The JET Programme

Michael Seidman

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Photo by Emily Haddad
Michael Seidman (top left) pictured with friends participating in Dontaku (Japanese festival)

The Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme has distinguished itself among a gamut of “teach English abroad” programs as one of the largest and most widely recognized of its kind since 1987. With more than 4,000 participants representing 40 countries, the program’s stated objective is to promote what its organizers call “grassroots internationalization,” or in layman’s terms, to foster greater understanding and exchange between program participants and the humble citizens of Japan.

Each year, hundreds of eager college graduates—having survived a long application process—are flown to Tokyo by the Japanese government. After a brief orientation, the students are whisked off to schools and offices throughout the country where they will work for one to five years as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs), Coordinators of International Relations (CIRs) or Sports Education Advisors (SEAs).

JET remains a highly competitive and popular choice among the ever-increasing number of college graduates looking to spend a year abroad. With the American economy still sputtering, a year working overseas appeals to many as a convenient alternative to gain professional experience while raking in a steady income. The program requires a Bachelor’s Degree in any subject and the native English-speaking ability most of us acquire by the age of 4.
Of arguably equal value to the yen earned on JET is the time and mental space afforded to participants. Many credit their time on JET with helping them hone in on professional interests. And while some JETs do inherit excessive-class schedules or work responsibilities, a vast majority report having enough on-the-job free time to pursue independent interests while in Japan such as applying to graduate school or working on a novel.

The enticing pay and employment benefits are not to be overlooked either. As public employees of the Japanese government, JETs are compensated generously, with a starting salary of 3.36 million yen (about $42,800) during their first year, with pay increases available to those who renew. JETs also receive private insurance coverage, which supplements Japan’s national system and jointly covers close to 100% of medical expenses. JETs can rely on an extensive safety net of peer advisors, counselors and a national support system to handle the inevitable culture shock and other surprises that arise with living in a foreign culture.

Most of all, the JET Programme offers a truly immersive Japanese experience compared with private alternatives. Participants are assigned to all areas of the country, from rural rice paddies to major metropolitan hubs and JET alums emerge from the program with a lifelong connection and deep cultural understanding of Japan. JET strongly emphasizes community involvement and meaningful cultural exchange, which the Japanese government hopes participants will take back and share in their home countries.

But JET is not without its shortcomings, and many of the very factors which set it apart from the private world also create pitfalls. As a government-run initiative, systematic bureaucracy and inflexibility characterize many aspects of JET administration. Most important information trickles down slowly from the central government, through the slew of offices and administrators. The Japanese take their bureaucracy seriously. Attempts to elude precedent or due process are met with almost universal resistance, regardless of intentions. It is not uncommon for JETs to be forbidden from driving to and from work, simply on the basis of precedent or perceived liability.

One of the largest stressors to many first-time teachers in the ALT position is scarcity of training. Most ALTs receive little more than a workshop or two during various orientations, and perhaps a few sample lesson plans before confronting a genuine classroom of 40 students who speak little more than the ubiquitous “I’m fine thank-you, and you?” To make matters worse, concrete feedback from coworkers can be nearly impossible due to the indirect nature of Japanese culture. Becoming a competent JET is a long process of trial and error lasting months or years.

JET applicants should also bear in mind the serious chance they will not receive placement in any of their requested areas as far more JETs are needed in small towns or villages than in well-known areas like Tokyo or Kyoto so many successful JETs end up with assignments in unexpected parts of Japan.

The JET Programme presents an unparalleled opportunity to those looking for a unique, challenging and rewarding experience abroad. JET attracts participants from all walks of life who share a desire to dive headfirst into the unknown with a deep breath and big, naïve smile. As the popular Japanese expression goes, ichi go, ichi e – “one life, one chance!”

Michael Seidman was a JET participant in Fukuoka Prefecture from 2008-2012. He worked as an Assistant Language Teacher at a public high school for 2 years, and for a subsequent 2 years as a Prefectural Advisor, serving as a peer counselor and advising the local government on the administration of the JET Programme. You may contact him with questions about the JET Programme at [email protected] Applications for the 2012-13 JET Programme are currently open and will be accepted through late November. For more information visit the official JET Programme website <http://www.jetprogramme.org> or the Consulate General of Japan at Chicago <http://www.chicago.us.emb-japan.go.jp/JIC/jet.html>.

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