ALTs in Japan come from a wide range of countries, have a wide range of personalities and do a wide range of jobs. You may say that this leads to a fascinating group of people that can teach Japan so much and also learn a great deal from each other. What is perhaps far more profound, interesting and relevant to society at large is that these factors lead to a hugely diverse fashion sense, even within the ALT workplace. This article aims to tackle the deep and complex issue of what the ALT is and should be wearing, depending on the wider aim each individual has.
The “I Am So Scared I Am Going To Get it Wrong” Look
I am sure we are all familiar with this fashion trend from our first few days in school. You know, the plain black T-shirt, black trousers and black shoes possibly accompanied by dark grey socks if you are feeling a bit fruity. This not-so-exciting ensemble is worn by brand new ALTs who were never told exactly what to wear at school and/or were scared stiff by the horror stories from Tokyo Orientation. Super-smart yet super-plain, this look is probably something you wore the first few times after arriving in Japan.
Anyone still sporting this plain-Jane outfit should probably give it up now; you are bound to get it wrong one day! In fact, you probably look too smart on any normal day, yet too casual on the random suit days. I am afraid being smart enough on average just does not cut it!
The “I Do Not Want To Stand Out Any More Than I Already Do” Look
As opposed to the previous look all about ‘plain and boring’ no matter what others are wearing, this fashion statement is achieved by copying the others around you with absolutely no regard for taste, quality or any of those other factors you would normally consider when making a wardrobe choice. In the Japanese staff room it seems poor quality sportswear is usually the way to go: You must know the all-in-one navy-blue or burgundy matching tracksuits by now. To blend-in in the staff room usually means a trip twenty years back in time to what your parents were likely wearing while out for a light jog.
However, if adorning this confusing casual look, be sure to still always keep a nice suit in your locker for those random ceremonies you knew nothing about. You certainly never want to be standing in front of the town mayor looking like you just came off a jog in 1995. If sporting this look at school, I recommend that you be sure to dress a tad smarter on the weekends or you run the risk of becoming some kind of permanent Ali G look-a-like.
The “I Am A Girl Trying To Get Off With My Male Colleague” Look
This fashion trend is often worn by the many female ALTs who arrive in Tokyo to find that they have an undiscovered desire for Far Eastern men, and are now on a mission to get with the hot P.E. teacher at the upcoming enkai.
Assuming that it is not marriage that you are after, I would recommend the cleavage-bearing low-cut tops and short skirts you likely packed with you but found too inappropriate for the workplace in Japan. In doing so, you may risk alienating yourself from every female in the school and make it even more impossible to make eye contact with any of your students whose teenage peepers are straying to other places. But, if you are dead-set on a mission of love, then these are just the sort of sacrifices you must make!
However, in saying this, I do stress the common adage; less is more, and by this I do not necessarily mean less material! I mean, ladies, less slutty is the key! You want to merely hint at potential promiscuity while keeping an air (albeit a fake one) of class. Try for an outfit just a tad more revealing than the rest of the female teaching staff who are likely covered head to toe in the aforementioned burgundy tracksuit. I think this leaves you with quite a lot of leeway to dress rather faux-slut without looking like The Real McCoy!
The “I Am a Guy Trying To Get Off With My Female Colleague” Look
Probably more common in this category is not necessarily the “undiscovered” desire for Asian women similar to the women’s situation as mentioned above, but more likely the life-long yearning for an Asian female companion that was the entire motivation for applying to be an ALT in Japan in the first place.
I would recommend the smart look; dress pants, colourful collared shirts and sweater vests, as you will probably stand out from the average young male teacher in the office. Adding a simple accessory such a nice watch or belt seems to get the girls quite in a flutter. Think “Cool Biz” every day as opposed to just ALT seminar days and you will be breaking hearts right, left and centre!
The “Please Somebody Talk To Me” Look
If you are the social type and find the language barrier a strain when you are dying to chat someone’s ear off, throw on a bright T-shirt with a crazy motif (nothing too risqué, we do not want to scare people off) a colourful scarf, a bobble hat¸ or even a bloody tiara if you have to! Anything that may potentially start a conversation with a colleague about absolutely anything will do just fine.
One tip is to wear something that looks like typical clothing from your home country. For instance, I often wear a scarf which is apparently typical London gentleman attire, even though it was bought at a department store in Tatebayashi (what they do not know will not hurt them)! Americans may try sporting a baseball cap, Scots can rock up to work in a kilt, and all the Aussies out there can carry a didgeridoo over their shoulders.
If you are struggling to find those clothes items that get that, “Wow! That is so typically (insert country name here)” reaction (possibly because the Japanese perception is so far removed from the reality of your country that you cannot possibly guess what on Earth they think your homeland is like) then simply try adorning your clothing with a more obvious badge of your country’s flag or national symbol. I personally have a Union Jack bandana for serving school lunch, although I have lost count of how many times kids run up pointing and screaming, “AMERICA!”
The “My Students Think I Am Cool” Look
Badges, straps, suwetto touru, brightly patterned socks — you know the sort of thing that I mean! My best advice is to remember the three Cs: CRAZY, CUTE and COLOURFUL! It does not matter in the slightest what horrible mismatched jumble of fashion faux pas you have dressed yourself in for work in the morning because you really cannot go wrong at school if you tick all three boxes.
Colourful clothing is particularly popular at nursery school where it can double as a last-minute flash card when you forgot to prepare anything. Practical as well as cool, I would say!
If you do not want to stand out so much, simply opt for a crazy accessory that can be easily covered up when you walk in to the staff room, pretending to listen to the morning meeting with your serious-face on, but then easily flashed about again when you are playing dodge ball at break time, tongue poking out and a pair of tiny children’s fingers heading towards your backside… Ah the many varied roles of the ALT.
The “I Do Not Care How I Look As Long As It Keeps Me Warm” Look
I will be honest with you now; the entirety of this article is just a teaser, because, like it or not, you live in Gunma and from now until the end of March I can guarantee that each and every one of you will be sporting this winter-survival look. This fashion statement starts with a layer of Uniqlo’s finest HeatTech, followed by as many jumpers as is physically possible to fit over your body whilst still being able to walk through doors.
A very thick old granny-style jumper is my personal recommendation. My granny jumper is adorned with reindeer and looking at it makes me want to vomit ever so slightly (luckily its colour would allow for it to go unnoticed) but I very much do not care because my neck is usually too cold to look down and see it anyway.
You might want to contemplate an accessory that you hitherto had not considered appropriate workplace clothing before: a Disney or other cutesy blanket to cover yourself in. It is almost like hibernating in a Stitch cocoon in your free periods.
So, before you came to Japan your aim may well have been to educate the children of this country about your culture or to encourage them to have a more international frame of mind, but, in reality, you are probably much more concerned about seducing the fit P.E. teacher or avoiding catching hypothermia. Hopefully you can take away a few pointers for how to achieve your goals, no matter how shallow they are, through your sense of fashion. Good luck guys!!