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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A SOCK TO THE SYSTEM

Conform, conform, conform. That's the message driven into Japanese students. But some schoolgirls stick to their own rules

By Chester Dawson / Tokyo


SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD MATSUMOTO SAYOKO PAUSES on a busy street in Shibuya, a trendy Tokyo hub. She swiftly draws an invisible line around each calf with a lipstick-sized tube and hikes up the thick white socks slumped around her ankles. Presto -- the heavy socks defy gravity by clinging to her legs midway between ankle and knee. Magic? No, sock glue.

"It's a schoolgirl-thing," explains Matsumoto, adding that 90% of her classmates have caught on to the trend. She says a few touches with an adhesive stick are sufficient to keep baggy socks in place for several hours. The glue washes off with soap, water and a little elbow grease.

Oversized socks are more than just another fad in a land of quirky obsessions. In their own way, they challenge the sanctity of one of Japan's most enduring symbols of state-sponsored conformity -- the school uniform. This willingness to flout the rules for the sake of being hip sets today's generation apart from predecessors, who accepted the personality-stifling garb as an obligatory rite of passage.

"It's a way of expressing themselves as a group," says Miyamoto Masao, social critic and author of the book Straitjacket Society, who sees the oversized socks as just one sign of increasing independence among today's teens.

Japanese school uniforms bear an uncanny resemblance to the military outfits of 19th-century Europe -- high-collared Prussian-style tunics with brass buttons for boys and pleated navy blue skirts, white blouses with matching scarves and short white socks for girls. The uniforms are a vestige of Japan's crash course in Westernization 100 years ago -- the same phenomenon that introduced nationwide education for all.

Teachers enforce dress codes by performing random spot checks on everything from skirt length to underwear color. Regulations on dress and other aspects of adolescent life (both during and after school) are spelled out in pocket-sized, leather-bound handbooks called seito techo, which must be carried at all times.

But some girls are taking advantage of a loophole in the regulations, which do not set out what kind of ankle socks should be worn. Donning baggy ones and then hoisting them up to change their look after school hours is a simple and effective way of thumbing your nose at the system.

Some schoolgirls also wear their skirts above the knee, and the more adventurous go one step further by dyeing their hair brownish-orange and flaunting such contraband as flashy jewelry or oversized V-neck sweaters.

The most outrageous offenders are known as ko-gyaru -- girls who sport big socks, short skirts, orange-dyed coiffures and heavy blue eye shadow. They have their own coded language to keep outsiders at a distance. Ko-gyaru-go or "high-school-girl talk," is largely a "Japanization" of English words. Going to a Denny's restaurant becomes deniru and having a Haagen-Dazs ice-cream is simply hageru. If you disu, you are showing disrespect.

The ko-gyaru first attracted world attention last year with press reports of teens prostituting themselves in exchange for brand-name goods. But by far the majority of girls limit their provocative activities to nothing more brazen than ruzu sokusu (loose socks).

"These socks are one of the few areas where students can make a fashion statement," says Kawasaki Keisuke, the marketing director at Hakugen, whose $2.50 Sock Touch glue dominates the market. It and the other brands are also used to secure bra straps -- and even to hold eyelids apart to make Asian eyes appear Western.

For some girls, the socks are not just a display of resistance to school rules. "Thick ones make your legs look lots slimmer," says Rie Takahashi, a student in rural Mie prefecture. This may be why boys have not taken up the look.

The big-sock phenomenon started about three years ago in Tokyo and now reaches the remotest corners of the archipelago. The media help spread the word via teen magazines like Cutie, featuring articles such as "Breaking Down the School Uniform: An Intro to Super Loose Mode." Television shows and commercials also showcase girls pirouetting in trademark billowing socks.

The most popular brand of sock is made by E.G. Smith, a U.S. company. It is having trouble filling its orders. "We're probably the only people in the world selling socks brought in by air freight," says Sunakoshi Yukio, spokesman for Wix, the Japanese distributor for the New York-based manufacturers. "We simply can't keep up with demand."

Girls whose schools ban the socks can be seen furtively slipping on the forbidden leg-wear after class. Some have mastered the art of making the sock switch while standing in speeding subway trains, entertaining fellow passengers with their delicate balancing act.

As teachers the world over know, as long as there are school uniforms, adolescents will find way to modify them. To be sure, loose socks don't herald a revolution in youth consciousness or the rise of a student disobedience movement. But author Miyamoto sees the current phenomenon as part of increasing disaffection with the constraints placed on adolescents in Japan's conservative society. Many adults expect students to be little more than desk-bound data sponges focused on passing college entrance exams.

For all that, some schools do seem to be loosening the rules a little. Four public schools in Chiba prefecture, near Tokyo, recently surrendered to the dictates of fashion and authorized miniskirts for the first time. They told local stores to drop a ban on selling skirts hemmed above the knee.

Meanwhile, as Japan's teenage population dwindles each year from declining birthrates, private high schools are turning to fashion consultants to help keep up their enrollment numbers. Some students even select their school on the basis of the uniform.

Still, for most girls in the state system, the only way to say you're different is to be like the others -- and go with the ruzu sokusu trend. Anyway, they acknowledge uniforms sometimes have their uses. "If we didn't have them, it would be tough figuring out what to wear each day," says 16-year-old Sawada Mizuki. And that would be cho-beri-ba (very bad) for the ko-gyaru.


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