Unlike the suit and tie, the one-look-fits-all world of menswear, for women deciding what to wear to the office in Japan can seem a bit tricky. But it doesn’t have to be complicated — just follow these simple guidelines, and you will be prepared for whatever your Japanese company throws at you.
1. Conservative wear can’t go wrong
Unless you work in fashion, in general, Japanese offices are pretty conservative when it comes to workwear. Even during the sweltering days of summer, you should keep your shoulders covered, so avoid wearing tank tops, camisoles or sun dresses. Just having a bit of a sleeve or a few frills over the shoulder line are enough to keep you within the realms of propriety. Cleavage and collar bones also need to be kept well under wraps. Make sure to check if your neckline keeps you covered when bowing! Skirt lengths should be around the knee, and form-fitting clothing, even sheath dresses that would be considered appropriate in the US or Europe, are usually best avoided.
The phrase kuuki wo yomu or “reading the air” is very important when dressing for business in Japan. It is best to align yourself with the level of formality shown by your colleagues and avoid under-dressing. Of course, this can vary greatly from office to office. For instance, in my workplace, it is totally fine to wear jeans and more business-casual clothes if you aren’t seeing clients, but a polished look is expected for meetings outside the company and events.
2. Keep your feet covered, too
Despite the high temperature and humidity that characterize Japan’s summer months, sandals and open-toed shoes are a no-go for Japanese offices. While flip flops are generally frowned upon in most places of business, here even quite elegant sandals are deemed as being inappropriate. If you think of traditional Japanese wear, it kind of makes sense. Even when wearing zori sandals with kimono, women cover their feet with tabi socks.
Also, if you are going anywhere where you will be expected to walk or sit on tatami, make sure you are wearing socks or tights, as walking barefoot on other people’s tatami is considered rude.
Another point of consideration is high heels. When selecting footwear for a particular business meeting, keep in mind who you will be attending with. Is your boss or colleague a much shorter person? If so, keep the heels for that day shorter, as towering over your boss or business associates during a meeting, can make them feel a bit uncomfortable.
3. Avoid excessive accessories and sunglasses
Much like clothing, in general in Japan, one doesn’t wear very much jewelry or bold accessories to the office. Small necklaces, earrings, and rings are all acceptable, but statement pieces or expensive high-end jewelry or oversized necklaces will look out of place.
One other thing to avoid is wearing sunglasses at the office or as you approach your workplace, even if just using them to keep your hair back. They are usually deemed overly casual since you usually only see locals wearing them at the beach. You will find that no Japanese wears them at work.
4. Pay attention to colors
Several years ago, I had a work-related event in the evening, so needed to dress up a bit. I decided to wear my favorite black dress and topped it off with a string of fake pearls around my neck. I waltzed into the office, feeling very chic and thinking I was channeling (a distinctly less graceful) Audrey Hepburn. Once I plopped down in my seat, my coworker looked me up and down with a concerned expression and then asked:
“Are you going to a funeral?”
Indeed, I didn’t know it at the time, but the standard uniform for attending funerals in Japan is a modest matte black dress or suit, with low black heels and a white pearl necklace. Although this may have been reading too much into her comment, I have avoided wearing that particular combination ever since, just in case! Black, is of course, fine, as long as it’s paired with regular accessories — just avoid the pearls!
Most Japanese office wear tends to revolve around more muted, neutral colors. If you want to inject a bit of color and personality, it is best to go with either a solid color or small prints, as big dramatic prints are considered too much for business settings. While most colors are fine, bright red and other vivid colors seem to get a lot of surprised reactions, so if you’re in doubt, it’s perhaps better to avoid them!
Do you have any tips or tricks for dressing for business, or does your company have any unusual rules regarding attire? Share your stories in the comments!
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