Stuff I Say

How to Pack for JET: For Men

Posted in Japan by 51future on April 8, 2008

When you pack for JET, pack for work.

Packing for JET is difficult because the program literature sort of fails at providing any useful information about what I would label as the “fashion environment” in the Japanese workplace. Pack a suit, first and foremost. You’ll be wearing the suit almost constantly for 2 or 3 weeks as soon as you arrive in Japan to all the orientation functions. Some people don’t, but those people are probably as stupid as they look. There was one guy who bummed around in a t-shirt and shorts during all the formal orientation functions and while I don’t think he got into any serious trouble, he did manage to piss off everyone stuck up enough to care– it looked bad. Furthermore, the suit is a no-brainer because its the ultimate fallback. BoE (Board of Education) day? Wear the suit. Not sure what to wear to the graduation ceremony? Yeah, the suit again. Random work day? Yes, the suit works. The third year JET here wears a suit everyday to work. It’s a little ragged, but it keeps him looking sharp and important. Unless you’re shorter than average and slim-proportioned, don’t wait. My mother convinced me to go to Japan and have a suit tailored-to-fit, but that’s way more trouble than its worth, especially considering I have trouble finding sleeves my length even in America.

Don’t pack jeans. You can’t wear them at work. Take all the jeans you thought were nice enough to teach in and replace them with “athletic pants.” Where jeans fail, Puma and Adidas pants work. There are exactly two types of acceptable work fashions in Japan, athletic and formal. One of the first things I was told when I first arrived at school was that “a lot of teachers come to work in their suit and change after the morning meeting.” Now, I don’t do this because I think its dumb to wear a suit to a ten minute meeting I’m not even obligated to go to just to change out of it later, but the fact remains that people do do it. The point is this: pack at most one pair of jeans– replace the rest with gym togs.

Now, you’ll hear a lot of dissenting opinions (maybe) about what is and isn’t acceptable at work and for the most part, the biggest factor in determining what is and isn’t acceptable is determining your own threshold for pain. Where I am, we have a wide range of rulemakers. The senior JET here, an upstanding British guy who should have, for all intents and purposes, already expired due to excessive consumption, wears a suit every day at work. After 3 years of this, I imagine his routine is as refined as it gets and he’s never underdressed. In opposition to that, one of our JETs here typically wears a baseball cap and non-collared shirts to work everyday. It’s unlikely anyone will call you out unless your clothing is disruptive, but people will secretly hate you for wearing jeans to school and completely ignoring the fact that every other male teacher wears a suit to work every day. It may also bite you in the ass on your performance review and influence whether or not you get that “special work-related” vacation day for a day trip to get your drivers license or re-entrance pass. I’d also recommend ditching body jewelry and covering up tattoos, but I imagine most people into that sort of stuff were probably weeded out during the interview process. (Note: I don’t care about the ring/stud/fishhook in your eye/nose/lip, but I imagine JET does discriminate based on these sort of factors during the face-to-face.)

The rest of us wear an amalgamation of machine-washable fabrics and semi-formal elements. Personally, in the winter I tend to run with a pair of machine-washable cotton “slacks” that I don’t need to iron and a collar shirt. Over that, I typically wear wool sweaters that I picked up after I got here. These are the only aspect of my typical work outfit that requires dry-cleaning and I typically rotate them in and out, getting them cleaned three or four times a month. For the winter, bring long underwear to round out your under-layers. In the States, I didn’t bother, but then again, I never really lived in any particularly cold places and as I college student I’d usually just throw on another sweater if I was cold. I ended up investing in some Marmot stuff this winter and getting it sent to me and it has served me pretty well. With plain white undershirts you can buy here, this should keep you relatively warm at work.

In the summer, you’ll be wearing “Cool Biz.” Japanese “Cool Biz” is a fashion trend characterized by thin short-sleeve collar shirts and slacks. I wouldn’t bother with real slacks, keeping them cleaned and ironed is a pain and most people with any sense here save those for weddings and funerals. I wore the slacks I brought with me for about 2 weeks for orientations and then closeted them. Three times to the cleaners and they’re already developing small holes. They aren’t worth the time or money it takes to maintain them. So come to Japan and buy cotton slacks here or just bring your own. Assuming your city is big enough to sustain a Uniqlo, you won’t have to worry too much about finding your size. I wear 32/34, which is a picky size even in the US, and I don’t have any trouble finding slacks that fit me well enough at Uniqlo. Conversely, I can’t buy shirts in my size here in Japan. They just don’t exist. The size that fits my torso, Japanese Large (American Medium) is about 4 inches too short on the arms. Although summer ends quicker than you might imagine (but not as quick as you’d like) come August, I still personally had trouble finding any “Cool Biz” that didn’t make me gag. Buy your collar shirts in the US and bring them over. I recommend 5 or 6 of each, short- and long-sleeved. Under these, you’ll be wearing plain white undershirts to absorb the fallout from the salinization plant that is your skin in the summer.

I haven’t really talked about shoes yet, mostly because the JET materials are pretty spot on as far as shoes are concerned. Men who wear sizes 10 and above should really consider overpacking shoes. I wear a size 13. Its impossible for me to buy shoes here, as far as I can tell. There’s not a single shop in my area that stocks anything over a 10 and even in Nagoya (a city of about 2 million and one of Japan’s largest metropolitan areas) finding sizes over 11 or 12 is all but impossible. Bring multiple pairs of shoes. On a typical day at school you’ll change shoes at least once (when entering and leaving the school). Having another pair of shoes for the gym is recommended. When I leave in the morning, I put on a pair of New Balance sneakers, drive to work, take off my sneakers and put on my indoor sandals. I keep a pair of clean white Pumas in my car for functions in the gymnasium and/or elementary school visits. Because I primarily visit two middle schools, it would be convenient to keep a pair of shoes at both but to do that would be stretching my shoes a little too thin and leave me without alternative choices in the case of shoe emergencies. So as it stands I have two pairs of tennis/running sneakers in the entrance to my apartment that I wear to work and after work, a pair of black formal shoes that hang out in my closet for the rare CLAIR or prefectural function, one pair of indoor sandals that I keep at my main school, and a pair of puma sneakers in my car for less frequently visited schools. I plan to pick up another pair of waterproof sandals for outdoor/water use and am looking to upgrade this pair of tennis shoes next time I head home. Having one more pair of indoor shoes would probably best round-out my holdings, but coming from a one-pair home, already my collection of shoes seems excessive.

The reason for all the shoes here in Japan has to do with their crazy ideas about what is inside and outside, and clean and dirty. Outside shoes don’t tread inside and vice versa. Furthermore, there’s a progressive hierarchy to take into account. Gym > Inside > Outside, etc. At one point in the past I tried boxing at a local gym and I need a separate pair of shoes for that gym, too. The important lessons here are: you’ll be wearing tennis shoes most of the time (yes, even with your suit), but you’ll need a different pair every time the floor stratum changes. Plan accordingly.

If you have long arms or a unique shape, I say again, bring your own shirts/jackets/etc. Fleece jackets, sweaters, etc. are a pain to buy here because where Uniqlo succeeds in providing for my long legs, they fail completely in clothing my upper-body. Large and Extra Large articles of clothing have the same sleeve-lengths– too short. Sure, they have fleece jackets in 15 different colors, but not a single one will fit and the too short sleeves will constantly annoy you. You also won’t be able to wear the cheap Uniqlo collar shirts, even though you’ll likely find something you like among the myriad shelves.

The major mistakes I made involved bringing lots of casual clothing. I packed with a college mindset and ended up with a lot of useless clothing that just sits in my closet. Bring 4 or 5 t-shirts at most. You’re not going to prove your individuality to anyone here and the only time I ever wear t-shirts is when I’m asleep (in the winter) or bumming around on the weekend. Consider: the weekend is only two days a week and you’ll probably work on weekends more often than you might expect. While sweatshirts and hoodies are convenient casual clothing in the winter, you’ll probably need at most one, possibly two if you’re anal about cleanliness. On the other hand, having two or three long-sleeve shirts that you can wear casually will keep you sane. I picked up what I refer to as “board shirts” at Quicksilver in Fukuoka during the winter break that I find make great pajamas and/or Saturday shirts. That the sleeves happen to be long enough is a mere anomaly. As is probably obvious, I made the mistake of packing three pairs of jeans, thinking I’d be able to wear them to work. No dice. They sit in my closet. They’re hot in the summer and cold in the winter, so I rarely wear them. During my downtime, I instead wear shorts in the summer and fleece-lined space-bullshit pants from Uniqlo in the colder months.

Most of this advice applies to working at a middle school, though I imagine that working at a high school is no different, as far as acceptable fashion is concerned. I do visit elementary schools pretty frequently and I find the rules are slightly different at those schools. I don’t bother with collar shirts on elementary school days. Instead I opt for athletic wear and/or a rough combination of casual-athletic. Sadly though, while I probably could wear jeans to my elementary schools (and I may eventually do so, just to change it up), they unfortunately don’t get much use there either. If my primary schools were elementary schools, I imagine I’d settle into a more casual-formal routine and leave it at that. The way I do it now is primarily the way it is because those visits are bi-weekly.

In short, this is what you should pack for JET:

Essentials

    5 Long-Sleeve Collar Shirts
    5 Short-Sleeve Collar Shirts
    1 Suit
    2-3 Ties
    3-5 Pair Long Underwear Top/Bottoms
    1 Heavy Coat
    1 Light Jacket
    1-2 Fleeces/Hoodies/Sweaters. (Note: clean fleece jackets work for work; hoodies don’t.)
    2-3 Casual Long Sleeve Shirts
    Underwear
    Socks
    3-4 Pair Tennis Shoes/Sneakers
    1-2 Pair Sandals
    1 Pair Formal Shoes (Feature-less black shoes that aren’t formal shoes but could pass for them can work for the first week of post-landing functions if you’re good enough to swing it. Ultimately, formal shoes are all-but-useless otherwise.)

After that:

If you have trouble finding the following in America due to your unique body-mass, then by all means, pack these too. However, if you’re running low on space, think about picking up the following after you get to Japan.

    3-4 Thin Wool/Cashmere Sweaters
    5 Machine-Washable Slacks
    5-7 Plain White Undershirts
    Gloves/Skullcaps/etc.
    2 Pair Running Shorts
    1-2 Pair Casual Shorts
    Underwear
    Socks

I’m probably forgetting something major, so feel free to bookmark this page so that you can refer to it later if it changes. Also, feel free to ask further questions about JET-related packing questions if there’s anything you’re worried about. Not sure if I can help the girls out there with questions (I don’t know the first thing about women’s clothing/fashion/etc.) but I do see women at work and can probably tell you a little bit about what they wear if you’re lacking critical information yourself.

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