The JET program is an excellent program that aims to promote grassroots internationalization between Japan and other nations. There is a common misconception that the main role of JET participants is to teach English. This simply is not true. The “E” in JET stands for “exchange” not “English”. It is a cultural exchange program that takes on the role of advancing mutual understanding between different societies. Teaching English is a significant part of the program, especially if you apply for the ALT or Assistant Language Teacher position, but it is important to keep in mind that the main purpose is to be an ambassador for your nation through foreign language study and international awareness activities.
I first heard about the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program when I was a freshman at Gettysburg College. The thought of moving to a country on the other side of the world and being completely immersed in another culture was a romantic ideal for me at the time. It seemed challenging, adventurous, and very relevant to my area of interest. I was a Japanese Studies major. I could learn about my field while being surrounded by resources. Surely my Japanese would be fluent by the time I returned to the US. All I could see was opportunity and the chance to continue my studies while being paid. It couldn’t get any better than that.
Five years later, when I finally did apply for JET, I looked up everything I could about it. Would this program be the right thing for me? Here are a few things that concerned me in the beginning:
If you get accepted to the program, you cannot choose where you will go in Japan. You can list your top three choices, but chances are you will not get one of those. You have to go where you are placed or decline to enter the program. The majority of positions are in rural areas. Many cities in Japan already have large foreign populations and there is much less demand for a JET in places like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka etc. It is very difficult to move to another place if you do not like your situation after you arrive. If you get on the plane, you are agreeing to fulfill the terms of your contract which means going to the area where the local government that hired you is located.
Working for the Japanese Government
If you are accepted by JET, you will then be appointed to a contracting organization. This means that you will work for a Board of Education, Prefectural Office or something similar that is linked to and under the control of the Japanese government. My only reason for emphasizing this point is that this means working within a very well defined bureaucracy.
Separation from Friends and Family
JET means signing up for at least a year of life in another country without a familiar support system. Depending on where they send you, you could be around other JET participants or you could have a whole island all to yourself.
Long Application Process
The process from start to landing in Japan takes almost a full year. Jen C. wrote a very nice blog about the details of the application process which you can access here. To briefly recap, the process begins in October, the application is due in November, you get called back in January for an interview in February, you are informed of the interview results in April, you are given your placement in May, you ship out in July, and you start working in August. For a more detailed timeline, check out the JET Programme website.
With those things in mind, I decided that the benefits outweighed my fears and I applied. My application was successful and I left for the small rural town of Gojome in Akita Prefecture on July 31st, 2010.
Assistant Language Teacher
As an ALT, one of your main roles is to assist the Japanese Teacher of English or JTE in the classroom. This means that you are the one who has to be flexible a lot of the time. Chances are you will be able to incorporate your teaching ideas gradually but everything must be approved by the JTE. Some JTE’s have no idea how to use you in the classroom and very little time to discuss lesson plans with you before class. You will be working with teachers who have varying levels of experience teaching. They will also vary in their English speaking ability, their level of involvement in the class, and their level of enthusiasm for English. The JTE may base their initial opinion of you on their previous experiences with ALT’s. This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your predecessor. Your working relationships with your JTE’s can make or break your JET experience. Fostering good relationships with them is essential.
English and Cultural Expert
You will be considered the resident English and foreign culture expert in your area. You could be put on the spot and asked very specific questions about English grammar, spelling, and word usage. Even if you can provide a correct and concise answer to the question, it may not always be the answer the teacher is looking for and you will feel like you failed. If you can’t spell hippopotamus or archaeologist on cue or if you have no idea what grammar point the teacher is trying to prompt it doesn’t mean that you are a failure. A good JTE recognizes the fact that you can’t read their mind and they sometimes have to look up the correct way to write a Chinese character as well.
Being knowledgeable about your own culture is important but culture is a living, changing, and at times subjective thing. There may not be a defined answer to a question. For example, there is a chapter in one of the English textbooks for junior high school about giving compliments. It teaches that in American culture, people often compliment each other as a greeting, such as, “Hello Mary! That haircut looks great.” I was asked if Americans mean it when they compliment someone or if they are just using it as a greeting. While it is true that Americans use compliments far more often than Japanese and there is often no deeper meaning to “that haircut looks great”, there is no defined answer to this question. It is open to interpretation. People will see you as the definitive guide of all things American, so be careful what you say.
Involvement in the Community
It is expected that you will make every effort to be involved in the community around you. This is a part of your job. Attending school events on Saturdays is often mandatory. Sometimes you have to work on Sunday as well. You should get another day off in place of the Saturday or Sunday you worked, but this is not always the case. ALT’s are often asked to run workshops on international culture, to participate in seminars for JTE’s to improve their English, to attend conferences about improving your own teaching methods and to judge local English speech contests. Another way to be involved in your community is to join a club like Kyudo (Japanese Archery), Taiko (Japanese drums), Tea Ceremony, Flower Arrangement, Yosakoi (a type of Japanese dance), etc. Getting involved in clubs is not mandatory, but will be greatly appreciated. They want to see that you have an interest in Japanese culture as well and you will be expected to make an effort to learn Japanese.
Is this program right for me?
I have been lucky enough to have a very positive experience with JET thus far but it is important to mention that JET is not for everyone. Language and cultural barriers can often be frustrating. Social faux paus are common and JETs are no strangers to embarrassment. JETs are often asked to deliver speeches in front of crowds of people they do not know very well with very little time to prepare. At times, it seems like everyone around you knows what is going on and you have absolutely no idea. The Japanese teachers stay very late and they seem to constantly be busy. This creates a feeling of disparity that can lead to guilt on the JETs part. Depending on your situation, you could have lots of free periods during the school day in which there is little to do or you could have absolutely no free time at all. Effectively using the time that you do have, whether it is too much or too little, is essential. The climate in your area can also have a strong effect on your mood. In the winter, the sun sets around 4pm in Gojome. Massive amounts of snow fall and Akita prefecture is known for its high suicide rate because it is so dark and cold. Every situation is different and being able to adapt and let the little things go is part of what being a JET is all about.
The JET program is an amazing opportunity to become actively involved in international exchange. It looks great on a resume and you learn invaluable life lessons working and living in another country. The duties of an ALT are not always clearly defined but if you are an enthusiastic individual who is motivated and interested in becoming involved in the community you will succeed. An ALT is much more than an English teacher. They are cultural ambassadors who represent their nations and foreigners in general. The program is not for everyone so please carefully consider your strengths and weaknesses before applying to JET. The JET program has a great reputation of excellence in Japan and the JET community is a global one. It is a great place to begin your career in the field of Japanese Studies.
Rachel Reed graduated from Gettysburg College in 2008 with a BA in Japanese Studies. She worked as an Administrative Assistant in the Political Section at the Embassy of Japan in Washington DC for two years (2008-2010) and later worked as an Assistant Language Teacher with the JET program, in Gojome, a small, rural town in Akita Prefecture.
Photo by moriza