National / Social Issues

To wear or not to wear: Okayama police in showdown with teen rebels sporting rebellious uniforms

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Japan has its share of rebellious teenagers and one of the most popular ways for youth to demonstrate their edginess is for them to deck themselves out in provocative uniforms.

Over the years, the practice of junior high school students sporting modern-day incarnations of tokkōfuku combat uniforms — long considered a symbol of motorcycle gangs — in lieu of their standard school outfits on the day of their annual graduation ceremonies has become an increasingly familiar spectacle.

The custom has also long irked authorities, who have a history of demonizing the attire as a gateway to delinquency. And this year, one prefectural police unit has decided they’ve had enough.

In an unusual step, the Okayama Prefectural Police has launched a full-scale crack down on students planning to don the much-maligned attire on Wednesday, when many junior high schools across the prefecture are slated to host graduation ceremonies, and are threatening to take them into custody if they dare show up publicly in the controversial get-ups.

A junior high school boy in Okayama Prefecture will deck himself out in this uniform on his graduation day Wednesday.
A junior high school boy in Okayama Prefecture will deck himself out in this uniform on his graduation day Wednesday. ‘I’ve betrayed my parents, made them cry and caused them lots of trouble, but I swear this will be the last unfilial thing I’ll do,’ it reads. | COURTESY OF KAZUHIRO NAKAGAWACHI

“We’ve received many complaints from local residents that the sight of tokkōfuku-wearing kids massing around Okayama Station (after graduation ceremonies) is intimidating,” said Tomoyasu Yokoyama, an official with the prefecture’s education board. “Some witnesses to the scenes have said they now think Okayama is a scary,
dangerous place. Others say the scenes are an embarrassment for Okayama.”

But not everyone is convinced.

Defenders of the youth culture movement have criticized the move by authorities as tantamount to depriving students of their right to freedom of expression. Despite the public perception of these costumes as “menacing,” closer inspection reveal that they are, in fact, anything but, stitched with a plethora of heartwarming messages for their parents, teachers and friends, they claim.

Synonymous with heavy, colorful embroidery, tokkōfuku was once an indispensable companion to the bōsōzoku biker gangs that would cause headaches and disturbances by revving their motorcycles through neighborhoods late into the night. The groups’ activity peaked in the 1980s, but over the past decade or two, junior high school students interested in bad-boy looks have fused this fashion with their gakuran uniforms to create the new sartorial culture of shishū-ran (embroidered school uniforms), showing them off at their graduation ceremonies or, as is the case in Okayama, outside the school premises after the events wrap up.

Officials are unsure exactly when the annual tradition in front of Okayama Station began, but Yasushi Namba, a juvenile section official of the Okayama Prefectural Police, believes it’s been around for at least 10 years.

Namba said the stepped-up crackdown on the punk uniforms is meant to “nip in the bud” the possibility of children misbehaving en masse or networking with other delinquents.

“We do realize they have the freedom to wear whatever they want, but when these kids wearing this stuff get together, they sometimes get carried away and engage in illegal conduct,” Namba said.

Three boys in Aichi Prefecture pose on their graduation day last year. The student on the left dons a uniform sewn with a thank-you message for teachers
Three boys in Aichi Prefecture pose on their graduation day last year. The student on the left dons a uniform sewn with a thank-you message for teachers ‘who took good care of me.’ | COURTESY OF KAZUHIRO NAKAGAWACHI

He said that some of the children, unsatisfied with the mere display of their costumes, had in the past sought to kick it up a notch by climbing the venerable statue of Momotaro — a well-known hero from a Japanese folktale of the same name — set up outside the station, or vandalizing nearby flower beds.

Okayama police are not alone in their crackdown on tokkōfuku.

The Fukuoka Prefectural Police Department has also been taking similar steps to bring children into custody should they march down shopping streets or gather in large groups at other public spaces while wearing tokkōfuku or its spinoff, shishū-ran.

The backlash against tokkōfuku and the attitudes that sometimes accompany those wearing it has even emerged from unexpected quarters.

Two junior high school girls in Okayama Prefecture pose in front of their school on their graduation day last year.
Two junior high school girls in Okayama Prefecture pose in front of their school on their graduation day last year. | COURTESY OF KAZUHIRO NAKAGAWACHI

Iconic rocker Eikichi Yazawa, too, released a statement on his website in January saying that he would not tolerate “acts of intimidation” by some of his most hardcore fans who, among other things, sport tokkōfuku or brandish flags at his concert.

“Tokkōfuku is so inevitably associated with biker gangs or yakuza that we can’t really condone 15-year-old kids swaggering around wearing it,” Namba said.

Kyoto-based freelance tokkōfuku-maker Kazuhiro Nakagawachi, however, has condemned moves by police. The industry veteran said few of the custom-made uniforms in question are actually what authorities claim.

“I could understand their argument that these costumes are intimidating if they were stitched with all these violent phrases or messages, but if you look at them closely, they are all about ‘thank you my sensei (teacher), Dad and Mom for everything’ or something like this. Some kids even write ‘Daddy and Mommy,'” Nakagawachi said, adding that poems and messages he often sews onto the garments are all custom-ordered by children themselves.

“How could that be ‘intimidating’? It’s just a bunch of kids sporting showy clothes and having fun,” he said.

Nakagawachi said that while he has nothing against police cracking down on actual misbehavior, taking them into custody solely based on what they are wearing “borders on an infringement of their rights to express themselves.”

“They shouldn’t be judged based on how they look,” he said. “Deep down, many of them are good kids.”

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