Japanese Fashion Part Two: “Recruit Suits” and Why Boring Fashion Matters

(Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to introduce today’s guest contributor. Annamarie Sasagawa is a PhD candidate in anthropology/global studies at the University of Tokyo.)

The inventive side of Japanese fashion is made much of in the West. Christina’s post on how wackier supposed ‘trends’ in Japanese fashion, like full-body spandex suits and skirts that transform into vending machine costumes, are written about in English does a great job showing how Western writing about Japanese fashion both reproduces ideas about ‘weird’ Japan and fosters (paternalistic) concern over the ‘social problems’ that these trends are purportedly both symptom of and cure for.

But what about the boring side of Japanese fashion? Why is no one proclaiming that a desire for community drives sales of basic Uniqlo polo shirts? Why are there no theories about the social pressure to conform pushing everyone to wear black leather shoes to work? And why, oh why, does no one seem to have thoughts on the most boring outfit in all of Japan, or possibly the entire planet? I mean, of course, the Recruit Suit.

The Recruit Suit, for those of us who have been lucky enough to avoid the grueling, year long process of graduate job hunting in Japan, is the basic black polyester suit worn by senior undergrads in Japan for job-hunting activities. It’s a black pant suit for guys, black skirt suit for girls, worn with a white shirt or blouse, black brogues or pumps, and a black attache case. Job-hunt hair and makeup are also pretty boring: neat black hair (no dye jobs), clean-shaven faces for guys, and basic makeup for girls.


Image Source: Steven L Johnson, Flickr Creative Commons

The Recruit Suit and its prescribed accessories are so damn boring even I can’t look at someone wearing it for longer than a few minutes before my mind wanders to more exciting things like my tax return. And I’m a labour market anthropologist in Japan. Who did field research with undergrad job-hunters.

We choose our clothes because we hope for them to deliver a certain result. Sometime it’s practical, like protection from falling objects on a construction site. Sometimes it’s emotional, like feeling liberated through self-expression. The Recruit Suit is so damn boring that we can be reasonably certain young Japanese people aren’t sporting the look for any emotional thrills. So what result are Japanese undergrad job-hunters (shukatsu-sei 就活生) hoping for when they put on their Recruit Suits?

English-speaking writers may have little to say about the Recruit Suit, but Japanese writers have lots of advice. The Weekly Toyo Keizai magazine (an influential business publication; sort of a punchier version of Forbes) published an article in 2014 titled, roughly, “Effing choose a black Recruit Suit, OK?” The subtitle: “Don’t try to stand out with clothing.” (The article, and the resulting Twitter sh*tstorm that followed are nicely chronicled in this Tofugu post). The writer’s argument was, basically, that “If you go with a black suit, there’s zero risk.” Hmm.

And just a few days ago, the Keizai Premiere section of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper (one of Japan’s major newspapers, with national daily circulation of more than three million) published a similar article on Recruit Suits in the form of a Q&A with a ‘female head interviewer.’ One of the questions: “Do I have to wear a black suit to an interview?” The answer (from a writer clearly a bit more relaxed about these things than the Toyo Keizai columnist) was that any “dark suit” would be fine. Just don’t go with white, she warns, “because if you’re chubby a white suit makes you look even fatter.” When you head into the working world in Japan, she advises, “the standard is a dark suit.”

There are two concepts driving the fashion advice in these articles: risk and entering the working world. Understanding these in Japanese context makes the Recruit Suit make a lot more sense.

Unlike North America, where young people tend to travel, intern, and try a bunch of things before eventually settling into a career, the school-to-work transition in Japan is uniform, sharp, and final. You are a student (gakusei 学生) and nothing else until you graduate (always in March) and start working regular, career-track job (always in April). Then you’re a shakaijin (社会人), an adult who works full-time and contributes to society. Making a clean transition from school to work, gakusei to shakaijin, is so important in Japan that young people who don’t get job offers by their final year of university will often either extend graduation or enter a master’s program just to avoid the alternative: becoming someone without institutional affiliation (ronin浪人), or someone working a bunch of part-time jobs (freeter, フリーター). (Fun fact: if your goal is to land a full-time job, in Japan if you’re male you’re actually better off unemployed than working a contingent job)

And here is where risk comes in. There are two types of jobs in Japan, regular (seishain, 正社員) and irregular (hiseiki-shain, 非正規社員). Seishain are ‘core’ workers with serious job security (it is very hard to fire a seishain), but their job security is made possible by the growing pool of flexible, poorly-paid, easily-fired irregular workers.

Japan’s economy has struggled for the past 20 years. Companies have tried to cut costs by hiring fewer regular workers and more irregular ones. They can’t reduce the number of existing regular employees, so they’ve hired fewer new graduates. The percentage of young Japanese in irregular jobs has increased every year to about 40% now. It’s a massive shift of labour market risk to young people in a deindustrializing economy. This is not exactly unique to Japan; see all the commentary on ‘sharing economy’ businesses like Uber and how they shift risks to their contractors. But in Japan this is a risk shift that, given the one-chance nature of the school-to-work transition here, undergrads job-hunters are very aware of and are trying to mitigate as best they can. Through their boring black suits.

The Recruit Suit is a risk-mitigation device. Japanese employers hire for potential, not existing skill sets, at least for entry-level jobs. They look for “white cloth,” candidates who look socially aware and trainable. And that’s what young Japanese job-hunters want their Recruit Suits to do: in a competitive high-stakes situation, they’re hoping their black polyester proves they’re “white cloth.” And I wish them luck.

Labour market risk shifts in deindustrializing economies are boring. Black polyester suits are boring. It’s a lot more fun to talk about colorful full-body spandex unitard trends in Japan, and it certainly makes for better clickbait. I know nobody is going to embroider this on a pillow anytime soon, but boring fashion matters. It really does. Especially in Japan.

About saratatyana

Sara T. Bernstein, Ph.D. has been writing about and teaching media, cultural and fashion studies for over a decade. She's served as a contributor and reviews editor for the Fashion, Style and Popular Culture Journal, contributed to Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty and published essays on subjects ranging from fashion in the work of Charlotte Bronte, to the meaning of luxury, to feminist pedagogy. She teaches visual culture, media, and fashion studies at Pacific Northwest College of Art.
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