Things to know about JET and Japan

Once you’re accepted onto JET, you will get endless amounts of literature both before you leave and during the orientation in Tokyo. You will also hear from your predecessor and your contracting organization. No doubt the awkwardly large CLAIR handbook you have to lug with you to Tokyo, as well as the correspondence with your pred and CO will teach you plenty of things, but there are a few aspects of JET that are, shall we say, omitted from this and other fliers.

Ahead: what is ESID, how well will your JTE speak English, can you ever move within JET, and other miscellaneous things.

1. Every Situation is Different
This (commonly shortened to ESID) is the unofficial motto of JET. Any question you have about your school/living situation is almost impossible to answer because of the ESID factor. Will you get subsidized housing or will you pay 60,000yen a month for a tiny apartment? Will you be a human tape recorder or will you be planning several new lessons a week with little help? Will you get a nice understanding supervisor or will you get a hawk that scrutinizes your every move? There’s just no telling, because every JETs situation is different.

Unfortunately this has turned into the cop-out answer for everything an aspiring or new JET may ask. And the fact is a general message JET board is often not the best place to get answers to your specific situation such as your living situation or your duties as a teacher. Your predecessor, fellow JETs in your contracting organization, or a prefectural adviser are much better people to direct specific questions to than someone place in a prefecture half the country away.

2. No one in Japan knows what JET is
If you’ve been to Japan and have seen how they are with all things foreign, you would think the Japanese would know everything there is to know about this program that brings thousands of foreigners into their country every year. Alas, when you get to your placement, it’s doubtful anyone but your supervisor and maybe your fellow English teachers will know what JET is. Saying you’re here on JET will earn you blank stares from many of your co-workers, your students, and most certainly from that cute J-girl or boy at the bar. This is because you’re not employed by JET, you’re employed by your local government. Stick with telling people you’re an ALT or even “eigo no kyoushi”.

3. Sorry, there are no flying cars in Japan.
Yes, Japan is the home of innovative companies like Honda, Sony, and Toyota. And the streets of Shinjuku and Shibuya are lined with jumbo-trons several stories tall. But if you think Japan is all robot pets and toilets with more buttons than a DVD player, you will see otherwise pretty quick. Press the right button, and you can make an ATM do anything . . . except be open 24 hours. You don’t have to have a smartphone to have a cell that surfs the internet or plays TV, but you’ll probably have to pay extra for luxuries like voice mail and call-waiting. And at some point, the “Japanese-style” toilet is going to be your only option.

4. Pick up a hobby or two . . . or five
You will surely discover within a week of coming here that JET can offer you a good amount of downtime. Between the 8-4(ish) schedule, the obscene number of Japanese National Holidays, and the way schools change schedules and cancel classes with reckless abandon, you may often find yourself with nothing to do, especially at the end of terms. Think you can go home early when all the afternoon classes are canceled? Well, a few JETs may have schools nice enough to do that, but the rest will be stuck at their desks. Now, you can sit and stew about having nothing to do, or fill your time with other activities. I suggest bringing a few books (paperback, and maybe something you’re willing to leave behind when you’re done with JET) or taking up writing or sketching at your desk. It’s also a great time to study either Japanese or some other correspondence course (after you’ve done everything you can do job wise of course, I’m not advocating slacking on the job).

5. Just because your JTE teaches English . . .
I taught at junior high school, and while most of the teachers I taught with were proficient at English, there were a couple whose English level seemed to only be a lesson or two ahead of the students. These teachers had super “katakana-ized” pronunciation, used worksheets with glaring mistakes on them, and couldn’t answer even basic English questions (protip: avoid using “or” when talking to Japanese people). As for the elementary schools I taught at, the number of teachers who could hold more than a simple conversation in English ranged from zero to maybe 2 or 3 people.

Despite English being mandatory for secondary students, Japan’s TOEFL scores (Test of English as a Foreign Language) are consistently below the international average and among the lowest in Asia. There are any number of reasons for this low English proficiency, and a big part is an education system that’s still very much all about learning by rote and passing entrance exams.

Anyway, my point is you are going to be your JTE’s best English resource. You’ll likely be the only native English speaker they talk to on a regular basis, and you’ll be the only person that can help make sure they’re actually teaching correct, natural sounding English and not a Japanglish mess. So be available to your JTE, try to understand their situation, and don’t be afraid to be the one to initiate things.

6a: No, you’re not guaranteed up to 5 years on JET
As far as Assistant Language Teacher positions in Japan go, JET is pretty stable, and most ALTs are able to work as long as they want up to the 5 year limit. However, their positions are at the mercy of their contracting organization’s budget, and it’s certainly not uncommon for a JET to learn their school/BOE won’t be keeping them for another year. Fortunately, most ALT are told whether or not their town will keep them around re-contracting form distribution time, which is in October, giving the JET plenty of time to apply for transfers. But there is the occasional story of a contracting organization not breaking the news until well after the transfer request deadline that they won’t be keeping their JETs on. It’s not common, but it happens, which is why communication with your CO and supervisor is very important.

Also, being offered a fourth and fifth year is entirely at the discretion of your CO, and you may be in a city that only offers 3 years. You can apply for a transfer then, but keep in mind if there are a lot of JETs requesting transfers in your prefecture, people in their 1st or 2nd year are often preferred over 3rd or 4th years.

6b: You can’t transfer for the heck of it:
When I browse JET message boards and posts, I’m always surprised at the number of JET hopefuls that ask if they have the option of changing placements “to get a new experience”. Then I laugh a little and think “Oh, you have much to learn, grasshopper.” With your JET placement, what you’re given is what you get, and you will be in that placement for the duration of your time on JET. That said, there is a possibility of transferring either to another prefecture or within your own prefecture (the latter is far more common). Transfers are generally approved for the following reasons

  • the JET’s contracting organization is cutting the position
  • the JET wants to be closer to his/her [Japanese] spouse and/or the spouse’s family
  • for health reasons (such as being closer to a medical center)

You cannot transfer just for a change of scenery, or because you want to teach a different age group, or because you don’t like your town or schools*. You either have to make the most of your situation or find a new, non-JET job.

*Of course, if you are facing a serious issue at your work such as sexual harassment, verbal abuse, or anything that you feel is threatening your safety, and it’s an issue where a transfer becomes the best option, you may be granted an exception to the general transfer rules. You may be able to arrange a transfer outside of the usual transfer deadlines. Talk to a Prefectural Adviser right away.

7. Dating in Japan: Yes, it’s easy for guys. No, it’s not as difficult for girls as you’ve heard.
Seriously, guys, you don’t need to go onto message boards and embarrass yourself by asking for tips on dating Japanese girls. If you’re foreign and not a complete anti-social nerd, you can get a Japanese girlfriend. Being tall, super genki, and light haired/eyed does help but none of these are requirements. Now whether you have a meaningful relationship, or just end up being a gaijin accessory that provides free English lessons comes down to you.

As for girls, we face a little more of an uphill battle. The stereotypical image of an international relationship in Japan is “Foreign Guy + Japanese Girl”, and this image is perpetuated by Japanese and foreigners alike. If media and message boards are to be believed, the romantic life of a female JET is akin to a Forever Alone comic. Hell, even the JET Guidebook basically tells female JETs to not expect to land a date in Japan, much less find love.

But I’m here to say the reports of female foreigners leading fruitless love lives are grossly exaggerated. This may be shocking to hear, but I did know several foreign girls who had *gasp* Japanese boyfriends in Japan. A few of them even got engaged and married. I also knew plenty of gaijin girls who hooked up with other gaijin guys in Japan. I personally was hit on and asked out much more often in Japan than back home. While dating in Japan may never be as easy for foreign girls as it is for a foreign guys, it’s far from impossible.

*Of course, this is all assuming you’re in a location that actually has other single young people around, which is often not the case in the more “inaka” placements,*

8. The word for “communication” in Japanese is “komyunikeishon”
What I mean by that is communication as we westerners know it is a bit of a foreign concept in Japan. We put value on being direct (to a point), asking questions, and voicing our opinions. The Japanese value maintaining the “wa” (harmony) and being part of the group, meaning their ways of communicating are much more subtle and indirect.

Unfortunately this results in plenty of miscommunication between JET and their coworkers. Most ALTs at some point are going to go to school one day only to find it closed, or get a call some Saturday and be asked why they are missing Sports Day or the Culture Fair. Or an ALT will think everything is going great with their lessons, until their JTE cancels their part of the lesson and they learn, likely from a third party, that the JTE didn’t think the lessons were effective, or that some students felt it was going too fast. Some ALTs try to ask for evaluations from their fellow teachers, but this often proves fruitless as Japanese people don’t like to criticize or to be in any potentially confrontational situation.

To handle this, I recommend a mixture of acting more Japanese but also exerting your Western “boldness”. When you think a teacher has an issue with you, don’t ask them directly, but rather try mentioning, in an indirect way to another person, that you’re worried you’re not doing a good job . Usually this gets to the teacher you have an issue with and they will come to you, directly or indirectly, and tell you what they’d like to change. As for the more ‘black and white’ issues, like not being told about school events or cancelled classes, don’t be afraid to go to a teacher at the beginning of the week and asking if there’s anything you need to know. It’s not how the Japanese would do it, but screw it, you’re a westerner and you can be bold and direct if you want. (I also recommend asking for and learning to read the morning meeting summaries, they often time tell you all the information you need).

look for more tips in this article

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2 thoughts on “Things to know about JET and Japan

  1. Hi
    Thanks a ton for your info, its awesome. You mention that it is good to have an idea of where you would like to end up, is there a list of site locations or cities that the JET program puts its participants? Or is it just to look up regional locations in general? I would like to start researching different places to go, but I am unsure which exact cities JET puts its teachers in?
    Thanks
    Cole

    • Hey Cole – the JET pamphlet has a section where it says how many JET are in each prefecture and major city, that will gives you a good idea of where JETs are more likely to go. Here’s a link – http://www.jetprogramme.org/e/current/pubs/pamphlet.html
      If you want any placement information more specific than that, some prefectures have an AJET site with more info, you can try various forums too. And while it’s good to research and have a reason for your placement requests, I advise you not to get your heart set on one particular prefecture or city too much. A lot of people do get their 1st choice, but probably just as many get placed in the opposite side of the country from their choice.
      Good luck!

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