Company uniforms: Sony updates a Japanese tradition

Every weekday morning Maki Kawanishi, a secretary at Sony's Tokyo headquarters, slips on a jacket created by fashion designer Issey Miyake and begins her workday, just like 30,000 other Sony employees throughout Japan. Her taupe V-neck jacket with the haute couture pedigree is Sony's official company uniform. Every Sony employee wears one, from the lowest factory worker to company chairman Akio Morita.

Company uniforms are the norm in Japan. Since 1967, when Japan Air Lines commissioned designer Hanae Mori to come up with new suits for its flight attendants, Japan's best-known fashion designers, from Kenzo Takada to Yukiko Hanai, have created workwear for employees of airlines, department stores, securities firms, banks - even symphony orchestras.

Sony is believed to be Japan's first manufacturing company to have a fashion designer dress its rank and file.

For most of its 37 years, Sony employees wore a functional blue-and-white jacket sporting the company colors and logo. But two years ago, to celebrate its 35th anniversary, the Sony chairman decided new uniforms were in order.

Issey Miyake, whose dramatically styled clothes have made him the talk of New York and Paris, is a friend of Mr. Morita's, according to a company spokesman. In addition to fashions, the designer has created a variety of uniforms since 1970, including those for All Nippon Airlines and the Shisheido Cosmetic Company. He usually receives between 5 million yen ($21,000) and 10 million yen ($42,500) per commission, depending on the size of the company, number of uniforms, and so forth. Sony officials would not divulge what they paid the designer.

The switch from standard industry-style jackets to the more elegant version also reflects a significant change in Sony's aims and fortunes. When the company began, it was largely a manufacturing concern. But the electronics business has grown cleaner and more sophisticated over the years; workers are less apt to soil their clothes. Sony also employs many more administrative white collar workers now.

In fact, Sony considered eliminating uniforms altogether at one time. But an employee poll showed a resounding 94 percent wished to keep them. While some claimed the jackets kept their clothes clean, others applauded their symbolic value. ''We feel closer to one another when everyone looks the same,'' says Jiro Ohbu, who works at Sony's Tokyo headquarters.

The company uniform has a long, illustrious history in Japan, dating from the Edo Period (1600-1868), when workmen and artisans each had a designated garb. Today uniforms remain a way for a group-oriented society openly to state its allegiances. Schoolchildren often wear their uniforms on weekends, simply because they like them. The Japanese are also obsessed with wearing the proper clothes even for extracurricular tasks. The novice skier is always suited up like a pro. And golfers who may play just one game a year often possess elaborate wardrobes for life on the links.

The company uniform also seems an apt reflection of Japan's corporate system, with its policy of longtime employment and dogged employee loyalty. Workers at most large companies usually labor at a variety of jobs, from engineer to public relations, during their long tenure with the organization. Asked his occupation, a worker is likely to say, ''I work at Sony'' or ''I work at Hitachi,'' instead of saying, ''I'm an electronics engineer.''

''The fact that the executive and the worker wear the same outfit is further indication that the group, or in this case the company, is of prime importance, '' says Dr. Joseph A. Precker, a Tokyo psychologist. ''The uniform is a reminder that you have a secure place with the company, that you belong to something larger than yourself.''

There's also the practical side. Sony supplies three jackets to each employee at no expense. In other companies, where workers wear complete ensembles, this can amount to substantial savings to employees.

Nomura Securities Companies Ltd., which recently adopted a new blue suit designed by Hanae Mori for its 5,000 female employees, provides each with skirts , blouses, vests, and jumpers in both summer and winter fabric. It even pays for cleaning. Nomura research assistant Yasuko Ikeda thinks uniforms are wonderful. ''I don't have to buy so many clothes,'' she says.

For the most part, employee complaints concern color, comfort, and style, but not the idea of the uniform. When Sony's sleek new jacket made its debut, many employees considered its maroon piping and zip-on sleeves a bit wild. ''I don't wear funky Issey Miyake clothes and go dancing in Harajuku on Sundays,'' one Sony Tokyo employee notes. Some said it took time to get used to the Miyake jackets.

But others like Maki Kawanishi deem the jacket an improvement over the previous model. She terms its pale taupe color ''not bad.'' And is she excited that an internationally known designer had created it? ''I don't care much about fashion,'' she says. ''It doesn't matter who designs it.''

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