Five Things You Should Know About The JET Programme

GreenTeaTokyo By GreenTeaTokyo, 20th Dec 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Travel>Asia>Japan>Tokyo & Around

The JET Program(me) is an initiative run by the Japanese government. It sees native English speakers placed as teachers in public schools and can be a great experience for JETs and an excellent gateway to Japan. Many have had the time of their life living and working abroad as they learn about Japanese culture and share their own. But as an ex-JET here's 5 things I's suggest thinking about before you take the plunge.

Location, Location, Location

Japan can conjure up images of neon billboards, cutting-edge technology and crazy fashion, but the vast majority of Japan is far from a buzzing metropolis.
That doesn't mean rural life doesn't have its charms, but it's important to realise that the location preferences you give on your JET application are not likely to be considered too deeply. I'm not saying places are allocated by drawing names from a hat, I'm sure some attempts are made to honour requests, but I met die-hard snowboarders placed in Kyushu, island-loving surfers in landlocked Saitama and sun-seekers in Hokkaido.
From my own experience, I listed three prefectures on Honshu and a "semi-rural" environment. In my interview I explained that while the countryside was fine, I'd appreciate being able to drive or hop on a train to a city on weekends. My placement? A remote island with a ferry ride or plane ticket required to get to even the nearest mainstream convenience store.
A surprise location doesn't mean you won't have a great time, but if you do have your heart set on a specific area or lifestyle I'd advise considering whether the JET Programme is really for you.

Every Situation is Different

If you've done some research into life on JET you'll probably have come across this phrase a few times. But the JET mantra is true.
You might be living in a subsidised apartment, have one base school where you are considered an integral part of the teaching staff, and be a stone's throw from Osaka. Or you might be a bug-ridden house, teach at 14 schools a month and largely serve as a human tape-recorder. There's no way of knowing until you've received your placement letter, and more usefully, heard from your predecessor.
An open mind is essential to making the most of your time here.

You Can't Know Enough Japanese

The JET Programme is open to applicants with no Japanese language ability. This gives people with foreign language skills as poor as my own the opportunity to experience the real Japan, and for that I'm grateful. But the challenge this presents shouldn't be underestimated. Just because JET is open to non-Japanese speaking applicants doesn't mean life without Japanese won't be tough at times.
If you don't speak Japanese, or are a beginner like I was, you are, from my experience, more likely to be placed in a high school where in general the staff and your supervisor will speak a higher level of English. I was fortunate in that it was possible for me to do my job entirely in English and I could get to know some of my coworkers well. However I know of JETs expected to work in schools where the staff didn't speak much English themselves, making lesson planning tricky.
The local community were always friendly and welcoming to me, but I found it very hard to communicate. My bad Japanese coupled with a relatively difficult local accent and dialect made for slow progress. As well as being isolated socially I also sometimes found daily tasks impossible without the patient help and support of Japanese speaking friends and coworkers.
Be prepared to go from being a capable and independent adult to someone who can be reduced to tears by the instructions to set up the internet in your apartment, or spend 20 minutes battling to safe your sanity when faced by a baffling ATM.
JET do provide a textbook based language course but don't sit around and wait for that to arrive because its usually about three months after you do.

Life Under A Microscope

As a JET you are representing your home country, and foreigners generally, at all times. It might be that the local JET is the only person from overseas that a community encounters. Therefore you should behave accordingly. Aside from that you are also being paid by the Japanese taxpayer, and as a civil servant you are also expected to be a model of good behaviour.
This might feel like pressure enough, but if you live in a rural location you can guarantee your every move is being noticed. I don't mean you are living under surveillance but I lost count of the times someone would tell me that they saw me "cycling over the bridge three nights ago about 11pm" or "buying miso in the supermarket last week." You are automatically conspicuous and sometimes the sight of a driver craning their neck to get a better look at you can be unnerving and frustrating.
The upside of this is that people are genuinely looking out for you and often these conversations are accompanied by friendly gestures. One lady who liked to tell me about my recent movements also used to give me free cake every time I went to her shop - and free cake is not to be sniffed at. Ever.
If you are accepted on to JET be prepared to be a local celebrity, and think about whether life under the spotlight is really for you.

You May Not Actually Teach Much

JETs are either Assistant Language Teachers or Coordinators of International Relations. The vast majority will be ALTs but the role itself will be determined by the school or Board of Education for which they work.
I was fortunate in that in my base school I was allowed to plan lessons, mark exams, and create exercises and games. I could also set up newsletter and letter-writing schemes. But this was down to the eagerness of some of the teaching staff to make use of me. In fact, it was only the female teachers who regularly invited me to join them in class. I'm not sure why this was but if it wasn't for the women staff I'd have spent a lot of time with nothing to do.
A common complaint from ALTs is that they are mainly used to allow students to copy their pronunciation. At my second school I would usually just read sentences and repeat words while the students were told to look at my mouth.
If you already have teaching experience and are looking to further your skills you could end up frustrated. It might be better to consider other options for teaching in Japan.


Expat, Japan, Japanese Culture, Japanese Language, Teaching English

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author avatar GreenTeaTokyo
Living and working in Japan

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author avatar plroybal
14th Jun 2014 (#)

Great article and very useful!

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