Female-Only Uniforms in Japan? Don’t Bank on It!

Japan’s financial institutions are abandoning decades-old dress codes for women.

By Yuri Nishida, Asahi Shimbun

Regular customers at Kanako Katayama’s teller window at the Kita-Urawa branch of Saitamaken Shinkin Bank in Saitama recently noticed something different: Katayama, 36, was dressed in a white shirt, a black jacket and a pair of pants. After 50 years of enforcing a dress code, the bank now allows Katayama and other female employees to wear the business attire of their choosing.

Saitamaken Shinkin Bank is one of an increasing number of banks, including shinkin banks (credit unions), that are promoting gender equality by shedding a decades-old tradition of requiring female workers—and only female workers—to wear uniforms. Aoki Shinkin Bank in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, abolished uniforms for female staff in 2021, and Kyoto Chuo Shinkin Bank in Kyoto followed suit in 2022.

Saitamaken Shinkin Bank long required female staff, except for managerial and sales positions, to wear a uniform consisting of a shirt in specific colors, a vest and a skirt or culottes. Since May of 2022, however, staff has been allowed to wear a suit or other business-appropriate attire. The same rule will be applied to part-time and temporary workers beginning in May 2023.

Established in 1969, rules requiring uniforms were intended “to maintain grace and elegance” and to improve workplace performance. But when the company recently polled staff about this policy through the employees’ union, some said they felt uncomfortable seeing only female workers wearing uniforms. Others said they felt that seeing only women in uniform made people inside and outside the company see female employees as being subservient to men. And the majority came out in favor of abolishing the rule.

An employee for the bank’s human resources department explained the origins of the policy, saying, “Uniforms can increase the sense of unity among staff and help them make the transition from private life to work, which is important when it comes to handling money.” Nevertheless, the bank decided to abolish uniforms. “We placed importance on eliminating the ‘subservient image’ of women in uniform,” said the employee. “We can gain the trust of our customers as we think about how we can give them a favorable impression with the clothing we wear, instead of creating a unity in appearance by wearing uniforms.”

In a number of businesses and industries (post offices, mobile phone stores), both male and female workers are required to wear uniforms. So how did it become the norm for only female staff to wear uniforms at banking institutions? According to Makiko Habazaki, a gender studies associate professor at Saitama University’s Diversity Promotion Office, it was the result of the unique history of financial institutions.

Beginning in the 1960s, when Japan was experiencing rapid economic growth, banking institutions hired women in large numbers as tellers to promote an approachable image and attract new customers. The female-only uniform rule was established by male executives who thought it would be difficult for female staffers to buy business suits when they were paid less than their male colleagues.

Habazaki explains that after the asset-inflated economy collapsed in the early 1990s, many banking institutions abolished uniforms for female staff to reduce costs. However, many of them reinstated the rule after a few years, saying that it would boost employee unity and promote the bank’s image.

During the past five or six years, financial institutions have become sensitive to social responsibility issues and the need to attain gender equality, and that has led to another move to abolish uniforms. That said, Koei Taniyama, a department head of the Nippon Uniform Center, a public interest foundation, believes that “uniforms are still an effective way to improve corporate branding, and there will be another revival in interest at some point.”

Even now, there are holdouts: Mizuho Bank Ltd., one of Japan’s major banks, has always required male and female branch office staff working outside teller windows to wear uniforms in order to prevent them from being mistaken for customers. Uniforms are optional only for female tellers.

Habazaki welcomes this increasingly diversified landscape and hopes that eventually all uniform requirements will be abolished. “The framework in which male workers go out on sales calls and female staff serve as tellers is reminiscent of Japan’s traditional gender division of work,” she says. “Uniforms have played a role in visualizing that system and encouraging its wide spread.”