I figured I’d take a moment from my lack of updating and congratulate the shortlisters for the 2009 JET Program. One of you lucky kids will be working with me come August, so you better be cool! Or at least tolerable.
Anyway, you’re coming to Japan and I’m sure there are a million things going through your head right now. Here’s just some quick unsolicited, half-baked advice on what to do now that you’re just a few months away from a year (or more) in Japan.
Do save your money: Local government offices were feeling the budget crunch long before the current economic slowdown. As a result, there seems to be an increasing number of BOE’s asking their ALTs to pay for the start-up costs of their living arrangements, such as key money (think of it as large deposit . . . that you will never get back). Usually you are warned if you have to pay such fees, but never-the-less some JETs get it sprung on them the day they get here. Even if you are lucky enough to not have to pay key money, you will likely be asked to pay your rent and other utilities the day you get to your town . . . and weeks before your first paycheck. Many contracting organizations will give ALTs a loan if the start-up costs are high, but you don’t want to spend your first few months in Japan indebted to your C.O. Save as much as you can.
Do learn *some* Japanese: If you don’t speak a word of Japanese, there’s no better time to start than now. JET will send you a beginners Japanese textbook in your welcome package. It comes with a CD and a chart of kana (the phonetic Japanese scripts). Practice 5 kana a week and you can have it mastered by the time you reach Japan. Also, you’ll probably meet people like the mayor of your town, superintendent, and principals when you first reach your placement, so it’s a good idea to practice basic intros. Don’t worry about it being perfect, you’ll likely be complimented on your Japanese no matter your skill level.
Do read the General Handbook: The GHB is awkwardly large and makes for some dry reading, but it’s important because your supervisor will have the same book. Your supervisor will not any kind of ALT affairs expert, heck, they may not speak English at all, so this book (which has Japanese on the left and English on the right) can be valuable when trying to sort something out. Read through at least once before you come here and highlight the important bits. Oh, and do watch the ‘JET Life’ movie. Yeah, it’s cheesy, but for someone like me who hadn’t been to Japan before JET, it helps you visualize what your life will be like.
Do whatever needs to be done now!: It’s all too easy to think, “Eh, I have till the end of July to do this”. You will be shocked how quickly the end of July comes around. If JET sends you anything that requires a response, don’t even look at the deadline, just do it and send it back. Don’t depend on your coordinator too much to tell you exactly what you need to send and where you need to send it. They’re busy getting ready to send dozens off people to Japan (and, of course, some are less of top of things than others). This applies especially to alternates; I understand not wanting to spend the money on the physical, the FBI check or the tax forms, but if you’re serious about going to Japan and want to be able to go on short notice, it is in your best interest to get this stuff done now.
Don’t worry about teaching (yet): When browsing JET forums around this time of year, there’s always people who are already worried about things like what their self-intro to their students will be, or what lessons they should have planned out. I have one word of advice: Relax. First off, at this point you have no clue what age/level you’ll be teaching. Second, after you arrive here, you’ll have around a month before you even teach a class. That’s plenty of time to sort out what your JTEs will expect from you.
Don’t assume you will recreate the awesomeness of the semester you spent in Japan 2 years ago: Studying here and working here are two different things. Many of the ALTs I’ve meet that have been less than satisfied with their experiences are people who studied abroad. During study abroad, you’re in an urban/suburban setting, surrounded by people your age, are being taken care of by a host family or other student housing, and able to be constantly doing non-academic related things because, let’s face it, college in Japan is not the most difficult thing in the world. JET’s certainly not the most difficult job in the world either, but you do have to be at work 8-4, Monday-Friday, and you’ll (likely) be in a rural setting, living alone in a town of sweet little obaa-sans. I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t let your previous Japan experience shape your JET expectations too much.
Don’t decided how long you wanna stay just yet: When I surf JET message boards, I’m always surprised to see a lot of people saying, before they even set foot in their towns, ‘I’m gonna do JET for 3-5 years, then move to (such and such place in Japan) and work there’ or ‘I’m gonna only do a year, then come back and do this and that.’ I understand having a goal, but sometimes it turns into an obligation you put on yourself. Don’t stay in a terrible placement just because you promised yourself ‘three years’, and don’t leave a great placement just because you told everyone you only do a year then go to grad school. Just say, ‘My contract is a year, and we’ll see after that’.
And last, do be freakin’ excited! You’re going to Japan! Don’t let the nay-say-ers diminish that by telling you, ‘A desk job in Japan is like a desk job anywhere else’, it’s certainly is not. There will be awesome moments and awful moments, but it will always be pretty interesting.