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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 - Metropolis or Rice Paddy?

The city or the countryside?
Where you end up going in Japan can make all the difference in what kind of experience you're going to have here. I feel as though my arrangement is pretty good, but it really depends on the person.

My first piece of advice is: even if you want to live in a big city, don't request Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto. Those are the places that people who've never been here have heard of and ask for, and account for an extremely small percentage of all available slots. One problem is that the big cities have plenty of foreign teachers to choose from without needing JETs at all. Indeed, many expect that the rural JET would have the toughest time here, but in many ways I think the urban JETs actually have it worst. Basically, big Japanese cities are lots of fun so long as you don't have to live in them.

The deadline of application is usually in December. Applicants are notified in March, and successful participants arrive to Japan in July or early August.

While I definitely classify myself as a city boy, and have lived in or near some huge metropolis all my life, I can't say that I'd rather be working in Tokyo. I've lived in Tokyo before, and compared to my life here out in the mountains, that was hell. Fun for a few months, but definitely urban hell. I lived in a small cell of an apartment/dorm room about fifteen minutes outside the Yamanote loop (which encircles the densest region) and shared a kitchen and bathroom with three other guys. That was discount foreign student housing.

Here, I command a modest two-room plus kitchen and bath apartment suitable for a small family, approximately six times the space, at about the same rent (half if you consider my Board of Ed's subsidy). My commute here ranges from three to thirty minutes by scooter; in Tokyo, it was an hour door to door from my apartment to school, which is enviably short for most Tokyo lifestyles. It is easy to presume that living in a huge city is more fun than living out in the boon docks. Well, maybe. There are certainly more theatres, museums, amusement parks, indoor ski domes and other 'entertainment facilities' in the urban jungle. And I have to say that Tokyo is a great town for a date.

But since most of us are trying to save at least a little money, and I, at least, don't find myself in dating situations enough to make them a major factor (duly noted on the to-do list), this is all of limited consideration. When you take a look at what young Japanese really do for fun when they go out at night, it basically amounts to eating and drinking, singing karaoke, playing pachinko and video games, and whatever it is that significant others do with each other after the parties are over (wouldn't know). The facilities for these activities -- typically pubs, karaoke boxes, arcades, pachinko parlors, and hotels shaped like castles, exist in any place in Japan with enough people to justify a dot on the map.

Yeah, the Tokyo ones are flashier, but they cost twice as much for the same thing, and out here at least they remember your name. After the sensory overload of Tokyo's night scene wears off, I'm not sure there's all that much practical difference between how you'd spend your off-hours time there and in any of the hundreds or thousands of less notable cities on the islands.

When you are informed of what location you will be working in, it may be as vague as just the name of the prefecture.

Urban hell
I made the 90-minute trip into Tokyo quite frequently when I first arrived here as a JET -- nearly once a week, mostly on shameless shopping binges after receiving my first pay envelope (which largely accounts for the fact that I saved very little my first year). In recent months, however, the Tokyo high has worn off, and I find myself going in only about once every five or six weeks, and even then not staying long. Nowadays when I do go in, it's usually either to meet a friend, buy English books or music, stock up at the international grocery, or buy computer equipment. As a consequence of my declining interest in weathering the urban onslaught every week, I've managed to save quite a bit each month.

Perhaps the best reason I can think of for seriously pursuing a big-city urban placement, aside from masochism, is compensation for no prior experience abroad and/or no Japanese language ability. In general, it's much easier to get along using English, and the comforting amenities of your home country (international foods, media, etc.) are more likely to be available, in the big cities than anywhere else. Then again, folks in general are a whole lot nicer (albeit also less 'internationally aware') the farther you get away from Tokyo.

Consider the weather
In terms of climate considerations, while it's certainly milder in the summer and colder in the winter up north in Hokkaido, and warmer all year round in Okinawa, Japan really isn't big enough for there to be major latitude-based differences in climate in most regions -- Kyushu seemed just as cold when I tried to escape there last winter. However, coastal (implying more urban) locations will average a few degrees warmer in winter than the mountainous regions which comprise most of the country.

While I've done plenty of complaining about the cold, it's important to realize that despite the somewhat exaggerated claims of those who live here -- I guess some people like to flaunt their endurance -- Japan really doesn't get any colder than most of the participating countries in the JET Program. I doubt that anything south of Hokkaido, and probably not even that region, has ever suffered an American east coast style winter storm (or so my New York friend seems to indicate). The difference is thermodynamically bankrupt construction practices, laughable heating implements, and virtual absence of insulation in any of the buildings you're likely to spend much time in. As I once commented to a teacher, "Japan is colder than America, but only indoors."

The salary is around 3.6 million yen per year (after tax). Visas and flights are arranged by Japanese government agencies.

Academic attitude
A final consideration, albeit admittedly based on a gross generalization, is the academic attitude of the people in your region. In general, students in rural areas are more likely to enter agricultural and service jobs, while urban students are more likely to be headed for white-collar positions. Without making a value judgement, it is reasonable to say that the latter are, on average, going to be more serious about studying English for purposes of employment and continuing education.

Prestigious, high-level schools tend to be located in or near urban or suburban centers, and draw students from outlying areas. Most of the time I don't mind the fact that I don't teach in such schools, since I have plenty of students who are enthusiastic about English despite having no educational aspirations beyond high school. However, there may be applicants who for any number of reasons may wish to take this factor into consideration.

For obvious reasons, I cannot make a general recommendation regarding placement, but I hope that the insight on the places I've lived in provides at least a little guidance. However, don't stress about placement requests too much, since I've met very few people who ended up getting exactly what they asked for. One guy I met even asked for a rural placement and ended up twenty minutes from Tokyo! I didn't get my first preference, which was the Kinki region (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe), but I did get my second request of Saitama Prefecture, which is immediately north of Tokyo (proximity to the capital and relative obscurity to other applicants being the reason I asked for it!)

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