Wow! It feels like forever since I left for my placement in Niigata. 2020 has really warped my perception of time. But, anyways, if you’re here, you probably want to know what the heck you should pack for your new job as an assistant language teacher. Keep reading for my essential packing list!
In the weeks leading up to my departure, I scoured the internet for information on teacher dress codes in Japanese elementary schools. I knew styles in Japan are significantly more conservative than the US, but I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of clothing I should bring. I needed professional attire for orientation, but what would my contracting organization expect me to wear on the job? Plenty of men wrote about their experiences, but I only found a handful of posts written by women relating to the topic. Many repeated the overused expression, every situation is different, and suggested purchasing most of your clothing upon arrival to Japan. In some ways, this made sense. I could save space in my luggage and buy exactly what the other ALTs in my city recommended. If you’re a petite person with an urban placement, I’d say this is your best bet.
However, having been to Japan before, I knew it would be difficult to find pants and button-up blouses that fit me correctly. I’ve got a fuller chest and larger hips compared to the average Japanese woman, so assembling a good work wardrobe would take some time. I didn’t want to risk not having the essentials, so I stocked up on a few basics I knew were necessary.
This isn’t an exhaustive packing list, but hopefully it can give you an idea of what to bring:
- Business professional suits. I opted for two consisting of basic white blouses, a black blazer, and matching dress pants. I wore these during orientation and on the first day of school because a good first impression is everything!
- Appropriate work bottoms. I packed 2 pairs of black lightweight slacks for the summer heat, 2 pairs of boot-cut dress pants in gray and black, and 2 maxi skirts. Some websites insisted women have to wear pantyhose under even a full-length skirt. Perhaps in some schools this is true, but fortunately I never had to.
- Conservative work tops. Aside from the aforementioned white blouses, I also purchased appropriate, full-coverage blouses in various colors. It’s a good idea to have a mix of short and long sleeve options, but remember to keep your shoulders covered.
- Moisture-wicking camisoles and undergarments. Wear these under your blouses to keep your bra from showing and stay cool in the summer. UNIQLO’s airism line is my favorite. Their cooling fabric is a life saver during the hot summer months when you’re sweating buckets.
- A fun blazer. Black is the traditional color, but it can be a bit boring. I brought a patterned blazer with me to mix things up.
- Indoor shoes for work. In Japan, teachers and students store their indoor shoes in a locker at the school entrance. This means you’ll be changing your shoes when you enter and exit the school. Women with feet larger than a US 8 will have a harder time finding their size, so bring a pair or two with you. I opted for a pair of black dress shoes to wear at orientation and formal events, adidas superstars for getting around outside, black slip-ons as my indoor shoes, hiking boots, and a pair of sandals. I was able to find a few shoes that fit me in Japan, and I am a size 9. I think people with urban placements are most likely to have success in this department.
I tried to choose pieces that were functional for Niigata’s climate and could easily be mixed and matched to increase their wearability. Keep the weather of your placement in mind. Summers, in general, are especially hot and humid. Winters can be quite cold, especially in the northern regions. Do some research and plan accordingly. Fortunately, once you arrive, you’ll have plenty of time before the seasons change. Start with the basics. You can always buy additional clothing once you get to Japan. Even if you are a little curvier like me, there are extended sizes online for many popular retailers. After a month or two, you should have a feel for the gaps in your wardrobe, and you can buy more of what you need. If there’s something you never wear, don’t hesitate to sell it at a second-hand store for extra cash.
Please note that Japan is much more conservative than many countries in the West. Some schools require teachers to wear formal attire at all times and ban hair dye, makeup, piercings, and tattoos. Other schools are more relaxed. I’ve seen teachers dressed to the nines and teachers rocking a track suit. The nurse at my Thursday school boasted purple hair while teachers at my Wednesday school (including me) wore suits every day. You’ll get a better idea of your situation once you actually start work. Remember, JET is as much of a cultural exchange program as it is a teaching experience. Don’t completely stifle your style just to fit in with everybody else, and don’t forget your casual clothes too. You won’t be working all the time!
Once I settled into my job, I was able to start wearing more of what I wanted. I loosened up and used white sneakers from Muji as my indoor shoes for comfort and purchased more wide-legged soft pants that paired nicely with my tops. I also got a small tattoo in Tokyo, and I found it very easy to cover while working and visiting onsen.
My final tip is always have an umbrella in your bag in case it rains, especially for the rainy season! You will be so happy you did.
I’m no longer a JET, but I hope this list helps anyone aspiring to teach in Japan this year or next. Good luck!
2 thoughts on “My Wardrobe as a Female ALT in Japanese Elementary Schools”
I second all of the above! While I was there, I had two pairs of black pants and one pair of light brown that I could mix and match with a variety of tops, and I always carried a cardigan or blazer to throw on to “dress up” a bit when teaching at the high school. At my secondary special ed school that I taught at twice a week, we were constantly on the floor with the kids to do hands-on exercises with the alphabet and such, so I’d leave the layers behind and stayed very comfortable. Also STRONGLY recommend sensible shoes – don’t even think about heels, especially if like me you have to bike everywhere (or have a long walk to the train station).
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I would never even DREAM of heels haha. I think everyone wore sneakers for the most part, which I loved. Thank you for sharing your experience 🙂
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