The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (ak.a. the JET Programme) is dedicated to “promoting grass-roots international exchange between Japan and other nations.” The JET Programme is a very well known and well established English teaching program in Japan, but it also has other positions. Coordinators for International Relations (CIRs) work in communities on international exchange activities and Sports Exchange Advisors (SEAs) who promote international exchange through sports. I went through the application and interview process in the year 2010, so perhaps some things have changed since then. Be sure to check the website for more up to date information.
I’ve been asked over the years about some specific aspects about the process, so I’ll share my version of the events that led me to Japan and the JET Program.
To get an application, first visit the website for the Embassy of Japan in your country. Since I came from the United States, I’ll be discussing that specific process, so if you’re from another country this information might be a little off from your nation’s way of doing things. Deadlines will be different from country to country so be sure to check on those.
When it comes to the Main Application Form, I can tell you that I agonized over every little detail. I stuffed that thing with as many achievements I possibly could, along with club activities and volunteer work. I expressed my interest in Japan, and I was able to put down that I studied abroad there for a month the previous year.
People applying often ask me if study abroad or Japanese language experience is necessary for acceptance. The answer to that is no, you don’t need Japanese to be an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT). In fact most people who come to Japan know little to no Japanese as ALTs, so you don’t have to worry about that aspect of the application. Whether or not you know Japanese will have very little to do with whether or not you get a position.
CIRs and SEAs require a high Japanese ability, as in fluent or at least business fluent (equivalent JLPT N1 or N2).
I know several JETs that have come to Japan with absolutely no experience living or studying abroad. Some people have never even traveled much outside their home state/ providence/ what have you. Also, you don’t need an English or teaching degree. All ALTs must have a Bachelors degree or higher, but teaching experience is not necessary. If you have any experience with any of these things, I would definitely recommend putting that down on your application.
If you don’t, just do your best to put in all the relevant information you can. Believe me when I say that without experience you can still get in. In my Group A (the first group that arrives in Japan in August), there were photography and history majors who never taught a subject before coming to Japan. Everyone has a shot of getting in, so don’t give up just because you think you’re somehow not qualified because you might be surprised who does and doesn’t get into the program.
When it comes to who should give you a recommendation, go with the professors at your college that know you best. I was able to see mine in person to give them the recommendation form, but if you can’t have face to face interaction be sure to leave them with some basic information about the position you’re applying for and what the program is all about. Some professors know it and others don’t, so try your best to make sure they can write up a good recommendation that is relevant to your specific job position and interest in the program instead of spending time having to research what you need from them.
I believe the essay portion, the Statement of Purpose was perhaps the hardest part for me. I wrote it and re-wrote it like ten times before I finally sent it off. The essay is two pages in English, so DO NOT SHOW OFF JAPANESE ABILITIES HERE. Also, if it’s more than two pages, it will get tossed in the trash. You should write down any and all Relevant Experience. For example, in my essay I wrote about how I went to Japan in the summer of 2010 and read to an elementary school class “The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar” in English. That would be considered an applicable experience for the ALT position. Don’t write something irrelevant, such as how going to Cancun made you want to travel more from those two weeks you spent there during spring break. That has nothing to do with wanting and getting a job. You should also add in professional skills, relevant interests and personal qualities, and how you feel these will be useful to you as an ALT.
You should also include Motivation for Participation, which is basically answering the question, “Why do you want to come to Japan as an ALT (on the JET Program)?” For me, I actually spent a page and a half going over the why first and then adding relevant experience at the end. I discussed my experiences studying abroad and how they affected me on a personal level. You also add in what you “hope to gain, both personally and professionally, and what effect you hope to have on the Japanese community and internationally as a result of your participation in the JET Program.” Meaning, what do you hope you can achieve for others, as in teachers, students, neighbors, etc.
Do yourself a favor and have people read over your essay before you send it in and get their feedback. Besides checking for punctuation and grammar errors, your friends/ professors/ parents can also point out some qualities about yourself that you might’ve missed.
The rest of the application as I recall was a long chore list of getting a bunch of documents and copies done. For the medical check you can go to your nearest clinic for the medical release form. The clinics do these kinds of physical exams all the time, so it’s very routine for them. Actually, if you’re really lucky, your university might have a doctor that can do it for you (one of my friends went to med school and got it done for free). If you have health insurance, you should just have to pay the fee for the appointment and that’s it. Mine cost just $25. Send out for the FBI background check ASAP. That stupid piece of paper nearly made me late to send in my application, so be sure you give yourself at least two weeks if not longer to get it sent and returned.
The deadline for the application in my year was at the end of November, but this year it was December 3rd. Be sure to double check all the deadlines and mark them on your calender so you don’t forget. Also, double and triple check all your documents before send off. Usually it’s not a big deal if you’re missing just one page. They will contact you if, say, you just forgot the copy of your transcript (Yes, I did that), but better safe than sorry.
Protip: Make copies of everything you send off for yourself. You’ll need it all later.
The Long Wait
From November to January is the waiting period, where you essentially bite your nails and hope you get an email confirmation for the job interview. During this time, which should be winter vacation for you undergrads, I recommend going ahead and study some basic Japanese. You don’t have to be fluent or anything, but go ahead and hit the internet for basic survival phrases and key terms you’re going to need if indeed you do come to Japan.
For example, “Konnichiwa! Hajime mashite. Watashi wa Jessica desu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!” Hi, how do you do! I’m Jessica. Nice to meet you.
Learn, love it, because you might just live it.
When you get the call or email for an interview, congratulations! You are nearly half way done. Now, it’s time to prep and do the interview. Firstly, before you even go, read up on other people’s experiences on what they went through. I’ll share my story, but trust me it will help to get the whole big picture of what to expect by reading other blogs as well. The interview can be anything from a simple job interview to a long interrogation over every little detail on your application. It really varies in the degree of difficulty.
People often ask what to wear to the interview, and my answer is essentially formal suit wear. You will need a suit anyway for formal events at your school, so believe me it will pay for itself in the end. If you can’t afford a suit (I actually couldn’t at the time), then just wear your best clothes available to you. Go for a button up shirt and black pants/ skirt if you can’t do the suit. Ask to burrow something from friends or hit the second hand store if you’re really strapped for cash. Try to avoid loud colors like yellow or neon green (why you would wear neon green, I don’t know, but apparently this happens sometimes).
Now, remember I said make copies of everything you sent off? Your homework for before the interview is to memorize everything you wrote for that application. Yes, including your essay. I actually got asked several questions about my study abroad experience, and the interviewers said something wrong and I corrected them. I believe it was, “So I bet you really liked Osaka.” and I responded, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t study in Osaka, I studied in Kyoto at the women’s college. I believe I wrote that down.” And the interviewers all gave me sly grins. It turns out that they’ll sometimes do that to see if you’re paying attention and how you will handle a situation like that. Be careful of the traps!
Also, hit up other blogs to see what questions other people got asked at their interview. Make a list of the questions and write out some answers. If you want, you can also do a run through with a friend or two, making them be an imaginary interviewer.
I had to drive up to Chicago from Kentucky in order to go to my interview. You get to choose the Embassy where you’d like to be interviewed, and for me at the time it was Chicago. In hindsight, I wish I’d just flown from Lexington to Chicago O’Hare because I could’ve used that time to relax instead going through the stressful ordeal of Chicago city traffic (yuck). And that’s my recommendation to you. Try to go the path that doesn’t require a fight to get to where you want to go. You don’t want to be stressed out and possibly late to your interview. The thing I did right was stay the night in Chicago in a hotel near the Embassy so I could just walk 5 minutes to get there the next day. One guy decided to travel and interview all in one day. He arrived an hour late and missed his chance.
When it comes to how early you should be there, I recommend actually getting there at least an hour earlier. Because the other guy didn’t show up, I got called in to take my interview instead of him (poor guy). The interview room was a simple little square space. I got three people to interview me: an American man, an American woman, and a Japanese man. They were very polite and we all shook hands and the interview began.
For me, they asked simple questions first, just double checking everything I wrote down on my application. Then, they moved on to harder questions, just as, “If you lived in a rural area without many resources, what kind of lessons would you prepare?” and “What’s your favorite Japanese movie?” and “Where would you like to live in Japan and why?” (My answer to the last one was, “NOT TOKYO!” which made them all laugh. Oh, the irony).
Be honest with your responses and keep a calm head. Don’t panic if they ask a difficult question and take your time thinking it over if you need to do so. The interview is over when it’s over, there’s no set time. Don’t attempt to make yourself seem more worldly than you actually are and don’t try to pretend you already know everything there is to know about Japan. It looks really bad and arrogant if you’ve never even been outside of your home country to act as if you’re an expert on the country, especially if one of the interviewers happens to be Japanese. I actually asked the Japanese interviewer if he’s ever been to Kyoto and what he liked there. We compared notes and he gave me recommendations for new tourist spots. Be engaging with your interviewers. Anime is an obvious part of Japanese culture that most people know, but don’t make the mistake of speaking like anime is all there is to Japanese culture. Being an otaku is fine, but just remember that anime is fiction and Japan is real, so don’t get the two confused.
Lastly, the Japanese man asked me some basic questions in Japanese. I believe I answered two out of five, mainly because I was just so nervous. Funnily enough, I remembered all the answers later when I got in my car to go home. Don’t worry about the Japanese part of the interview! Most people don’t do well. They just want to see how you handle it, not really if you’re good or not. One question, at least, will be a hard question. When it is, just say, “Sumimasen, wakarimasen.” and don’t try to answer it if you have no idea what’s going on. Don’t try to fake your way through it.
My interview lasted about an hour and then I was dismissed. Some people will have an interview that only lasts thirty minutes and others can have an interview for an hour and a half. It really depends on the interviewers and the schedule for that day in whatever city.
Good luck and do your best!
Living in Limbo
It can be very hard for the next month or two waiting to hear back from the Embassy. If you’re in your last semester of college, you’re probably already stressed out enough as it is just trying to make sure you graduate. Thesis papers, senior projects, and all that noise can be hard to deal with during this time. You’ll feel strange, like you’re on a balance beam and if you tip to one side to hard you’ll go crumbling down. Seniorities and burn outs might hit you here (or might not. I actually never burnt out, surprisingly).
If you can, I still say make time for Japanese whenever possible. Just a little here or there can really go a long way for when/if you get plopped down into a foreign country. You may end up in a big city where it’s not as necessary, or you might end up in an inaka (countryside) area like me where it’s essential to your daily life. Try and get an hour every other day, if you can.
Acceptance / Alt. Listed/ Rejection
If you get accepted, congratulations! You’re joining the awesome ranks of the JET Setters and moving to Japan. Enjoy the euphoric feeling of having a job after college (contracted for at least one year, hooray!), with the possibility of staying for up to five years.
Now, you should get in contact with your predecessor soon. He/She should help you with the transition and move. Usually the predecessor will be able to tell you what you should bring over and what costs will be expected once you get there. Your supervisor may also get in contact with you and will send over the contract for you to sign and send to him/her. So get to packin’ your bags and have fun!
I was put on the alternative list before I was accepted. Why? I have no idea, but sometimes it happens like that. I got the email and felt down about it for about two weeks. I felt really dejected, mainly because I didn’t have a backup plan for if JET fell through. So with that, let me give this piece of advice: Have a backup plan! If you’re really set to go to Japan, there are other organizations such as Interac that can you can apply to as well.
But if you get Alt. Listed there is hope. After a couple of weeks, I got an email telling me that they got a position for me in Japan. I believe my first reaction was to jump out of my seat, squeal like a five year old, and do a ridiculous victory dance that thankfully no one saw. You may have to wait another couple of months before a position opens up for you, but it is possible.
If you are rejected, it will feel like a punch to the gut. You just spent the better part of a year trying to get this job and now it’s all for nothing. However, if you got to the interview, I’d imagine there just weren’t enough spots that year. You can try again for next year, which yes will require several more months, or you can go through another program. Don’t give it up if it’s your dream to come to Japan. There are other ways to get you here.
The JET Programme can seem a bit daunting to get into, but I do believe it’s worth it. This experience has been absolutely amazing for me, so I hope that you’ll take the chance to try. God bless and good luck!