Photo/IllutrationNew students attend the enrollment ceremony at Waseda University in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward on April 1. (Hajime Ueno)

In a nation of conformity, the 4,000 freshmen who filed into a huge sports facility in Tokyo for their enrollment ceremony at Meiji University this month dressed the part: all wore either black or navy blue suits.

The only exception appeared to be two female students who stood out from the crowd, wearing a light gray suit and blue ethnic clothing, respectively.

But all others opted to dress on the safe side in a society that often lives by the Japanese proverb, "A nail that sticks out will be hammered down."

“I don’t want to stand out for the wrong reason,” said a 19-year-old female student at the Faculty of Global Japanese Studies, explaining why she selected a black suit with a white blouse.

Another 19-year-old student in her black suit, who is enrolled in the Faculty of Business Administration, said she thinks donning something different from the rest of the freshmen class would have been “cool.”

“I don’t have the courage to wear a beige suit, however,” she said.

Many academics and experts are raising concerns about the uniformity of “going black,” which also has long been the case at the ubiquitous new employee welcoming ceremonies that most companies hold in April.

Etsuko Kato, professor of cultural anthropology and head of student affairs office at International Christian University on the outskirts of Tokyo, warned against students' lockstep mentality in an age when creativity and individuality are both prized.

“Students must break with the mind-set to follow a common practice without questioning its soundness while Japan enjoys peace,” she said. “As Japan during wartime showed that there lies only a hair’s breadth between control of clothing and control of speech and thought.”

Black became the choice of color of suits for college students between the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to Daisuke Tano, professor of historic sociology at Konan University in Kobe.

He said it became common for students to don a black suit for their job interviews in those years, known as the “employment ice age,” after the bursting of Japan’s asset-inflated bubble.

Students apparently believed that wearing black would be “the safest” choice as they were increasingly inclined to go along with the crowd and avoid standing out.

And freshmen began to purchase black suits for their college entrance ceremony because they rationalized that was what they would eventually wear for their job interviews anyway, according to Tano.

Those years coincided with the time universities started to bolster efforts to help students land jobs.

University cooperatives across the nation encourage new students to wear suits for their entrance ceremony and provide tips on how to select their first suit.

But an official at the Business Association of University Cooperatives said, “We don’t specify the color, but students are more likely to choose black because they know that it is the norm for job interviews when they begin to search for jobs later.”

Ryo Kojima of Kawasaki, a freshman who entered Meiji University’s Faculty of Commerce, said a black suit is the most convenient choice.

“I need a suit only for my college enrollment ceremony and coming-of-age ceremony,” Kojima, 18, said. “So my suit of choice is a black one because I can wear it for my job interviews.”

But International Christian University, alarmed by the uniformity of wearing identical suits, urged new students to wear clothing of their own choosing for the enrollment ceremony.

To further hammer home its point, in January, it sent a message to the students about the dress code: “You don’t need to wear a 'recruit suit,' and make sure you choose the color and design on your own.”

Makito Yurita, a senior research fellow of political philosophy and education at the National Institute for School Teachers and Staff Development, said going black is a reflection of the underlying thinking throughout society.

“People believe that they will not be penalized as long as they blend in with the crowd,” he said. “So, they opt for ‘security’ in which they will not be put at a disadvantage, rather than demonstrating their individuality that they fear may jeopardize their future prospects.”

Earlier this month, Yurita posted images of a new employee welcoming ceremony by the same company in 1986 and 2010 to warn against the trend toward “standardization of people.”

The image in the former shows several women wearing checkered skirts or checkered jackets. In the latter, all women are in black suits as if they are wearing the same company uniform.

“It is a hallmark of our society that produces people who invariably choose to wear black,” he said.

(This article was written by Tomoko Yamashita and Hajime Ueno.)