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Guide to Japan and Teaching English in Japan

Ryan Olson Thousands of people come from all around the world to work on the JET Program every year. Most work as Assistant Language Teachers, but there are also many positions at municipal offices. This guide by former JET Ryan Olson tells it all, including the pitfalls to watch out for.

January 08, 2009

A Guide to the JET Program - Pre-departure: Gifts to give and things to leave behind

What to sacrifice
In general, people bring way too much. I sure did. The luggage allotment on your flights (and more importantly, through the arrival/Tokyo Orientation process) should be adequate -- if it's not, you've over-packed. The most important thing to bring is money (how much depends on your placement circumstances, contact your host institution or predecessor, and ask specifically about rent deposit and 'key money'), since you probably won't be getting paid for at least a few weeks after arrival.

Bring some clothes, including at least one formal outfit for all the ceremonies, etc. At school I wear khakis and those Gap-type not-quite-dress-shirts with a tie, sometimes with a casual sports coat, and I'm usually better dressed than a lot of the other teachers. A good investment is an athletic warm up suit -- in addition to their obvious function, you can wear them in the classroom (everyone else does), and the ones the teachers buy and wear here make them look like commercially sponsored race cars (you'll see what I mean).

Don't sweat the whole indoor shoes thing that causes so many pre-arrival JETs so much undue stress, just use the school slippers until you figure out what the deal is and buy some here (well, unless you have really big feet). It'll be hot when you arrive, so ship your bulky winter clothes ahead by sea mail. Use your base school or board of education's address, as you won't likely be at home when your package arrives.

My advice is to buy pretty much everything else here. Some things can wait until your first pay envelope, and others you can buy cheap off your predecessor or other JETs. Keep in mind that although many will, your host institution has no formal obligation to provide you with household items and necessities. However, I think most will be reasonable.

Other things to bring include personal items like contact lens accessories, medicine, an international drivers' license in addition to your own country's license (which you can later convert to a Japanese license if you can pass the test), computer stuff if you're into that (preferably a laptop), and classroom materials like photos, videos, etc. That should all fit into two suitcases and a carry-on, shouldn't it?

Participants can stay on the program for a maximum of 3 years. The maximum age limit is 40.

Bringing gifts: What to bring
I think that this is the subject that gave me the most undue stress before coming to Japan. After reading and hearing time after time about the importance of gift-giving in this society, it's hard for any pre-arrival JET not to worry about what one ought to be adding to one's luggage for hierarchical distribution upon arrival. Despite having lived in Japan for a brief period before coming as a JET, even I made the mistake of bringing a bit too much in terms of gift items.

Although in most gift exchange instances between Japanese people the price of the gift is often more important than the actual content, this is not the case for newly arrived JETs. The important thing is to bring something which is unique to the place you come from, something which will remind the recipient of your and your country. Picture books, local arts and crafts (small items), and locally produced food items (for example, Ghiradelli chocolate from San Francisco) make excellent gifts.

Some JETs bring liquor for male supervisors, although the bottles can be very heavy, and price discrepancies aren't what they used to be. Remember that Japanese houses are invariably small and cluttered, which means that food items and small trinkets may be appreciated more than larger non-consumable items simply due to the space they don't occupy.

Who to bring gifts for depends largely on your circumstances. If you receive correspondence from your host institution, bring something nice for whoever signed it (probably your supervisor and his or her superior), otherwise, bring a couple all-purpose items designated for your unknown superiors.

Snack food items (cookies, sweets, etc.) which can be shared among the teachers' room faculty at your schools will be appreciated -- don't worry about each individual teacher, since there may be quite a few. If you're in a homestay situation, bring something extra special for your host family. Finally, pack a few small "backup items" to give to whoever helps you out a lot in your first couple of months.

Aside from those for your supervisor(s) and teachers' room(s), it's OK to save some gifts for a month or so until you know who you want to give the rest to (although even the former don't have to be presented immediately upon arrival). I think it's better to give things to people who I get to know and really help me out rather than some official who I'm never going to have any contact with.



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