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JET: Content Index

A Guide to the JET Program - The Application Process

CIR or ALT?
I had originally applied to be a CIR (Coordinator of International Relations) at the recommendation of my Japanese professors, but got a call from a woman at the JET office in Washington early on after applying. She explained that I probably didn't have enough Japanese experience at the time and offered to change my application to the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) category (which I gratefully accepted).

While I wish that I'd been able to demonstrate my Japanese ability in an interview -- indeed, I think I spoke and read more Japanese upon arrival than at least a couple of the new CIRs I met -- I have no regrets about becoming an ALT instead, and appreciated the chance to change my application. I should note that this is not necessarily standard procedure, and that the decision of whether to apply as a CIR or an ALT should not be taken lightly. At least three years of college-level Japanese including participation in an exchange program seems to be the minimum for consideration.

There are currently over 6,100 participants in the JET Program, 90% of them as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs). ALT's team-teach with Japanese teachers in junior and senior high schools.

I think the things which helped my application the most were my previous experience abroad in Tokyo, excellent letters of recommendation thanks to my Japanese professors, and an articulate essay and interview. (You'd be surprised how many people who apply simply don't write clearly). I think that experience abroad, not necessarily to Japan, but to pretty much any foreign country, is one of the most revealing standards they have to judge an applicant by.

I'm not sure how much my Japanese ability helped in getting me the job. I do know, however, that I have benefited tremendously from being able to understand what's going on here in day to day life. I will go so far as to say that I think my experience has been better than those of some of my peers because of that.

All things considered, Japan is relatively easy to get along in on English alone, given a flexible personality and the right acquaintances -- but, it's a whole lot easier, especially on the nerves, if one can get along in the vernacular. A semester of college-level Japanese provides the basic survival skills, and all the foundation grammar should be covered by the third semester. In my opinion, a very worthwhile investment.

Further Reference

ALT Online
- JET News & Information

Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA)
- JET Program Pages

Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR)
- Web site
- JET Program Pages

Association of Japan Exchange and Teaching (AJET)
- Web site

 

JET Tidbits

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

Application documents are obtained at the Japanese embassy or consulate in the applicant's home country.

Applicants cannot have lived in Japan for 3 or more of the past 8 years, nor have participated in the JET Programme within the past 10 years.

Applicants/participants who withdrew from the Programme before departing for Japan are eligible to re-apply after a one year waiting period.

 



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!)



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.



A Guide to the JET Program - The First Class

Some tips...
Invariably, your first lesson will be a 'jikoshoukai', or self-introduction. My advice is to try not to let your teacher allocate an entire period for it, since the kids usually can't focus on pure English for that long. Photographs are very useful, although they're too small to be shown to the class as a whole.

Instead, make several small poster board montages with photos arranged based on theme (I use 'my family', 'my friends', 'California', and 'college'), cover them with clear plastic, and give them to the students to pass around. If you have a home video, save it for a later class (unless you really need it to fill time or you're doing a one-shot visit). My experience has been that the kids appreciate it more after they've had some time to get to know me.

If you do have a question and answer session after your self-intro, which you should, you will invariably be asked personal questions such as "do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?" which you may find objectionable. Don't be offended. Remember, the students are teenagers, and their interests may somewhat be limited as such. If you really don't want to answer, just turn the question back at them and they'll get the message.

Most schools have slide projectors, although they may not be used to using them. My first lesson went rather badly for a number of reasons, not the least of which were entirely ineffective curtains which did little to enhance the image's washed-out non-appearance on the screen. I haven't tried to show my slides since.

The SEA (Sports Exchange Advisor) type of CIR position was introduced in the 1994-95 program year. SEAs engage in international exchange through sports.

Student Silence
Although I still occasionally find the lack of response disrespectful, I have learned to realized that lack of response is itself an acceptable response in this culture. Whereas in an American school such a student would most likely be coaxed or scolded into providing some sort of verbal acknowledgement to a question, Japanese teachers seem to accept the blank stare as a legitimate 'pass' on a question. Yes, it drives me crazy, but we all learn to deal with it.

When, on occasion, a student does choose to verbally acknowledge a question, it will almost always be preceded by a brief meeting (oh, don't mind me, I'll wait) with surrounding students. This stems from the Japanese decision-making model (implicit consensus --> formal proposition --> adoption instead of proposition --> debate --> decision), and tends to strike us Westerners as something akin to cheating. Well, I suppose they don't do it during tests.

Related to this is the great difficulty experienced in getting Japanese students to express themselves. I could write pages on this topic alone, but you'll all see for yourselves within a week of your first class. Suffice it to say here that any question without an obvious 'correct' answer -- or at least a limited range of set possibilities -- is likely to earn you a whole lot of confused looks.

Many of my students can manage something as innocent as "What sport do you like?", but anything more adventurous, say, "What do you think about (anything)?", is usually entirely confounding. Unfortunately for us, the truth is that many of the most important implements of language education, that is, questions and statements which easily generate interesting discussion, are quickly mitigated by cultural barriers.

CIRs must have good enough language ability for daily work in a Japanese office environment.

Any solutions?
Many teachers and education officials are aware of this problem, all the way up to the Ministry of Education. Proposed solutions are questionable, however. We recently learned that some genius at the Ministry of Education came up with the idea to introduce debate into the junior high English curriculum.

Although perhaps a seemingly good idea at face value, what the policymakers seem to have neglected is that most Japanese students can't even debate in their own language, much less English. Many of us suspect that the proposed debate curriculum will serve only to make English an even more foreign and less accessible subject to all but the most extroverted and liberally-minded students.

So anyway, when you come bursting into your first classroom with your goofy English and all that, don't be surprised when your kids don't quite burst out back at you. Don't be insulted, and above all, don't lose your temper. I guarantee that by doing so you will do nothing more than relegate yourself to that class of 'mean' teachers whose apparent respect from the students is nothing more than a mix of fear and contempt.

A Guide to the JET Program - Japanese Students: Maybe Not Quite What You Expected!

The stereotype - what stereotype?
Remember that Japanese education norms, and therefore students, are very different from what we're used to. Don't give too much credence to preconceptions you may hold about studious and well-mannered Japanese students.To be sure, such students do exist, but in most schools hardly in numbers worthy of their stereotypes. I was shocked after my first week at a public junior high school. Although some of the students were quite friendly and enthusiastic, I found most to be oddly quiet ('entirely disinterested' seemed suitable at the time) and a number to be outright rude. I'd ask a question to the class or to an individual and receive either a blank stare, or worse, the student would simply gaze at his or her desktop. I soon realized that I was not the unique recipient of such seemingly disrespectful treatment, the Japanese teachers seemed to get the same thing.

The JET Program currently has people from over 40 countries. 94% are from English-speaking countries (2001).

Student Silence
Although I still occasionally find the lack of response disrespectful, I have learned to realized that lack of response is itself an acceptable response in this culture. Whereas in an American school such a student would most likely be coaxed or scolded into providing some sort of verbal acknowledgement to a question, Japanese teachers seem to accept the blank stare as a legitimate 'pass' on a question. Yes, it drives me crazy, but we all learn to deal with it. When, on occasion, a student does choose to verbally acknowledge a question, it will almost always be preceded by a brief meeting (oh, don't mind me, I'll wait) with surrounding students. This stems from the Japanese decision-making model (implicit consensus --> formal proposition --> adoption instead of proposition --> debate --> decision), and tends to strike us Westerners as something akin to cheating. Well, I suppose they don't do it during tests.

Related to this is the great difficulty experienced in getting Japanese students to express themselves. I could write pages on this topic alone, but you'll all see for yourselves within a week of your first class. Suffice it to say here that any question without an obvious 'correct' answer -- or at least a limited range of set possibilities -- is likely to earn you a whole lot of confused looks. Many of my students can manage something as innocent as "What sport do you like?", but anything more adventurous, say, "What do you think about (anything)?", is usually entirely confounding. Unfortunately for us, the truth is that many of the most important implements of language education, that is, questions and statements which easily generate interesting discussion, are quickly mitigated by cultural barriers.

Married couples on the program can request to work close to each other but this is not guaranteed.

Any solutions?
Many teachers and education officials are aware of this problem, all the way up to the Ministry of Education. Proposed solutions are questionable, however. We recently learned that some genius at the Ministry of Education came up with the idea to introduce debate into the junior high English curriculum. Although perhaps a seemingly good idea at face value, what the policymakers seem to have neglected is that most Japanese students can't even debate in their own language, much less English. Many of us suspect that the proposed debate curriculum will serve only to make English an even more foreign and less accessible subject to all but the most extroverted and liberally-minded students.

So anyway, when you come bursting into your first classroom with your goofy English and all that, don't be surprised when your kids don't quite burst out back at you. Don't be insulted, and above all, don't lose your temper. I guarantee that by doing so you will do nothing more than relegate yourself to that class of 'mean' teachers whose apparent respect from the students is nothing more than a mix of fear and contempt.

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