By far the most common is the Assistant Language Teacher (ALTs). ALTs work in designated city or regional primary and/or secondary schools with a Japanese Teacher of English (JTEs)."
Previously, I had mentioned Japan’s range of visa options, including the Trusted Traveller Programme, start-up visas, and visas for fourth-generation ethnic Japanese. However, the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (popularly known as the JET Programme) is another to add to the list; and it is one of the world’s largest language exchange programs. While international work exchange appears to be more common today, Japan was decades ahead of its time - despite JET being conceived in 1987 in part to temper trade tensions between the United States and Japan as a rising economic giant.
Although issues like dual citizenship, living and working overseas, and international banking and commerce are the norm for many expatriates in Japan, not all expatriates see it this way and often view Japan as another world to experience. The JET Programme is one such program for many after university or college graduation, some pursuing a long-held desire to live and work in a country responsible for Pokemon, video games, walkmans, Playstation, manga, Hello Kitty, sumo wrestlers, and even naked man festivals.
What do JETs do?
JET participants work in one of three roles. Coordinators for International Relations (CIRs) must have proficiency in Japanese and work in local government offices assisting with international exchange activities and in organising local events. Sports exchange advisers (SEAs) coach and help plan sport-related projects. By far the most common is the Assistant Language Teacher (ALTs). ALTs work in designated city or regional primary and/or secondary schools with a Japanese Teacher of English (JTEs).
ALTs may be designated at a one or two schools (base schools), or rotate among several schools in a particular municipality. The number of ALTs in a given area usually depends on the local demand for English education teachers. The more rural the placement, the more Japanese teachers and communities speak little if any English, so effective communication among colleagues will be challenging if you have limited Japanese skills (although Japanese proficiency is not necessary to apply). Sometimes, you may find that individual schools are culturally-resistant to the idea of an ALT as good as their intentions may be, and ALTs can often find that there is limited understanding of, and little training for ALTs and Japanese teachers in English instruction and practice.
Stephanie, an ALT fluent in Japanese who has lived in Japan since 2015, says of her experience, “...It can sometimes be quite challenging to find a comfortable and effective working dynamic between an ALT and JTE. Some JTEs aren’t accustomed to using and teaching English, and it’s also common for ALTs to have little teaching experience prior to their appointment on the program. My stint on JET has taught me a great deal how to think on my feet and be proactive, both in the classroom and in general.”
What kind of visa is needed?
ALTs, CIRs and SEAs are issued with a three-year working visa. Typically, JET participants are interviewed at their local Japanese Embassy or Consulate. Completing this process often means handing over your passport for visa processing which takes place over a few weeks. This might be a problem if you need your passport during this time for any other reason. It is possible to bring your family, i.e. spouse, children, etc., under a Dependent visa. However, unmarried couples (defacto, boyfriend/girlfriend or engaged to be married) and same-sex partners are not eligible.
It’s no bed of cherry blossoms
Stephanie (ALT), says that being on JET is a rewarding but very challenging experience. “As a female, I’ve often had awkward advances from Japanese men...and although I studied Japanese culture and language, it’s still shocking to have teenage boys ask inappropriate personal questions. I live in the countryside, so in my experience, Japanese workplaces and Japanese students can often have poor awareness of foreign cultures, but I take this in stride, and use this as an opportunity to learn and to educate.”
Your connections in the JET community are critical
JET is an opportunity to be immersed in Japanese society and culture. Aspiring JETs should make strong connections with their fellow JETs. Stephanie advises, “Making connections, not just with the local community, but with other JETs is helpful, because it’s an opportunity to learn from others’ experiences, especially when it comes to navigating Japanese culture. It isn’t always easy here - living abroad - but developing friendships and connections is one way to understand your local placement on a more intimate level. There's so much for us to share within the JET community and, simultaneously, learn from other fellow JETs all around Japan.”