So here you are, you’ve spent somewhere between 1 to nearly 5 years in Japan, you’ve laughed, you’ve cried, you’ve been complimented on your chopstick skills hundreds of times, but all good things must come to an end and it’s time to leave JET. Maybe you’re heading to another gig in Japan, maybe you’re off to backpack South East Asia (probably not a good idea in August), or maybe you know in four months time you’ll be on your mom’s couch. Either way it’s time to pack it in and leave the apartment, schools and town you’ve come to know over the last few years.
Leaving JET is as much of an adjustment as coming on JET, and something that can easily sneak up on you. The key is to prepare well and to prepare early. A fellow JET said to me, “Never underestimate the amount of time you need.” Good advice, and I tried to follow it, but that didn’t stop me from rushing around the morning I left.
Sending your crap home: I came to Japan with two suitcases and left with several boxes of stuff, as well as those same two suitcases bursting at the seems. Your stuff has probably expanded quite a bit as well, and if you’re like me, sentimental and unable to resist the all the cute crap in Japan, you’re going to be shipping a lot of it.
So what’s the best shipping method? Shipping companies are good for mailing large objects or very heavy objects, but cheap they are not. So unless you’re shipping furniture, your best option is the probably the post office. There is a size limit, and the charge is by weight, but sending it by seamail is going to be your most affordable choice. A big box of clothes would run me about 4000~5000yen, a big of miscellaneous things (books, trinkets, etc) would be 7000~8000yen. Books can be sent “media mail” for even cheaper, but not all post offices do this.
If you go with seamail, though, tape up your boxes really, really well, because they’re handled pretty roughly. I think my boxes ended up being used as a soccer ball on the ship, because a couple of my boxes arrived torn and with things missing, and also contained things that weren’t mine. When packing a box you plan on sending by sea mail, try to cushion the edge and/or the top and bottom with some clothes or stuffed animals or something squishy. It’ll be tempting to try to pack it as full as you can, but the fuller it is, the more likely it’ll burst open, so pack it “full”, then take a couple things out. If it’s valuable or breakable, or just something you’d really hate to lose, you should consider springing for an airmail package or putting it in your suitcase.
Consolidating your things: Now before your send off your X-number of boxes, you probably should go through and decide what you’ll really want to send home and what could be left. Fortunately, Japan has a lot of 2nd hand stores that will give you a little money for your things (emphasis on the little). I took the clothes I didn’t want to a store that gave me yen by the kg. I tried to take my books to Book Off, but I think only the ones in large cities will take English books (but here’s an English book website you can send your books to: Infinity Books) There’s also organizations you can donate clothes and goods to, but often it needs to be shipped and you’re responsible for the shipping charges. Still, it’s a way for you clothes to get to someone who may really need them.
Furniture and large electronics will probably be left (or sold) to your successor. If you’re in the rather unlucky position of not having a successor, know that your apartment is most likely expected to be completely cleared out, including furniture, lights, even your refrigerator and gas stove! It’s a good time to call in some favors from your supervisor and have them help you get the furniture to the used furniture store or to the dump.
Also, don’t automatically assume all the furniture/appliances are yours to take or sell. If you came to a furnished apartment, it’s possible your CO purchased some of those items, and therefore those things belong to them. They may also belong to your landlord. If you take or sell these items, it’s possible nothing will happen, or it’s possible you’ll find the item’s value deducted from your last paycheck. Either way, you’d be screwing over your successor. Don’t be that guy.
Oh, and prepare for a sudden influx of hand fans, handkerchiefs, and maybe even a yukata or two when you start getting “going away” presents, save some space in your suitcase.
Getting the boring paperwork stuff done: There’s a few things you’ll need to get in order before you go, and the sooner you get to it the better.
* Your plane ticket home: Find out what your contracting organization’s protocol on buying your ticket home is. Some CO’s might pressure you to find the cheapest ticket you can meaning you may not get to leave the day you want. I’ve also heard of some COs that expect you to buy your plane ticket home before they reimburse you, and since one-way tickets inexplicably run hundreds of dollars more than round trip tickets, that’s a good chunk of yen you’ll have to spend that you may not be reimbursed for several weeks.
Also, know what you’re entitled to ticket wise. In general, you must leave within one month of finishing your contract. The ticket is suppose to be a direct flight or have a minimal number of transfers (with reasonable layover time) if a direct flight is unavailable. Also, the ticket should be to the airport you departed from on JET (though I believe you can get a ticket to any of the designated departure airports, as long as it’s in your home country). Your CO is technically only responsible for getting you to one of the designated airports, so say you’re going to Des Moines, your CO really only has to pay your way to Chicago or Minneapolis, then you are responsible for the rest. So long story short, find out ASAP what needs to be done ticket wise.
* Assigning a tax representative for pension lump-sum refunds matters: After you turn in your “gaijin” card and leave Japan, you can apply for the pension lump-sum refund. When you get it a few months down the road, you’ll notice 20% was taken right off the top. You can also get this back, but you’ll need a Japanese tax-representative to do it for you, and you need to assign this representative before you leave Japan. There’s forms in the JET Program General Information Handbook, and more info in the “After JET” guide, both available on the JET website. Make sure you assign someone who you can easily get in touch with a few months after you leave. Also, your tax representative needs to apply for the tax refund at your local tax office (i.e. the tax office that was closest to your Japanese address) so also choose someone who will be in the area for some time.
*Getting the Proof of Participation form, and your salary report for Jan~July: The contracting organizations get a special handbook from JET that contains a template for the “Proof of Participation” form. The salary report shouldn’t be hard to get, but my CO told me they couldn’t do it until the end of the year, so either put the pressure on, or make sure you have communication with your supervisor come next January.
* Visa Extension: If you’re a third year JET, your visa will probably expire the same day your contract ends. If you plan on staying a few days or even a few weeks after this date, you will need to change your visa status to “visitor”. It takes a trip the immigration office and costs 4000yen, there’s also a bunch of paperwork they ask you to bring, but mainly you need proof you will leave the country (so a copy of your plane ticket). I also brought my contract to prove my dates of employment were over, and my bank register to prove I had sufficient funds in Japan, but they didn’t even look at it. You probably shouldn’t change your visa status until you’re done working, but it still good to put it on your checklist.
* Taking the JLPT in July: If you are taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, make sure to do the change of address steps outlined in the JLPT pamphet. There’s only about a three-week window to change your address. If you miss it, maybe your successor can send the results to you, but note that they will not leave the results if your name isn’t on the mailbox! If you can’t tell, I completely missed the deadline to change the address, and didn’t make sure my name was still on my mailbox so no JLPT results for me. (I think I failed anyways, so whatever). (*Update!* about a year after I left my old supervisor sent me a pack of documents and my JLPT results somehow went to the BOE? Anyway I passed N3, woot!)
Managing the time you have left: I think it’s just inevitable that your last couple months are going to end up busier than you ever expected. Yeah, you get 4 holidays around Golden Week, but that’s hardly a time of relaxing. Then there’s the long stretch between Early May and Late July where there’s no public holidays. You’re simply going to run out of weekends, and when it gets to be June and July, you’ll find yourself facing a weekend where you’re have to chose between a going-away party with your fellow ALTs, a hiking trip with your coworkers, or just staying at home and getting some much needed packing and cleaning done. Basically, I tried to do all my “grunt” work on week nights, and save the weekends for daytrips and/or nights out with my friends. I had some personal leave left, so if I had an afternoon with no classes, I just took a couple hours off and tried to make a trip to the post office or do any other errands.
Another thing I advise against is committing to anything in the 2nd half of July since your schools will have end-of-term enkais and maybe even going away parties for you. Maybe you hate your school and don’t care about the enkais, but if they offer a farewell dinner for you, it only polite to attend.
Preparing your good-byes: It’s going to happen, the point where you have to say goodbye to your students, fellow teachers, and friends. You can put it off until the last minute or face it head on. I did write a farewell speech (and completely bawled when I gave it) and gave some of my JTEs presents, but I regret that I didn’t write a good-bye letter to people like the principal or English coordinator of the elementary school I visited. Make a list of people you want to do something for, either giving a gift, writing a letter, or just someone you want to make sure you see before leaving. Again, try not to commit to too much in late July so you have have final dinners and meeting with your favorite co-workers and friends.
Let JET help you: JET has it’s weaknesses and it’s strengths, and definitely one of it’s strengths is support for going back home. If you missed the Returner’s Conference in March, you should still check out the website for hand-outs because there’s still a lot of good information on things like graduate school, resumes/CVs, and just adjusting to life back to your home country. The General Handbook and the After JET guide really provide a lot of good information about preparing to leave. Your prefecture also may have a “Leaving JET” guide with information more specific to your area. All of these thing were definitely a help as I was getting ready to leave.
Get involved with JETAA: The JET Alumni Association is pretty huge, many major cities in the main participating countries have chapters. Most chapters put on a career forum in the fall after JETs come home, and it’s a good opportunity to network and talk with people who were in your situation a few years ago: back from Japan, trying to figure out what to do next. It’s also just a good way to meet people, especially if you’ve come home after a few years in Japan and found your friends have moved away, started families, etc. And of course, if you get involved enough with JETAA, you’ll have an item for your resume.