Standard school issue – uwabakis

From time to time, I really enjoy the challenge of detective work on some obscure educational trivia… Like today’s Question of the Day from one of our EIJ forum members:

Q: I would love to read the tips [on maintenance of school shoes / uwabaki]. May I ask for the one to EIJ community blog?

I also would love to hear any reasonable explanation to why uwabaki made in white? Why not brown, plaid or checked…smth easier to keep clean?

A: There are a lot of school canvas shoe care tips at this Yahoo answer page, and although I have tried all of those, except the toothpaste one, I think the Asaichi TV programme‘s tips are better, and you’ll find them written up on our blog at this page.

As to the origin of uwabaki (also called barei shuzu), while I couldn’t find it anywhere on my 1st google(not even from the Japanese Wiki page), I would put my money (as an ex-Convent girl) on it …and bet that both the uwabaki and buruma (bloomers) originated as a package from … the British!

Although many have come to associate the uwabaki as typical Japanese footwear, Nipponia hints that the Japanese don’t consider the uwabaki footwear to be Japanese at all, but to be a foreign import:

Modern Japan has taken on many Western habits, and shoes are now worn outside, to the almost complete exclusion of other footwear. But the custom of not wearing shoes in the home remains, and this has led to the use of uwabaki slippers in schools”.

The origin of the Uwabaki (and the Asian white canvas school shoes) was probably the early prototype of the British plimsoll or plimsole (British English)- which is a type of athletic shoe with a canvas upper and rubber sole, developed as beachwear or “sandshoe” as it also used to be known then, or alternatively also known as “pumps” with a little elasticated band (but not strap) in the 1830s by the Liverpool Rubber Company.

And eventually evolved into the “plimsolls(see above picture of school plimsolls without the stripe)” so-called from the 1870s, because it derived from the horizontal colored stripe that once ran along the upper part of the sole, which resembled the Plimsoll line on a ship’s hull. Like the line on ships, the stripe on the shoe was a kind of waterline (though it was clearly for just aesthetic purposes).

The interesting thing is that aside from the common attribution to the Brits for the creation of plimsolls, the Plimsoll company itself attributes the prototype Plimsoll to a made-for-the-Soviet-military-Hungarian-factory-shoe:

The name aside, our take on Plimsoll was originally made in a factory just outside Budapest in Hungary, and is based on a shoe they have made there for over fifty years and was originally an exercise shoe for the soviet military. We have since moved production with the very same mold design to the far east for a clean looking version of the original. This gives our Plimsoll a vintage ‘old school’ feel.“–Plimsollshoes.com

In the UK, plimsolls were compulsory in school physical education lessons. In northern Scotland and Ireland, they are still sometimes called “sannies”(short for sandshoes – Wikipedia refers). Here’s an excerpt from the fascinating Brief History of the Plimsoll: The Grandfather of the Sport Shoe:

The plimsoll marked the beginning of the modern sport shoe and its origins are linked to the 19th century railways in the UK and the new habit of working class city dwellers taking annual trips to the seaside. Visits to the seashores by daytrippers in working boots seemed out of character so many chose to wear the new lightweight canvas topped rubber soled shoes because they were cheap and ideal for the sand. These were called sand shoes. At first the cotton canvas topped shoe had a sole made from leather, jute or rope but the footwear was flimsy and wore out quickly. Then the New Liverpool Rubber Company developed a light shoe which combined a cotton canvas top to a rubber sole. Sand shies were still vulnerable to separate so a thin rubber band was wrapped around the whole shoe trapping the join between the canvas and rubber sole. This made the footwear far more robust and the new style was called a plimsoll after the white plimsoll lines on ships which was introduced in 1876. Plimsolls wore well, kept the feet cool in the summer and dried quickly after a paddle in the sea.”

Since British (esp. the Irish, Scottish or Welsh) missionaries have a long history in the setting up of schools all over Asia …and although plimsolls are no longer just white in the UK, you’ll find that India (and the rest of the Brit. Commonwealth), as well as most of Southeast Asian schools still commonly adhere to some version of the white canvas plimsoll shoe as a part of their common school uniform.

In Japan, uwabakis were introduced not only for schools, but for hospital nurses as well. I would hazard a guess that uwabakis were likely introduced around the same time as the school bloomers (burumaブルマー)… the latter were introduced in Japan as women’s clothing for physical education in 1903. The plimsoll may have been introduced even earlier. It is said that 19th-century “cartoons in journals lampooned sandal-shod(the first uwabakis sandals or “sandshoes”?) students” and the Minister of Education Mori Arinori was actually assassinated in 1889 for having betrayed Japan’s traditional culture (source: Japanese Sports: A History, pps.69-70).  In the course of the Meiji modernization drive, the Meiji government invited scholars from Europe and America to teach in the newly established school system, which included introducing to the students sports and athletics. Athletic track-and-field events were introduced at undokai sports day at various schools, the earliest of these was thought to have been the Naval Academy in Tokyo in 1874 at the initiative of British naval officers, but athletics really only took off with the arrival of the Englishman, Frederick Strange in 1875 who taught at Ichiko, the nation’s most prestigious preparatory academy… the college that became Tokyo University(pps 73-76). Uwabaki, following the English-led athletics initiative, by this time probably became standard footwear for students in schools.

The ubiquitous school canvas shoe/plimsoll tradition is thus a legacy of the 19th century Industrial Revolution-cotton industry-days, when rubber and cotton materials were the most common products of the then-modern factory, and due to their ubiquity, plimsolls remain the cheapest options for school shoes today.

Another answer as to why school canvas shoes are traditionally white, (you can blame the Brits too), Derek at “Put This On” says …

If you get a pair of plimsolls, I recommend white, as nothing looks better in the summer. Some may worry that white canvas shoes are hard to keep clean. Personally, I think they look best with a little dirt on them. However, if you do want to keep them a bit brighter, try spraying a 50/50 mix of water and lemon juice, gently scrubbing for a bit, and letting them sit for a full day. For more serious stains, mix a tablespoon of baking soda and touch of water, and then rub the sticky paste onto the stain. Don’t worry too much about them though. They’re casual shoes and meant to be treated as such.”Derek@PutThisOn

I suppose that the colour of the Japanese uwabaki has largely remained white (apart from being a form of sweet revenge by school administrators against all of us “monster parents” who have to do the washing) because…it helps to keep school costs down (coloured shoes are costlier), little feet grow quickly and change shoe size a few times a year).

Nevertheless, despite the practical considerations of Japanese parents, Japanese kids are rather prone to fashion fads, uwabaki manufacturers today have introduced a variety of coloured and reinforced-toeguard-and-soles in uwabakis in bright primary red/blue/green & yellow colours (see top of page pictured uwabakis, or this link or this power-shoes link). The colours are sometimes used to indicate the school grade.

Coloured uwabakis are actually already being sold, see the all-blue or all-pink uwabaki with anime “character” uwabaki below, but the coloured uwabaki ranks 25th in popularity (i.e. at the bottom).

It’s perhaps just a matter of time…and we will soon be seeing canvas shoes go the way of randoseru satchels that are now sold in the range of colours from the marvelous multi-coloured palette that kids can pick out from. You can also find truly creative “reformed” or “renovated” versions of the uwabaki at this page!

While some schools use the canvas uwabaki through upper senior high school, many middle and upper secondary schools now use gym sports shoes as uwabaki substitutes.


That, in short, is my take on the history of the humble school uwabaki.

Digitally yours,

Aileen Kawagoe