Just your typical ALT on his way to lessons.
Is there a dress code for ALTs?
We hear this question a lot. And the answer, like the answer to so many other questions is - it depends on your school. But there are a few rules and guidelines that we’ll share with you in this article.
To begin, dress standards at Japanese schools are generally business-professional. Teachers, administrative staff, and support staff all wear suits and ties to school. ALTs are expected to do the same. Depending on your schools, there may be specialty requirements based on season or occasion or even exceptions to the standard suit.
We’ll cover all this and more, but before we do, there is one absolute rule you should remember: This is only a guide. For actual best practices look at what the teachers at your schools wear day in and day out and copy them as best you can.
Read on then, for Work Tochigi’s guide to dressing for ALT success!
Standard Issue: 3 Piece Suit and Scowl
What's a suit and how do I wear one?
Just kidding. We’re assuming you know how to dress yourself. However, in our experience, many younger people are not accustomed to wearing suits day in and day out. Think of this section as a guide to things you may have forgotten or never known about.
A standard men's suit in Japan consists of a blue or black jacket and slacks, button-front dress shirt, a necktie (not a clip-on), dress socks, and belt. Three-piece suits, will also have a matching vest (waistcoat).
Things NOT generally acceptable:
This traditional blazer is perfect for both teaching and putting up with 007.
Standard suits for women consist of jacket and trousers or skirt, and blouse. The blouse may be colored, but beware of plunging necklines or loose buttons. It is also common for women in Japan to wear stockings or hose under their suit, even if it is a trousered suit. Camisoles are also very common as an underblouse.
Things NOT generally acceptable:
Note: These are separate from things you might want to have in your bag. This list is of things that go on your body or in your pocket.
Things you may want to keep in your bag:
Here's a list of things you might want to have in your bag to keep at your desk:
* Many westerners find that, due to different body chemistry, Japanese deodorant brands do not work as well as those from their native countries. Thus we recommend keeping a large stock on hand for your personal use.
**This, again, is highly dependent on individual schools, but many Japanese teachers keep some light snacks, like senbei or peanuts, at their desks as a quick bite between lessons.
You know M's got snacks in her desk. Probably something salty.
Track suits or athletic clothes?
Teachers at your schools may spend a lot of their time in track suits. We'd prefer that, as representatives of Work Tochigi, you avoid doing this. After all, you are not p.e. teachers and will most likely not be running around outside. In the event that you are invited to participate in a soccer game or baseball practice or some other lunchtime or after school game, you should feel free to don athletic gear. However, please change back into proper attire before heading back into the classroom.
Black ties or white ties?
Black neck ties are reserved for funerals in Japan. They are, quite literally, worn at no other times. So, no matter how stylish you may look, you should not wear a black tie to a school event.
Conversely, white neck ties are celebratory and are often worn to weddings and graduations. You may want to consider picking up a white neck tie either before coming to Japan or before the end of the school year. Many schools ask their ALTs to participate in graduation ceremonies and wearing a white neck tie is an easy and fun way to be a part of the group.
Shoes in Japanese Schools
Will I need separate shoes for indoors and outdoors?
Yes. Faculty usually have two different pairs of shoes at their schools, not including the shoes they wear to and from work (e.g. business or dress shoes). One pair of shoes - often sneakers or athletic shoes - is to be worn outside on the school grounds during p.e. classes, fire drills, and assemblies. The other pair is usually a comfortable (but clean and well-kept) pair of athletic shoes or sandals that can be worn in classrooms.
As a general rule, new ALTs will be able to wear guest slippers during their first day of school, but you should be prepared to provide your own shoes as soon as possible.
And, to be very clear, shoes that have been worn outside, at any point, are not acceptable for indoor use, no matter how thoroughly they have been cleaned.
Well, that's one way to stay warm in class.
Hot & Cold
Staying warm during the winter months can be a challenge in Tochigi Prefecture. Depending on just how far north your school is, it can be a very big challenge. Winter brings temperatures in the low single digits or even below, snow, wind, and rain. Adding to the general misery is that Japanese schools do not have central heating.
Often, Japanese schools, especially older ones, will have individual heating units installed in classrooms and staff areas. Additionally, wearing an overcoat or wool cap in the classroom is frowned upon. Which means that spending any time in the hallways results in rapid, irreversible ice-cubing of many ALTs.
Fortunately, modern technology provides many ways to avoid becoming an ice-cube without ruining the lines of your suit.
Here are a few:
Uniqlo (and other clothing makers) have perfected cheap, warm clothing thin enough to go under your normal suit without adding bulk or stretching the fabric. These items can be purchased online via Amazon and other e-sellers or in person at the many, many Uniqlo retail stores.
But, if you don't mind bulk and want to go with traditional underwear, thermal long-johns are your best bet.
Three piece suits have never really gone out of fashion in Japan, partly because of the heating issues. Many stores offer thick, warm sweaters and vests for men and women designed to go between your shirt and your jacket. These layers are especially good for teachers in areas that may have a wide shift in temperature throughout the day. What is particularly appealing is that they are designed to be part of a suit, so they don't ruin the lines but can be removed in the middle of class without scandal.
Kairo are small chemically activated heating packs sold throughout Japan in drugstores. Many of your students will have them in their pockets any time the temperature drops below 20 degrees celcius.
What about “Cool Biz”?
Summers in Tochigi can be hot. Really hot. And humid. And did we mention hot? Several years ago, Japan implemented a policy called "cool biz" in an effort to cut down on energy costs in offices and government buildings across Japan. In short, the government asked office workers to dress business-casual for the summer months, thereby reducing the amount of air conditioning and cooling needed. Less cooling means less power, or so the reasoning goes.
Does this apply to me?
As always, the definitive answer is - it depends on your individual school. There's no harm in asking, although it might be best to just observe your fellow teachers and do as they do. When in Rome, after all.
How do I dress “Cool Biz”?
For most teachers and office workers, Cool Biz means reducing a suit to slacks, a short-sleeved button front shirt and no tie. We also recommend an undershirt (for men and women) and cooling underwear (see our favorite retailer Uniqlo!).
For special occasions only.
Do you have any other advice?
Yes. Now is the time to stock up on towels and body wipes. However many you think is enough, double it. These items can really help you feel relaxed and able to move through your day more easily.
Conversely, you might also want to take a sweater. Schools do not have central air conditioning. Instead, each classroom has its own cooling unit, which the Japanese teacher will be in charge of. Schools may also be under a mandate to not lower the temperature beyond a certain point (24 degrees Celcius, for example). Depending on how many students, what kind of weather, and, of course, your own tolerances, many teachers keep a sweater or wrap handy for those days when the air conditioning is really putting in the work.
Anything else I need to know?
We mentioned above that it is a good idea to keep a toothbrush either in your bag or at your desk. In addition to being useful for your own self-care, oral hygiene is very important in the Japanese education system. Children are instructed to brush their teeth immediately after lunch. Teachers are expected to be good role models for the students. Thus...
As for the rest, it's optional, of course. But take it from us as lessons learned. Adjusting to temperatures in new settings can be difficult. Having the tools on hand to make yourself comfortable and presentable can go a long way to helping you become a valued member of the teaching team at your schools.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to dressing for ALT success. As always, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to send them to us via our contact form. In the meantime, good luck and have a great school year!