New elementary principle: Children dress for success

September 10, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- For tens of thousands of young Japanese, September is the time to get fitted for the $400 dark-blue interview suit and think about that all-important application -- to elementary school.

Dress-for-success 5-year-olds have not always been part of Japanese life.

But this summer, as the application season approached, they became so ubiquitous that some newspapers printed shopping guides. The guides showed cartoon figures outfitted in the attire sure to get one's child into the private primary schools of choice.

For boys: white shirt, striped necktie, navy blue wool shorts, matching navy two-button blazer with flapped patch pockets, white or navy knee socks, black shoes with black laces. Cost: $250-$450.

For girls: White blouse, navy wool jumper or skirt with box-pleat front, matching navy double-breasted jacket, white tights, black single-strap shoes. Cost: $350-$525.

"Overall sales of children's clothes have been in a serious slump," said a spokesman for Keio department store. "But sales of interview clothes have tripled compared with last year."

Keio held its first primary school interview-suit promotional fair this summer.

The elementary school interview suit is the latest discovery in the postwar Japanese parent's obsessive search for any edge that might help a son or daughter compete.

For these parents, a child's first 18 years are a series of escalating school admission crises.

The key level is junior high. Many parents regard that year's as the make-or-break examination that decides which high schools -- and therefore which universities -- their child can hope to enter.

University admission in turn determines whether a son or daughter can reach the real pinnacle of Japanese society: a lifetime job in government or on a big company's management track.

The interview suit is a small part of what it takes to get into a top primary school.

Applicants sit through two-hour written and oral examinations for some of the best schools.

The struggle to score big in the race for primary school admission can begin for a child as early as age 2. That's when some parents plunge their children into a hotly competitive quest for admission to nursery schools and kindergartens that claim to have inside tracks to the best primary schools.

Nurseries and kindergartens can cost as much as $5,000 a year.

Many parents don't stop there. Japan's famous network of for-profit cram schools now begins with after-hours tutorials for nursery and kindergarten pupils, all aimed at the primary school tests. That can cost another $2,000 or $3,000 a year.

Dressing children for school has helped considerably to ease the impact that Japan's two-year economic slowdown has had on designers and clothing companies -- and not only because parents are competing for school admissions.

Many schools are using top-name designer labels to revamp their uniforms as a way of competing for the best students.

The designer trend started with private schools three or four years ago. This year it spread to some public high schools, which have been losing more and more of their best students to private schools.

That is only partly because parents think private schools offer an edge in getting into a top university. Part of the loss also is due to students' growing resistance to the stuffy image public schools have.

Principals and parents defend Japan's tradition of public school uniforms as a way to thwart the social-climbing instincts of some families. But the familiar sea of cadet-style dark jackets for boys and sailor suits for girls has begun to part.

"Unlike the old days, some students today choose schools by the uniform," says Rokusuke Tatsuta, principal of Fukagawa High School. This year, students at his school will wear clothing by Kansai Yamamoto, a rising fashion designer. Minami High School, a neighboring school in Saitama prefecture, near Tokyo, reached straight for the top, with clothing by Hanae Mori, Japan's most famous designer.

Other public schools have gone the opposite way, rewriting their dress codes to permit a range of sweaters, polo shirts and knit vests that are available off the rack.

That gives students and parents more variety. But is it uniform?

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