A lot of incoming JETs seem to be concerned about what we ALTs wear on the job. I too remember the stress of packing and wondering, “What the heck should I bring and leave behind!?”
It’s hard to give advice because, as everyone says, “every situation is different”. However, perhaps we can help give you a general idea of what we do (and do not) wear to work. Below are brief “fashion profiles” of three ladies here in Japan: Danie, myself, from chilly Akita, Sara from warm Kumamoto, Denica from metropolitan Tokyo. We hope this can help you get a better idea of what might be appropriate in your ALT position.
Hello folks! I have been living in rural Akita-ken for almost a year now. I teach in 3 Senior High Schools. Unlike the other two ladies here, I hate shopping. I only go out when I really need something, but most of the clothes I brought have been suitable and I haven’t had any trouble finding what I need. I get the impression that Senior High Schools are less relaxed than lower levels (not just in fashion!) but even here I think my options are pretty flexible.
WHAT I DON’T WEAR
(1) No Jeans
(2) No Shoulders
And these last two weren’t made explicitly clear to me but I personally tend to steer away from:
(3) Bottoms as short as the ones in the picture
(4) Clothes with graphics (Sorry Snow White!)
I feel these guidelines are similar for the American professional world. And aside from those 4 rules, it’s pretty much anything goes.
Akita gets cold! This is a black sweater-dress, black tights, a shawl and necklace. It’s hard to see in the picture, but the dress is actually as short as the bottoms in my “what not to wear” photo! I figure the length is non-issue since I am wearing thick black tights.
This is my heaviest winter outfit; I typically wear the same outfits year round but in winter I add layers. I arrive dressed like an eskimo: big winter boots, thick snow pants, and a large jacket. When I get to school I strip down to a nice outfit. I have a locker at each of my schools to store my heavy clothes.
As for what I wear during school, I always try to cover my upper arms (up to the elbow). Otherwise many teachers will comment that I must “feel cold”, even when I am clearly sweating! I wonder if it’s an indirect way of saying that I should cover more. Regardless, I cover my upper arms to avoid the comments and it’s not difficult because Akita is freezing! None of the schools have central heating and, though the classrooms are heated, the hallways are pretty chilly!
Protip: Packing winter clothes can take up a lot of space. Some ALTs recommend shipping your winter clothes but I personally don’t think this is necessary. I was able to buy everything I needed at a good price here. However, I am a tiny person, even for Japanese standards! I have heard plenty of taller ALTs complain about small sizes, especially shoes! Even then, you can order clothing online from websites like Rakuten. Most of your favorite stores should have a Japanese website.
“Cool biz” starts on June 1, and it means you can wear more relaxed clothing to keep from getting heat stroke. For me, this just means I can wear clothes that expose my upper arms and I won’t get any comments about “looking cold”.
These are my two favorite summer outfits! I love dresses and I brought a lot of dresses like the one in the first picture from home. I don’t wear any tights with it.
The second outfit was entirely bought in Japan from Honey’s and Uniqlo. These stores have work-appropriate, fashionable, and affordable clothing! Also, Uniqlo sells “cooltech” and “heattech” clothing which is a godsend in the dead of summer and winter.
Protip: Even in Akita the summers get unbearably hot and only one of my schools has A/C (and even there it’s only in the teacher’s room!). Sara and Denica below have given some great advice on surviving summer, so I will only add a tidbit about “Deo-Water”. I have seen it at the pharmacy, grocery store, and even conbinis. It’s essentialy deodorant water and I sometimes pop into the bathroom at work and use it to freshen up. It not only takes away the stick but it has a cooling effect as well!
HAIR & MAKEUP
My hair is supremely curly and, surprisingly, hasn’t drawn much attention. I recommend bringing your curly-hair products from home because, unsurprisingly, I haven’t had much luck finding products here. I have also been a little wary about getting a haircut here, but ALTs with hair like mine have told me this is unwarranted. As for make up, I am not too into it… But in the bathroom before work I might cover up some blemishes and put on some mascara. It looks pretty natural over all.
These are the outfits I wear to school. My wardrobe relaxes a bit on the weekends… However, even then I try to cover my shoulders. I learned that shoulders are a bit of a no-no when some students called me “sexy” for exposing my shoulders. There has been a lot of debate within the female-ALT community as to whether or not we should cover our shoulders. I believe that this decision is entirely up to you.
Hi, my name is Sara. I’m a second year ALT in Kuma Village in Kumamoto-ken at the junior high school, elementary schools, and nursery schools there. I love shopping, so I have far more clothes than I know what to do with. Many teachers and office workers comment on my outfits, and I enjoy experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what is “school appropriate,” because they have mostly given me enthusiastic votes of support. I live in the countryside deep in the heart of Kyushu, which has afforded me a lot of freedom because of the more relaxed atmosphere. Here are some of my favorite outfits for summers and winters in Kumamoto.
Kumamoto has relatively mild winters with little to no snow. Rain and just above freezing temperatures are normal and the wind can blow viciously. Thus, I can get away with a wool pea coat with a scarf and gloves instead of a down coat, and leather boots instead of snow boots. The classrooms and staffrooms are sometimes heated, but the real cold is in the hallways between classes. Here are two of my favorite winter outfits:
Look 1: grey wool skirt from UniQlo; second hand sweater (the label says GAP); thermal black leggings (footed, can also buy foot-less)
My basic instinct when it comes to clothes is to get colors that play well with others (neutral colors). Thus, it makes mixing and matching really easy, and I generally have colors and prints that will never be accused of being “too bright.” The grey skirt goes with almost any other sweater, but I like blue because it’s generally non-offensive and brings out my eyes. A lunch lady once commented that my skirt was short, but the opaque black tights seem to cancel out any possible sex appeal; I also have long legs, so skirts and dresses that are just above knee length on Japanese women are ¾ thigh length on me.
Pro Tip: Thermal tights are a must, even layered 2-3 more times with more HeatTech. I suggest getting thermal layers for top and bottom in every neutral color, in long sleeve and short, for maximum layering and warmth.
Whoever said you absolutely cannot wear jeans was lying (sorry Danie!). Black and white jeans aren’t so obviously denim, and so are more appropriate than indigo jeans, but have the same versatility, ease, and comfort. The girl who wore them before me had much more junk in the trunk, so there is ample room to add thermal layers; that also necessitates the belt, which is a great way to add a pop of color or shine (kids WILL pull on any jewelry, make no mistake). Also something kind of casual is my T-shirt; I noticed many women in the offices wearing these kinds of shirts over thermal layers, and then usually layer again with a sweater. The sweater-blazer is great because it’s warmer and more comfortable than a normal blazer. I often fit a fleece UniQlo jacket underneath it.
Pro Tip: Socks are a great way to jazz up your outfit without being distracting or unprofessional (as long as they match). I collect cat socks and Hello Kitty prefectural socks that are cute and interesting.
Summers in Kumamoto are brutally hot and humid, and come with rain storms and typhoons. A good rain jacket is essential (I got mine from a second hand store). Generally, women wear sheer hose in summer, but I shave my legs and call it quits, mostly. On office days, I wear long trousers because my bosses use the aircon excessively.
Remember neutral colors? I get everything from this skirt (I paid 150 yen for it 4 years ago and I’m still loving it). The length and color make it perfect for any short sleeved blouse and it’s cool and airy around my legs. Knee- and midi-length skirts are always appropriate. I generally wear a cooling UniQlo camisole underneath the blouse (every. neutral. color).
Pro Tip: On especially hot days during the height of summer, pack baby wipes, a spare camisole, and a stick of deodorant in your bag. Use your lunch break to strip off in the bathroom or locker room, wipe away sweat and replace your sweaty cami with the new one. You’ll be fresh for the afternoon!
Sheer is your best friend in summer. It gives the illusion of being covered, but still lets your skin breathe. Lace is also a good option. The blue pattern is floral, but not overwhelming (very common patterns like stripes or polka-dots, or simple florals or geometric designs are ideal; no strange color blocking or in-your-face designs; additionally, English or Japanese words on clothing is thought of as very casual). These gaucho pants came into fashion last summer and are great for keeping your legs covered without sacrificing breeziness.
Pro Tip: Go on, wear the crop top. A crop top layered under a sheer or lace top (like mine in the photo) can add a pop of color or texture to the outfit, but would be totally scandalous alone. A high-waisted pant or skirt can also help disguise the length of a crop top, but add a neutral colored camisole underneath (think of wearing it in the same way as a low cut top, except instead of cleavage, it hides your midriff).
If at all, wear small, non-offensive jewelry. Do your best to avoid odd piercings (even ear cartilage is sometimes frowned upon), and anything sparkly or gaudy. Small silver or gold studs or hoops are nice for ear lobes. Avoid bracelets and dangly necklaces around little kids. I wear two silver rings every day and kids touch and pull on them all the time.
I have short hair, so I don’t do much with it. If at all possible, avoid the big beach waves and unnatural perms (If you have naturally curly hair do not feel obligated to straighten it). Colors other than black or dark brown are pretty taboo in schools, but they won’t object to red or blonde if it’s your natural color. Avoid unnatural colors like blue or green, or obvious dye jobs with roots showing, or only dying parts of your hair. Hair accessories like bows, clips, and bands are great here!
Feel free to use makeup sparingly on the skin and eyes as preferred. I cover my eyes in all neutral colors and use brown or thin black eyeliner with mascara. Because my lips are sensitive, I only use Vaseline, but subtle reds, pinks, and neutrals wouldn’t go amiss. Bright eyeshadow, heavy eyeliner, or bold lips tend to draw unwanted attention. Teachers mostly don’t paint their nails, but I’ve seen ALTs get away with short, polished ones with solid colors and minimal designs.
Slippers: I have two pairs of slippers, one for summer, and one for winter. For either season, get ones that:
- Are easy-on-easy-off, but won’t fly off when you’re chasing kids around.
- Have durable soles with texture so you won’t slip
- Cool, flexible, and breathable in summer, and warm and snug in winter
- Japanese have an aversion to bare feet, so if the slippers don’t have toes or a heel, they will wear socks, which I think looks funny (black shoes, white socks deal). I get summer slippers that cover my toes and heels.
If you have multiple schools, carry your slippers in an eco-friendly tote bag. Add baby powder to summer ones frequently to absorb smells.
Hey all, I’m Denica, a British JET placed in Ueno, Tokyo. I enjoy shopping and should be able to show you loads of flattering outfits but between Tokyo rental prices and paying off student loans I’m not left with much money to dress myself with. So, you won’t be finding any fashion revelations here – just safe, choice pieces that are worth the money and let me work in comfort throughout the nutty seasons. Hopefully the thrifty amongst you will find this useful.
Tokyo winters are dry and reach a low of -1 or -5 in January, by which time I’ve dug out the down coat and earmuffs. I find this temperature very easy to dress for as I come from rainy old Britain, especially considering how easy it is to purchase thermals here. Layers are your friend, as they heat small spaces, not buildings. Like the staffroom at school or a kotatsu at an izakaya. I also go for muted colours even more so in winter but like to jazz it up with rich dark colours like mauve, green and deep blues.
Outfit 1: Dark Collared shirt, wool cardigan, thermal mauve trousers.
This outfit is a mix of my staples that I couldn’t survive winter without and are worth every penny.
Trousers: Dark or natural coloured jeans are A-okay at work and I even have a lovely black and green chequered pair too. No matter what though stick with the Heatteach from Uniqlo.
Uniqlo Real Wool Cardigan: Definitely not cheap as its real wool but it’s very warm and good quality. I have two, one in black and one in dark green that go with just about everything.
Simple Non-Iron Shirt from Britain’s Primark (pretty much the same as America’s Target): I’m sure you can find an equivalent most places. They cover the shoulder, don’t need ironing and are presentable. I have them in 8 different colours including bright yellow and a cool mint. I wear these with a HEATtech vest and a wool cardi and I am as snug as a bug in a rug.
Protip: When it comes to skinny jeans at work I have a ‘butt covering’ which can either be a very long top or a cardigan. I keep a long black all-purpose cardigan, on the back of my chair at work and throw it on if the top I’m wearing that day isn’t long enough, or if I’m just cold.
Skit: Simple under-the-knee length black skirt that goes with everything. I bought it from the supermarket on my road and it is indispensable.
Shirt: Full sleeved green collared shirt, again from Primark. I’m a classy girl, you see. Again, all the Heattech underneath.
ProTip: I mostly wear skirts in winter with the help of thermal leggings which I picked up very cheaply form Donki. You can also pick up patterned wool tights in many colours (I have green, gray and mauve) from GU.
Summer is a relentless vacuum of greasy faces and clothes damp from sweat, the heat radiating between your clothing and your body whilst you try your best to explain prepositions of place to uninterested students. You need your wits about your to survive it so let’s dispel a myth right here and now: cotton is not good in summer. Cotton can carry 7% of its body weight in water. Although breathable, it will soak up your sweat and make you hold it against your skin all day whilst you wish you weren’t a walking furnace. DRY, AIRISM, and linen products are the way forward. The previous two are Uniqlo only and whilst you can get good quality linen in Uniqlo it is possible to buy it elsewhere. But remember the 3 Ls: Linen, loose, light coloured. You get it tight you may as well not have bothered spending out on it, cuz it ain’t cheap. These fabrics dry out easily and quickly and let your skin breath. All of my summer clothing are one of these three fabrics.
Uniqlo DRY Crop Trousers: professional looking, a norm in the workplace and very comfortable in summer. I have them in white and blue (yes, white is hard to keep clean but they reflect the heat) and these go with all of my tops. I love them.
Breathable baggy shirt: Charity Shop Find. This is one of the many tops I have like this as they’re big, baggy and airy, perfect for summer. As I’m on a budget I will wear my Primark shirts for as long as I can but there reaches a point where you can’t wear a collar anymore and swap to shirts like those above.
Pro Tip: Hold your hand to your upper arm, your fingers at the top of where your arm starts, not the shoulder itself. Where your palm ends is roughly where you should remain covered until you’re crazy sweating buckets. When that time hits you can go a little shorter as long as you shoulders are covered completely. When you do, check out the average length of shoulder coverings in your office.
Pin-Stripe Linen Trousers. Linen is breathable, looks timeless and and dries out easily. Ticks all my boxes. I own a variety of colours like these and fold up the bottoms when I need to. This outfit rolls out at peak temperatures.
Uniqlo Anti-Bacterial Mesh Cardigan: Used purely as a token item I wear to keep my shoulders covered. They are see through but count as a covering, breath very easily and dry out fast. I wear one every day and consider them my main weapon in getting away with shoulderless tops. I have 3 in white, black and green that come to just above my elbow and another two with full sleeves in grey and black.
Pro Tip: AIRISM underwear and the vests that have built in bras (they’re amazing, just trust me, try them) are a must. Buy in skin colour tones only as they actually look better under white and other colours. Buy them now, they aren’t cheap but very, very, very worth the input. Also, why no skirts in summer?!? At my job, you cannot wear a skirt without tights to work. I’m much more comfortable in crops or linen than tights in summer but you may feel differently.
I wear minimal makeup all year round but a few female teachers in my school even wear glittery eye shadow. In summer I don’t wear makeup as I wash my face with cold water in between classes. I keep a blemish control stick with me and cover up any spots if I need to and carry on. I also have an endless supply of grease sheets, in winter and summer.
I’ve been through all types of hair care products to control the frizz and grease my fine hair produces in humidity and this is what it boils down to: Organix Argan Oil Shampoo and Conditioner and Heat Protector Spray but do not buy Japanese sprays, they’re all very bad. Both can be purchased off amazon.jp and have totally changed my hair in this country, even in summer I enjoy styling my hair and not having it look like a bush. I straighten every day as I still need that to make the hair around my temples behave and dry, damaged hair reacts very badly in humidity so use heat protector spray. Every. Single. Time.
Purchase as little as possible before arrival. Japan is excellent at producing clothes to suit its seasons so do your wallet a favour and buy on arrival. Don’t freak out and spend loads on finding the right thing before you arrive – it probably won’t suit the season or dress code. Make this a golden rule.
The one exception to the golden rule is orientation. You can guess what I’m gonna say here: black linen suit. It needs to be black to be used at all your school ceremonies and linen will keep you cooler than the thick cotton or wool suits that are so popular back home.
These profiles, of course, do not fit every body type and every placement. Ultimately, a lot of the little details will be left up to your specific placement and personal preferences… As you can see just from us three ladies, what is appropriate or not can vary! Do not be shy about asking your pred and/or fellow female co-workers about work appropriate clothes. After all, I was “explicitly” told what not to wear because I asked. Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Our co-workers know we are new to their culture and are forgiving. A good general rule is play it safe at the beginning until you have an idea of what is best for your placement. In general your style probably won’t have to change much for your workplace here in Japan!
If you have any questions, feel free to comment here and/or check out the JET Ladies Facebook page. It is a safe space for us female JETs to ask questions.
As for current ALTs, if you would like to contribute to a second blog in the series, feel free to comment and/or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Danie is an American ALT in Yuzawa-shi, Akita-ken. She is a self-proclaimed geek and avid traveler with a creative tilt. If not board gaming with friends you may find her painting or writing in her off-time.