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Why Do You Need a Plan B to the JET Program to Teach in Japan? It’s a Lottery!

I have decided to break my silence about my thoughts on the JET Program. Not everyone is going to like what I have to say. But for those looking for alternatives to the JET program, I hope this helps you see you are not alone.

If you are looking to work in Japan, I am sure by now you have heard of the famous JET program ran by the Japanese government. Before we get into this, I just want to say up front that I am not in any way against the program. Far from it. I think it is an excellent way to get a paid ticket to and from Japan. You will have more than your bases covered with the JET program. No doubt too you will have plenty of time to travel up and down Japan, to Asia and back. That being said, it has become a product of its own over-popularity. That coupled with a lack of knowledge of other options to work in Japan, tens of thousands of expats apply every year to the JET program and many are left with scratching their heads as to why they never get in.

Who am I to speculate? Just another gaijin ranting about JET? You could say that and I would have to say, guilty as charged. But you may want to listen to my point of view as I have some experience working in a Japanese consulate where we consulted with JET applicants. I have been on the applying side too (three times to count). On top of that, if it matters, I have the Japanese Language Proficiency Test level 1, have lived and worked in Japan for over 6 years and I have been a Japanese translator for over 5 years.

Why am I writing about this? Simple. At Live Work Play Japan we get emails and messages on social media asking us about the JET program on a monthly, sometimes weekly basis. I personally do as well. While I know more happy JETs than I can count on two hands, I know many more who applied and never got it. Sadly, some of those people gave up on their dream to go to Japan. All I want to say here is that not getting into the JET program is far from the end of the world. In fact, there is a huge world in Japan for you to explore. JET is just one of many paths to Mt. Fuji. And, it is isn’t always the best of them.

What is the JET Program?

Before I share my experiences, we should make sure we understand what is the JET Program and how does one even go about applying to it anyway.

Japan Exchange and Teaching program aka the JET program is number one on most people’s minds when they think of a way to get paid to live in their dream country, Japan. You get paid upwards of 3,000 dollars, get full benefits, a subsidized apartment, a pension and if need sometimes even a car! You work 5 days a week and if you teach, you get off all the same holidays as the students. Sounds like a sweet deal and, let’s be honest, it is.

You can find more information about the JET program at the official website here: http://jetprogramme.org/en/

Here from the JET program website itself, you can see the minimum requirements (these are for US citizens but will be similar for other participating countries):

All applicants must:
1. Be interested in Japan and be willing to deepen their knowledge and appreciation of Japan after their arrival; be motivated to participate in and initiate international exchange activities in the local community; make effort to study or continue studying the Japanese language prior to and after arriving in Japan.

2. Be both mentally and physically healthy.

3. Be a citizen of the United States by the application deadline.  If you are a permanent resident of the U.S. (living in the U.S. but not a U.S. citizen) you are not eligible to apply for the JET Program in the United States. Please contact the Embassy of Japan in your home country for information. Those who possess dual citizenship with Japan and the U.S. must renounce their Japanese citizenship before accepting a position on the JET Program and submitting the Reply Form.  Applicants who have dual citizenship in two countries (other than Japan) may only apply in one of those countries.

4. Hold at least a Bachelor’s degree or obtain such qualifications by the designated date prior to departure.

5. Have the ability to adapt to living and working conditions in Japan, which could be significantly different from those experienced in the applicant’s home country, and be able to responsibly complete the term of appointment.

6. Have excellent standard pronunciation, rhythm, intonation in the English language and possess excellent language ability that can be applied accurately and appropriately; have voice projection skills and public speaking skills; have other standard language skills, including strong writing skills and correct grammar usage.

7. Have not previously participated in the JET Program for three (3) years as of the year of departure, or have participated on the program for more than five (5) years in total.

8. Have not declined a position with the JET Program in the last program year after receiving notification of placement.

9. Not have lived in Japan for a total of six (6) or more years in the past ten (10) years prior to the year of departure.

10. Have an interest maintaining some type of relations with Japan, even after completion of the Program.

11. Agree to reside in Japan under the status of residence stipulated in Article 2-2 of the Immigration Control and Refugee Act when entering Japan for the purpose of JET Program participation (this applies primarily to military personnel or their dependents in Japan).

12. Obey all Japanese laws.

13. Have finished any periods of legal probation and/or paid any fines by the application deadline if a jail term was suspended.

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All of these seem quite reasonable.

Before we go any further, a few things also to note.

There is more than one type of JET.

1.  ALT – Assistant Language Teachers

As a JET, you have three options. You can be an ALT (Assistant language teacher) aka a language teacher. If that term still has you a bit puzzled, check out our post here where we go into more detail about the various types of teaching positions you can fulfil in Japan.

See here from the JET program website about JET ALT’s.

2. CIR – Coordinator for International Relations

This was what I thought was my absolute dream job post-college. It was probably what kept me studying so hard until I passed the Japanese language proficiency test level 2 while at university in Japan. One of my Japanese language professors at my university in the US used to be a CIR. Dr. Angles has translated countless Japanese modern literary hits and even won prizes for writing original Japanese poetry… in nihongo. I vowed to myself I would have no other position after college but the CIR.

According to the JET program website, “CIRs are engaged in internationalization activities and translation/interpretation, and are placed in administrative offices of local authorities or related organizations. This position requires a high-degree of fluency and positions are less than 10% of all JET Program participants. Their duties are carried out as specified by the supervisor at individual contracting organizations.”

3. SEA – Sports Exchange Advisors

This sounds like the coolest of them. Whatever these people do has got to be pretty fun. Basically, coaching sports. But from what I hear, you have to be pretty specialized in a high demand sport to do this.

The JET program website states: “SEAs work for local governments, coaching and promoting internationalization through the universal language of sports. SEAs are sports professionals whose role is to assist with sports training and the planning of sports related projects.”

Also note the disclaimer which basically says, this is no regular job position. You need to be a somebody in the sports world to get one of these positions: “Recruitment of SEAs differs greatly from that of ALTs and CIRs, and applicants to the SEA position must be recommended by either the participating country’s National Olympic Committee or another government organization.”

Wait. Didn’t you just say the JET program stands for Japan Exchange and TEACHING program? Yes. It basically may as well be. As the website states, upwards of 90% of JETs will be teachers, around 10% will be CIRs and SEAs must barely comprise of less than 1%.

Participating Nationalities in The JET Program:

Not all nationalities are eligible for the JET program. That being said, it is by no means limited to English speaking nations such as New Zealand and Canada. There are French JETs and even a large group of Chinese JETs teaching Mandarin in Japan. See here for a full list of participating countries with the JET program: http://jetprogramme.org/en/countries/

As you can see, the list ranges from Germany and the Philippines to Vietnam and Croatia. Happy to see Vietnam there by the way as I am writing this article as I sip on my mint tea in a cafe in Ho Chi Minh City. Unfortunately, to our audience members from mostly African, former Soviet block and central Asian countries, there are only a few exceptions on this list such as Russia, Uzbekistan, Kenya, and Mongolia. If your country is on the list, great news. You can apply.

Where can I apply? Start here: https://jetprogramusa.org/application/

Should you apply at all? That is a good question. Despite what I will say below, if your heart is set on being a JET, go for it. But weigh the opportunity costs! They are numerous and heavy.

The Opportunity Costs of Picking the JET Program Is Not So Insignificant

Waiting and waiting and waiting….

That is a good question. Despite what I will say below, if your heart is set on being a JET, go for it. But weigh the opportunity costs! They are numerous and heavy. You have wait nearly three quarters of a year to get in for one. In the meantime, you could land a for-sure gig in Japan.

Being Placed a Boat Ride, Plane and a Train Far Away from Where You Wanted to Go….

Credit to David Namisato for the picture.

Secondly, even if you get into the JET program, more than likely you will be sent to the middle of nowhere. Why is that? Well, think for a moment about supply and demand. It is quite simple really. Tons and tons of foreigners want to go to Tokyo, Osaka, and Yokohama to teach. Those areas have no problem finding eligible candidates.

But what about villages on the side of a mountain or little island towns that the Discovery Channel hasn’t even heard of? These areas are clambering for English teachers and for international exchange. Just know that these types of areas are the main concern for JET placements.

Yes, some very lucky JETs can get placed exactly where they request and even some in huge urban sprawls like Tokyo, but these are exceptions. Be happy to get into the JET program at all. If you are flexible on where to go and don’t mind being eons away from civilization possibly, you are gonna have an awesome journey. I mean that with all sincerity.

You do hear of lots of JETs getting famous on TV. Almost without exception, these are the ones off in the boonies. Some of them make a real awesome time of it. Look at this guy who gets famous for learning 山形弁 (Yamagata ben dialect).

Or look at this JET teacher getting into a Sumo wrestling tournament. These kinds of things don’t just happen in Tokyo. There is always another foreigner who is funnier than you, better at Japanese than you, or just who happens to be there when the opportunities come up. But in the countryside, you may often be the only foreigner anyone knows of. Got a festival coming up? You will be invited to be center stage. Sumo wrestling? Why not?

Can you guess who is the JET in this sumo tournament? Picture sourced from the Japan Times

So for sure. Being in the countryside has its benefits. However, if that isn’t for you, you may want to think twice before you go for the JET program. I know lots of people applying to JET because they have a significant other in a particular city. How much would it break your heart to have been placed in the same country as that person but yet be hours away by train or car?

My Experience on Both Sides of the JET Application Process

I remember working at a Japanese consulate. It was made very clear to me by all staff working with the applications that even one mistake may warrant your application being revoked. The process is all detailed again on the website. Double triple check every step before you send it in.

Did you follow all the directions without fail?

I would expect no leniency. Do your best.

Now here is my experience as an applicant:

I don’t want to toot my own horn but just for background, if you were looking for a qualified JET candidate, I was it. I had the JLPT level 2. Way better than most other applicants in regard to verifiable Japanese language ability and cultural understanding. Years of experience in and out of Japan. Homestay in middle school. Hosted almost a dozen Japanese citizens in my home before college. A full ride JASSO scholarship to study at a Japanese university (where I got excellent marks and even often was asked to volunteer as an interpreter). My uni staff must have asked me to interpret or help a foreign student at the bank or 市役所 (municipal office) over 20 times.

At 大東文化大学 Daito Bunka Univesity where I studied in Japan, my uni staff must have asked me to interpret or help a foreign student at the bank or 市役所 (municipal office) over 20 times. I was called to meetings when Softbank wanted to present cell phone contracts to our exchange students or for interpreting at university events. Maybe they called me because there weren’t many others to call. In any case, I had all this experience I could show on my application that I know very very few other applicants would have had.

I had even placed in Japanese speaking contests in Japan!In college in the US, I was in leadership activities and I graduated Cum Laude from my university. I could write Kanji with my eyes closed. I had it all. But no luck.

I was so ready for the interview. Got my hopes up every single time. By my second try, I combed over my applications with a silk comb. I had my professors look over my work. I applied three times and I was denied three times, no interviews. I was sure that if I could just get to the interview and talk in Japanese, it would be a downhill ride from there. Nope.

So I did what we all have to do at this point. I moved on. There is life without JET in Japan! I started teaching in Yokohama. Being in Japan lead to my first Japanese translation gigs. I worked in real estate in sales and ended up an interpreter being better compensated than JETs and I was in Tokyo!

And remember as I said above, how many JETs can even dream of working in Tokyo?

If you get hired at all, it takes near supernatural intervention to get an urban placement. Not knocking the 田舎 (inaka – country side) placements if you want those. Just saying a lot do and cannot get them because the 文部科学省 MEXT that runs the Japan Exchange and Teaching program places JETs mostly where few gaikokujin ever want to go. Places where you will be the only foreigner some locals have ever laid eyes on in life. People complain of being stared at in Tokyo enough. In these places, you will either have to be ok with that or you just shouldn’t go. Some love the attention. Private types will run to forums to complain.

So when applying for JET, consider the opportunity costs.

JET has great benefits. But the time to apply, waiting nearly a year before you hear a yes, being placed on the side of some mountain where there are no trains potentially…Forget Starbucks, there may only be a handful of conbinis and fields. Or, apply to schools and companies directly wherever you really want to go in Japan. Kyoto, Tokyo, Fukuoka, where is your heart set to go?

I would apply to both JET and other places if I had time. But if you get a decent job in Japan with somewhere else, why wait? Take the bird in the hand now, let the rare bird everyone else is in a mad dash for go.

If you want to know more about alternatives to the JET program and other ways of making a real career in Japan, check out our new book:

Smart Guide Teaching English Japan

The Smart Guide to Teaching English in Japan

I recognize I am not an expert on the JET program. I may have said something incorrectly here. If you were or are a JET, or if you are planning on applying, I hope this does not discourage you in any way. I just want for those looking for other options to know that there are and that JET is not the ideal path for all of us.

Speaking of alternatives, co-author of Live Work Play Japan, Charlie Moritz has just started his own school. Anything is possible. Don’t limit yourself to whatever you find on page 1 of Google.

Did you apply to the JET Program? How did your application go?

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