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The JET Programme: The Ins and Outs, the Good and the Bad

By Maia Hall Jul 30, 2019

What actually is the JET Programme?


You may have heard of the JET Programme… you may already know vaguely what it is, or perhaps someone you know is or has been a JET on the programme. But what exactly is it? Throughout my personal experience as a CIR for Kyoto Prefecture for two years, I learnt the ins and outs, the good and the bad about the programme. This article aims to break down the JET Programme for those who are curious, or maybe potential future hopefuls.



The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme 外国語青年招致事業, more commonly known as the JET Programme is an extensive initiative first set up by the Japanese national government that invites university graduates from across the globe to come to Japan in one of three roles: an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR), or a Sports Exchange Advisor (SEA). Its underlying aim is to promote grassroots internationalization among local Japanese communities and other countries and cultures, and is an important aspect of Japan’s international relations posture. JETs are employed on an initial one-year contract with the possibility of extending this to three years, or if they are ‘exceptional’ JETs and the contracting organization has the budget for it, up to five years in total.


JET is a very official programme, overseen by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Education, Cultures, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), is administered by the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR), and has a very long history too! The JET Programme is currently in its 32nd year and is also the largest teaching and exchange programme in the world.



The Assistant Language Teacher Role


Assistant Language Teachers make up more than 95% of JETs on the programme. ALTs are employed by prefectural and municipal Boards of Education (and some private schools) around the country and are stationed at elementary, junior high, and high schools as assistants in the language (predominantly English, but also some others such as German or Portuguese) classroom. An ALT will work alongside the Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) to facilitate English language and foreign culture education in the school and community.



The Coordinator for International Relations Role


Coordinators for International Relations are JET Programme participants who speak a high level of Japanese and are placed in local government offices, international centers, or other international organizations and committees to help the area with grassroots internationalization and to foster links with international bodies outside of Japan. Their duties are extremely varied, and include things like translation, interpreting, organizing events and activities for the public and the administration, assisting with the development of sister city relations, welcoming and attending to visiting foreign delegations, getting involved with sports initiatives or tourism, implementing their own creative projects, teaching English or other languages, facilitating international exchanges, writing, editing, and managing foreign language communications, creating regular newsletters, going to schools and community centers to talk about diversity and different cultures… the list goes on!



As with all of the roles on the JET Programme, depending on the placement of the CIR, their responsibilities can be extremely different and varied, from being out and about all day and every day, to sitting predominantly at a desk and working on complex translations. In fact, the unofficial motto of the JET Programme is: ESID, or Every Situation Is Different! For this reason, applicants are required to be flexible and open to new and perhaps unexpected things. CIRs are especially vital because of their high level of Japanese (you must be at least N2 level or equivalent to even apply).


The Sports Exchange Advisor Role


Sport is arguably one of the world’s universal languages – something through which people of any culture can connect and enjoy each other’s company. Although there are as yet not very many SEAs placed in Japan, these people are sports professionals (they must be either recommended by their home country’s National Olympic Committee or another government organization!) who coach children and adults and promote internationalization through physical activity. They are very much involved with training and the planning of sports related events and projects.



The Role of ALTs, CIRs, and SEAs Outside of Work


Of course, JET Programme Participants’ duties do not end once the bell chimes for the end of the workday. JETs are placed ALL over Japan, in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Whilst some are placed right in the middle of Central Tokyo and Osaka, other (perhaps more) are based in lesser known cities that are NOT tourist destinations, remote islands, isolated towns and rural villages. It is therefore extremely important for JET Programme participants to get stuck in as much as possible in their local communities, as this may be where they might even have the most impact! Interacting with and living alongside Japanese communities is something that the JET Programme sees as essential in Japan’s internationalization.


Whether this is joining a local cooking class or hiking group, making a real effort to learn and practice Japanese, participating in a community festival, learning a traditional instrument, volunteering at a local facility or center, or simply meeting people in nearby bars and restaurants and making friends and connections, the opportunities to truly integrate are endless.


Outline of the application procedure


Applying for the JET Programme can feel very daunting. The process takes almost an entire, and requires you to fill out numerous forms, documents, travel for an interview and many, many periods of extensive waiting! I remember feeling like I was going crazy waiting to hear back at each step, but the most important thing to remember is to try and keep yourself busy and distract yourself, so that when you do finally hear back it makes the wait feel all the more worthwhile.


All applicants must have graduated from university with at least a bachelor’s degree (in any subject). In order to be a CIR, you must speak at least N2 level of Japanese. SEAs must be recommended sports professionals. Also, bear in mind you cannot apply if you have Japanese citizenship or if you are from a non-participating country (although there is actually a total of about 40 of them).



The first step in the process is filling out the administrative application forms and writing the Personal Statement. This is an extremely important piece of writing that is your first opportunity to show off who you are as a person. Rather than focusing on why you are a great teacher (if you are one or are applying to be an ALT), or why you love Japanese and manga, or martial arts… whatever it is, I feel that it is important to demonstrate how your personality and your experiences so far in your life make you a suitable candidate to represent your culture and country in Japan and someone who could adjust and flourish in a new and potentially extremely different and challenging new environment. You need to show your enthusiasm for adapting to change and getting stuck into new things. That you can do well for yourself without being spoon fed, and embrace cultural difference, all the while naturally introducing your own experiences and cultures to Japanese communities in a way that is inviting and engaging. The deadline for these paper applications is usually between October and late November or early December, depending on the country you are applying from.



If you are invited to the next stage – the interview – you will receive notification of this in January. Your interview will take place in February and will be at your nearest embassy or consulate (you may have to travel further for CIR and SEA interviews). This is your chance to show who you are in person. Try to relax and answer as yourself, instead of tailoring your responses to what you think the JET Programme wants to hear.


You will hear back the result of your interview in late March or early April. If you have been selected, you will know whether you are an April or Summer departure. After your result notification, if you have been shortlisted, you will need to swiftly send off your reply form, health, and criminal background checks and then will hear back about your placements sometime in May or June!



After attending your Pre-Departure Orientation session in the nearest city to you, all that is left is to get ready to depart and head to Japan for your three-day Orientation in Tokyo before heading off to your placement to start your new life!



Pros of the JET Programme


In my experience, there are countless pros to the JET Programme. Being a JET was an invaluable test to myself to see if I could live and work as a ‘functioning’ adult in a foreign country where the language is not my native one, and make friends from scratch in a city I was not familiar with. Although I was lucky enough to be placed in the cultural and historical capital of Kyoto City, I still had to go out of my way to meet and engage with people in the community and learn about the many unique and beautiful traditions in Japan. Living by yourself in a new country is always challenging but the sense of satisfaction when you realize you have not only settled in but are thriving is second to none.



Another pro is that as a JET you are truly exposed to all kinds of people. The cultural exposure is of course priceless, as is the opportunity to meet people you would never usually encounter, from young children to older people with tales from time gone by, officials, teachers, leaders of the next generation of Japan… I often interacted with the Mayor and Governors of Kyoto Prefecture and got to meet scientists, artists, inventors, ambassadors, students, and other JETs from around the world.


As a JET, you are also blessed with the responsibility of being a role model for people around you in terms of open-mindedness and the eagerness to try new things and dive headfirst into new cultures and perspectives. Many of my CIR, ALT, and SEA friends love that they are always remembered by their students and colleagues and can serve as inspiration to them to venture outside of their local communities.


Being on the JET Programme also introduces you to ways of life in Japan that you would never encounter as a tourist. Being invited into family homes and be part of ancient customs, being cooked delicious local food, partaking in community festivals, even feeling frustrated sometimes at the minutiae of Japanese life, these are all experiences you can only have by staying in Japan long term. JET provides a great platform for this, made better also by a decent salary, employment benefits and support from lots of different angles.



Cons of the JET Programme


As much as JET is about embracing new things, some people end up dissatisfied with their placements, as it is very unlikely that you will end up in one of your stated preferences. This can be difficult, and alongside the discrepancies in people’s contracts and work and living situations, can cause people to feel isolated or disappointed and possibly even break contract.



Another con is that even if you absolutely LOVE being a JET, the maximum number of years you can stay on is five (possibly even just three). This means there is also always an underlying feel of temporariness, which can be frustrating for some.


Because of the nature of Japanese bureaucracy (and culture and society, to an extent), it can feel like things take an unnecessarily long time to get off the ground. Implementing new projects or ideas can feel painstaking and require a lot of patience and careful planning and negotiation. This means, however, that if and when you ARE successful with something, the taste of victory and satisfaction is just that much sweeter!


So is the JET Programme Worth It?


In the end, the JET Programme is what you make of it. What you put in; you will reap. As much as it is often criticized for its general structure and many bureaucratic shortcomings, there is no denying the impact the programme has had on local communities and the individual and personal level. Being a JET was one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of my life, and I made friends, new skills, and memories through it that I will carry with me forever.


For more information on the JET Programme, visit: http://jetprogramme.org/en/


Maia Hall // UK