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Suiting the times: The history and future of Japan's recruitment fashion

Students in their sartorially similar "recruit suits" are seen waiting for the start of a joint company information session in Osaka, on March 1, 2019. (Mainichi/Maiko Umeda)

TOKYO -- In June, many Japanese companies launched their process to recruit new employees to start from April 2020. The spectacle of prospective hires wearing identical black-jacket, white-shirt "recruit suits" is now familiar across Japan.

Rows of university students pack out job fairs, and once hired, they attend initiation ceremonies in similar outfits, with almost all of them sporting plain black hair styles, too. But when did the clothes students wear for recruitment season become so uniform?

Most designs for recruitment season are basically the same. Some students seeking employment said they chose the style because it's safe and they don't want to worry about making a bad impression, or that their parents sent them because they can be used in the job too.

New female employees, sporting a variety of styles, are seen at the company initiation ceremony for All Nippon Airways Co. on April 1, 1993, in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

But photographs of company initiation ceremonies in the early 1990s suggest that sartorial trends concerning job hunting used to be totally different. New female employees could be seen wearing one-piece dresses; even those in suits embellished them with ribbons or corsages. Men's suits came in a greater selection of colors too, with navy blues and grays. It wasn't all black suits.

According to Reiji Ishiwatari, a journalist with detailed knowledge of university students' job-seeking trends, would-be recruits seen in the media in the 1960s were almost always male students. As a result, the period's standard outfit was their respective school uniforms, with the number of women seeking employment then very low.

Entering the 1970s, articles in recruitment magazines started to appear recommending business suits for reasons including their usability after obtaining the job. In 1977, the Tokyo branch of the Business Association of University Cooperatives and Isetan formed a partnership to sell suits for job-seekers under the brand "Recruit." It is from that product line that the term "recruit suit" was popularized in Japan. The line's suits came in navy blue, grey, brown and other colors. Among men, the prevailing style gradually weaved its way to a navy blue suit and red tie combination.

A panoply of suit colors is seen at the company initiation ceremony for new recruits to Merrill Lynch Japan Securities on April 18, 1998. (Mainichi)

With women's advancement into society picking up pace in the 1980s, ladies' fashion magazines reflected the mood of the time with write-ups introducing outfits including jacket and skirt combinations, as well as one-piece dresses, as the recruitment outfits of the moment.

Pants, however, seemed to be out for women. In "Recruitment fashion study for female university students fiscal 1989 edition," published in 1988, a number of company recruiters were asked for their opinions on women wearing pants at interviews. Their responses included, "It' not favorable at interviews," "It's forbidden even by internal company rules," and, "If it's not a company with a free-dress policy then the pants look is not acceptable."

Despite the implementation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act in 1986, it was still then considered natural for women to leave the workforce upon marriage or childbirth. Ishiwatari adds, "Even when it came to looking for a job, females were expected to highlight their appeal 'as women.'"

Ishiwatari says the black recruit-suit style that's so familiar now first started to gain traction around the year 2000. He attributes its ascendance to the ease with which it could be mixed and matched even for activities outside job hunting, which was appealing in the financially leaner post-bubble Japan. Companies selling them also touted them for reasons including their suitability for all of life's important occasions, and for their perceived superior aesthetic quality when used for head-shots on resumes.

The recruit suit is seen in its ascendancy as new employees at Mizuho Financial Group Inc. step out after the completion of their company initiation ceremony on March 31, 2002, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi/Kenji Mori)

"For many students, they're keen not to stand out for the wrong reasons, so a lot of them end up going for the same style," explains Ishiwatari. But change is in the air. He says students who have become accustomed to company and social life earlier through internships and other means aren't as restricted to the belief that the uniform black suit is best.

One fourth-year male student at Waseda University sought employment in an ordinary shirt and pants, while wearing loafers in colors including brown and black. Although a media company that interviewed him picked up on his "unique outfits," they still informally offered him a job. The young man says, "For women, their feet can get sore in high heels, and men end up sweating in a jacket and tie. For people to do it even when it's not explicitly mandated by the company seems like an unnecessary discomfort to me."

Some companies have also started proposing more flexible styles for applicants. From this year, cosmetics firm Isehan Co.'s product and marketing department has started accepting entries via its Instagram account and website, including photographs of applicants wearing the clothes and makeup that express their style.

A public relations officer for the company commented on the change, "We felt there was a contradiction for us as a division seeking people with free ways of thinking while carrying out a hiring process with applicants who wore the same recruitment outfits and cosmetic looks." At the company's information session, not a single black suit could be seen in the audience, and their application numbers doubled.

Recruit-suited new employees are seen at the Toyota Motor Corp. company initiation ceremony at the Toyota Sports Center in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, on April 2, 2007. (Mainichi/Masahiro Nakai)

The Tokyo branch of pharmaceuticals conglomerate Johnson & Johnson K.K. has from this year started encouraging students seeking work to do it in a style that won't hurt their feet, recommending they wear sneakers. The company has put out advertisements reading, "For job searching, go with sneakers as an option," and "Hey HR, what about saying OK to sneakers?" It has also partnered up with retail management firm Marui Group Co. to put out proposals for suit and sneaker combinations.

Johnson & Johnson says that at its second-round employment examination held in late April, some 20 to 30% of students came wearing sneakers. The company said, "There are a number of other companies who support it. From now on we want to extend the idea across society by teaming up with other businesses and approaching universities about it."

(Japanese original by Satoko Nakagawa, Integrated Digital News Center)

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