to be confirmed.

As for the first school to adopt the new bell system, that was supposedly Omori Daiyon Junior High School in Ota Ward, Tokyo. I couldn’t find any mention on the school’s website, so I can’t really confirm a date for this. The story goes that the regular bell was out of order, so they started using Mr. Ishimoto’s or Mr. Kato’s design. From there, the popular jingle spread like wildfire across the nation and became the preferred chime to announce the start and end of classes across Japan. Nowadays, you can hear it everywhere, at nearly every school. Even my university uses the bells to announce the changing of periods!

A typical Japanese school building
(via Wikimedia Commons)

And there you have it! Two English bits that have become absorbed by Japanese culture and are now as Japanese as sushi and sake! What about you? Do the Westminster Quarters play anywhere around you to mark the time? Let us know in the comments!


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