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The changing values behind school uniforms

by and

Special To The Japan Times

Japan and China depend on each other economically, but not necessarily in an equal way. Sometimes slight changes in commercial prospects in China can have a profound effect on Japan, or, at least, more of an effect that people realize.

Earlier this month, the Asahi Shimbun reported that China is now the No. 1 importer of mutton in the world. On the surface, this fact would seem to have little to do with Japan, which doesn’t export mutton or have much of an appetite for it. However, the importation does affect Japanese consumers.

In the past, China was able to satisfy its mutton demand domestically, but the large number of free-range sheep has desertified huge swaths of pasture land, and with demand increasing in line with standards of living — the Asahi reports a “barbecue boom” in China — meat suppliers have had to go abroad to buy mutton. In 2014 China imported 330,000 tons of mutton, a five-fold increase over the amount imported in 2009, representing 30 percent of the world’s mutton exports. Almost all of it came from either Australia or New Zealand. China’s demand, however, has shifted production in those countries from wool sheep to meat sheep, since meat is more profitable.

As a result, wool production in both those countries has decreased. Australia produced 435,000 tons of wool in 2012, or 20 percent of all the wool in the world. Nevertheless, that amount was 30 percent less than it was 10 years earlier, and in 2014 the price of wool was 40 percent higher than it was in 2004. A similar situation happened in New Zealand.

Japan doesn’t produce wool, so if you buy anything in Japan now made of the material, you’re paying more than you did a few years ago, and no product has been affected more directly by this change than school uniforms, which tend to be made completely out of wool or wool blends. In addition, thanks to stricter enforcement of environmental regulations in China, the dark blue dye that is overwhelmingly used in school uniforms has also gone up in price, since almost all of it is imported from that country.

At first glance, such a factoid may seem interesting but trivial. However, school uniforms are a major investment for families with school-age children, since all public junior high schools and most high schools require that students wear uniforms designated by their respective boards of education. The schools don’t provide these uniforms. The students have to buy them, with prices usually starting at ¥30,000 for boys and ¥40,000 for girls.

According to a survey conducted by the internal affairs ministry, the average price of a school uniform in Tokyo went up last year by 4 percent and in Osaka by 8 percent, and the difference mainly has to do with the amount of wool used. In many localities there is only one tailor or manufacturer who has the contract to produce uniforms for a specific school, so there’s no competition and thus prices can be higher. Matters become more difficult for children who transfer to a new school in the middle of their junior high or high school years. They have to buy a brand new uniform mandated by the new school.

One retailer, School Plaza Fujiya, located in Tokyo, told the Asahi that it raised prices for school uniforms this year by 5 to 10 percent due to higher manufacturing costs. It’s the store’s first increase in 10 years. A maximum ¥4,000 increase isn’t going to break a family, but uniforms aren’t the only items that new school students are required to buy. They also have to purchase athletic wear, a summer uniform (which can also be made of wool), notebooks and pencils, bags, special shoes for use only inside school buildings, and other assorted items that are often designated by the school. On average, a new school student spends between ¥80,000 and ¥100,000 for all these things.

Those whose family incomes fall below the poverty line may be able to receive subsidies from the government. In 2013, 1.51 million families received educational support, about 250,000 more than in 2003. Last week, UNICEF released a report that placed Japan 34th on a list of 41 developed countries in terms of child poverty. Between 1985 and 2012, median household income in Japan rose from ¥1.77 million to ¥2.11 million, but the median income of the poorest 10th percentile of households dropped from ¥902,500 to ¥840,000. The child poverty rate in Japan is 16.3 percent, one of the highest in the developed world.

But even if this stratum of school-age children receives some help from the government, children whose families struggle just above the poverty line are also having to make do with less, and some school districts are trying to help them address the school uniform problem. A report in the Nishi Nippon Shimbun in March described a program in the city of Fukuoka, begun in 1990, that collects used uniforms from junior high and high school graduates and then recycles them to sell to incoming students. The local community center has a donation box where families drop off old uniforms. They receive up to a hundred a year and later resell them for the cost of cleaning and repairs — usually no more than ¥1,000.

In another Kyushu town, a woman started her own recycled school uniform store, where she sells old clothing at about one-third of the price of new uniforms. She got the idea for the store from her own experience. When her son was in junior high school, he had to change schools five times due to bullying issues and each time she had to buy him a new uniform. A high school in Oita Prefecture is so successful at recycling that half its graduating students, which usually number about 300, donate their old uniforms. The city of Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, has gone even further and recycles not only uniforms, but bags and athletic wear. One school district collects 20,000 items a year.

Of course, the school uniform industry, which has always enjoyed a captive clientele, is probably not happy with such schemes, especially now that the school-age population is set to drop. But they can still count on a sentiment voiced by one mother who told the Asahi Shimbun that while she couldn’t really afford it, she’d buy her son, who was about to start junior high school, a new school uniform “because I want to show that I love him.”

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. For related online content, see blog.japantimes.co.jp/yen-for-living.