Foreign countries often have different cultural standards of decency and sometimes even laws related to what you can and can’t wear, so it’s always important to take a few minutes to research what kind of clothes you should bring.
Fortunately, Japan isn’t a difficult country to pack for! And furthermore, as a tourist you won’t be held to the same standard as Japanese people anyway so in most cases you have a lot more freedom to dress how you want.
First, some cultural rules
Boobs vs Butt
For better or worse, Japan is the opposite of many countries in that in Japan cleavage is considered “too revealing” whereas teeny tiny short shorts and miniskirts are A-OK! Of course, this is just casual wear—you still wouldn’t want to wear short shorts to meet Japanese in-laws, visit shrines or temples, or go to work. But if you’re just out shopping? Feel free to rock your long legs!
Cleavage for whatever reason (there are many hypotheses) is still widely considered too revealing. Where Japanese people draw the line for considering something “cleavage” is quite high on your chest, and it doesn’t even matter if you have an actual boob-touching ravine visible—it’s still considered revealing if you’re flat-chested or like me your boobs prefer to hang out as far apart from each other as possible.
This cover up can be especially difficult for larger-chested foreign women to adhere to. I would say that outside of the three situations mentioned above, I personally don’t worry too much if I’m a little too showy at times. You’re only young once, amirite? You will definitely get stares (or very awkward, purposeful eye avoidance) from men if you’re wearing low cut shirts, though. But you’re not going to get arrested and I doubt anyone’s going to give you a hard time, so it’s really just up to you how comfortable you are being a bit more revealing than most people.
What about shoulders?
You might have heard that it’s inappropriate to show your shoulders in Japan so you should avoid wearing tank tops and spaghetti strap shirts. While it’s true that you often won’t see Japanese women wearing these types of tops without a sleeved shirt underneath, it’s really not that big of a deal. The open shoulder taboo is more of an older generation sort of thing, so if you want to be careful you can avoid wearing them around any elders on which you’re trying to make a good impression. Most other situations are fair game. I’ve been wearing my open-shoulder shirts and dresses for years and no one has ever given me trouble over it!
The humidity in Japanese summers is also very intense, and it’s completely unnecessary to subject yourself to sleeved shirts that you know you’ll sweat through immediately just because you heard shoulders are inappropriate!
However, beware of temperature differences
While it may be 90°F (32°C) with 80% humidity outside, many Japanese stores turn their air conditioning on full blast and so after ten minutes inside you can easily get really cold. This was an issue I first noticed when I studied abroad because the classrooms were so cold in the summer that I actually found myself shivering in my chilled, sweat soaked clothes!
So if you do choose to rock your tank top in the summer, you may also want to bring a light cardigan for indoors. The cardigan also doubles as your modesty sleeves if you start feeling the need to cover up!
The main island of Japan alone spans a latitudinal difference of 10 degrees, the same latitudinal difference between El Paso, Texas and Chicago. If you bring in the other three big islands and Okinawa as well, the climate difference between northern and southern Japan is very stark. The northern prefectures of Japan can have walls of snow meters high in the winter, while Okinawa, Japan’s tropical paradise, is the Japanese equivalent of Hawaii. The weather in Japan will be highly dependent upon which cities you plan on visiting and when in the year you want to go.
If you visit weather.com and type in the cities you plan on visiting, there will be monthly averages and a full record of temperatures for the last year to show you generally how hot or cold those places get throughout the year.
Japan also has two rainy seasons. The timing changes a bit every year but you should be able to look up averages and forecasts. In general, the first rainy season (called tsuyu) starts in June and lasts through sometime in July. The second rainy season is typhoon season, sometimes starting in July but is worst in August through September. Most typhoons in Japan are fine to work through, although occasionally some trains (and planes and boat rides) might be suspended. If you plan on visiting Japan for outdoorsy hiking opportunities, these seasons would be better avoided. It would probably be too hot and humid to hike then, anyway!
Don’t worry about bringing an umbrella because you can pick one up just about anywhere for around 500 yen ($5).
Rural vs Urban
The difference in fashion between huge cities like Tokyo and smaller, rural areas is huge. In Tokyo, especially in young fashion centers like Harajuku and Shibuya, you’ll find plenty of women with crop tops, low cut shirts, or off-the-shoulder tops. People won’t look at you twice there! But if you’re studying abroad or moving for work and you get placed somewhere more rural, the chances of you seeing other women wearing revealing clothing drops dramatically. The more rural you get, the older the population gets as well and so you shift from younger fashion values in Tokyo to much more modest styles. You may want to keep this in mind on your travels.
Are you into subculture fashion like lolita or decora? You’ll fit right in in Harajuku! Anywhere else in major cities you might still have a small chance of passing someone all dolled up, but once you leave the big cities they almost cease to exist. You’re of course free to dress in one of these styles anywhere in Japan; it’s just up to you how much you want to stand out!
The most important thing you’ll bring
If you’re visiting Japan for sightseeing, the number one most important thing is to pack very comfortable walking shoes. You’ll likely be walking for hours a day and even if you get through day 1 fine, by days 2 and 3 your feet are going to be hurting something fierce. If you’re not used to walking a lot you could be facing blisters or even end up rubbing your feet raw and bloody in places if you don’t bring the right shoes. It’s happened to people I know! Don’t buy new shoes the week before because they’ll be stiff and more likely to rub your feet in the wrong spots (especially the backs of your ankles). If you want to buy new shoes, buy them a couple months in advance so you can break them in first.
In a worst case scenario, from someone who has broken in several pairs of unforgiving combat boots, if you find yourself stuck with shoes that are rubbing the back of your ankle raw, a quick solution is to put a bandage over the raw skin and then cover the whole area with duct tape. Your sock and shoe will just slide over the slick duct tape from then on, and the thickness of the tape will prevent any painful pressure on your sore skin. It works great, I promise!
What are Japanese people wearing?
What about the actual styles and trends that normal Japanese people are wearing, you ask? I think it’d be easiest to understand if you look up one of the many websites dedicated to photographing street fashion. Quite a few update frequently so you can get a good idea of general Japanese fashion year round. A few things that might stand out to you are the lots of layers, baggy clothes, and long pants or sleeves in the summer.
What about men??
It’s very likely that whatever you wear in your home country will be completely fine in Japan. It’s that simple. I would only recommend against jogging shirtless outside if that’s something you like to do because in some places the police might stop you for it. Likewise for women, I would be very hesitant to go running outside in only a sports bra.
And finally, tattoos
Tattoos have traditionally been associated with the Japanese mafia (the yakuza) and even today it’s still uncommon to see non-yakuza Japanese sporting them. Foreigners with tattoos abound, however, so don’t worry about visiting if you’re inked up. There are a few types of institutions that may refuse you admittance if they notice you have any tattoos, though, including onsen, public baths, and public pools.
Piercings and colored hair are also all fine unless you’re trying to enter the Japanese workforce. Most foreigners who stay in Japan and get jobs end up taking out their extra piercings and dying their hair more natural colors. Of course you can do whatever you want if you’re a YouTuber, so… ;)
This is a lot of article to write to basically say "don't worry too much about it." I've known foreigners here with tattoos, foreigners with crazy dyed hair and piercings, foreigners who dressed in lolita, foreigners who cross-dressed, and all of them have been fine. You'll be fine, too. Just mind your walking shoes!
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