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Business trends

Dressing Japan's schoolkids gets dearer as wool prices spike

Rising demand in China and a school uniform boom at home send prices higher

Members of idol group Nogizaka46 pose for a photo in their uniform-like costumes in Tokyo.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Prices of school uniforms are on the rise in Japan, due to sharply climbing wool prices and changing fashion trends in neighboring China.

When Taimei Elementary School in Tokyo's fashionable Ginza district adopted new uniforms designed by the Italian luxury brand Armani, and the move sparked a nationwide uproar. The new uniforms for boys and girls carry price tags of over 80,000 yen ($754) each, including suggested accessories such as a matching bag.

The parents at the public elementary school were not alone in complaining about spiking prices of school uniforms in Japan.

In a country that has struggled with deflation for many years, prices for school uniforms are rising sharply, though not usually as high as the Ginza school's.

Uniforms in Japan averaged 32,000 yen to 33,000 yen in the fiscal year ended March 2017, a roughly 18% increase from a decade ago, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

One reason for the higher prices is the added fashion element of school uniforms, inspired by the all-girl Nogizaka46 idol group, whose members perform in uniform-like costumes. Schools with cuter uniforms tend to attract more students, which has driven schools to pursue uniforms of a higher caliber. Limited production results in higher bills.

One reason for the higher prices is the added fashion element of school uniforms, inspired by the all-girl Nogizaka46 idol group, whose members perform in uniform-like costumes. Schools with cuter uniforms tend to attract more students, which has driven schools to pursue uniforms of a higher caliber. Limited production results in higher bills.

School uniform prices in Japan rose by about 5,000 yen on average in the nine years between fiscal 2007 and 2016.

The Armani uniform controversy prompted many parents in Japan to look more closely at the prices of their own children's school uniforms. In numerous social media posts, parents complain that the uniforms, though ordinary, are expensive.

"We are already in a difficult business environment. News like this is a headwind for us," said Kaizo Shibata, a senior executive at Akashi School Uniform Company.

Akashi is one of Japan's three largest school uniform makers, along with Kanko Gakuseifuku and Tombow. All three announced hikes in school uniform prices in 2016, citing higher wool prices. The prices are even higher now.

According to the nonprofit Australian Wool Innovation, wool transaction prices surged 30% in 2017 alone and hit a record high of 18.22 Australian dollars ($14.36) per kilogram in early January.

Akashi, Kanko Gakuseifuku and Tombow faced a strong backlash from their customers for their price increases. "We are never in a situation where we can ask our customers to accept an additional price rise. We are struggling to eke out profits," said Akashi's Shibata.

Many Australian sheep farmers have shifted to selling meat, rather than producing wool. (Photo by Geoff Hiscock)

The number of sheep raised in Australia, one of the world's biggest wool-producing countries, totaled about 70 million in 2016, less than half the peak in 1990, according to the Osaka-based Japan Wool Industry Association.

Many Australian sheep farmers have switched to the more profitable business of raising cattle. The country's sheep farming households have also been aging and shrinking in number, resulting in a significant decline in wool production.

In recent years, many Australian sheep farmers have focused on selling meat, rather than wool, due to the growing popularity of lamb and the -- until recently -- slumping wool prices. As a result, meat has replaced wool as the main focus of sheep farming in Australia.

Meanwhile, China has seen a boom in fake fur since last year, according to Japan Wool Textile (Nikke), a major Japanese manufacturer of textile and clothing materials.

In China, wool, rather than chemical fiber, is used to make fake fur. "We estimate that wool consumption in China in 2017 was nearly 10 times the average," said an official at a woolen clothing maker.

School uniforms also have to be durable enough to be worn by students during their three years at junior and senior high school. Uniform makers all claim that their products are still underpriced, compared with prices for ordinary clothes worn for three years.

As one official noted: "The number of school uniform makers has declined as profit margins are not necessarily high. To survive, we have no choice but to meet diversifying needs and offer our products at satisfactory prices."

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