Three years ago in October 2011, I was about to apply for the JET (Japanese Exchange Teaching Programme) and had a lot riding on it.
I’d been wanting to do JET for years, even though I’d never met anyone on it and didn’t really know how to get on it. All I knew was I wanted to try living in Japan and JET was regarded as the best way.
Fast forward a year to October 2012 and I found myself standing in front of 40 students, shaking in terror and going “Er….” during the day, whilst working on a YouTube video about Culture Shock in Japan during the evening.
Having been on JET for two years now, I can safely say it was the best life decision I’ve ever made. Honest to god, not a single day has passed and I’ve thought, “Damn, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” It’s been a bloody good two years.
However, when I cast my mind back to three years ago, I clearly recall over-analysing the internet for signs of how to get on to the JET programme and failing to to find much in the way of advice.
We had an ex-JET come to our University to promote the programme and afterwards I took him out for lunch to see if I could bribe him with sandwiches and discover “the secret” to getting on to the programme.
“I will literally give you anything,” I begged, handing him a premium ham and cheese baguette.
“Look,” he replied with a hint of irritation, “There is no secret. You just need to work hard on the application and hope for some luck. Now let me eat this baguette.”
I looked at him for a moment. He’d given me nothing of value.
I was consumed with a mixture of contempt and frustration.
And then I beat him to death with a spoon.
– Except part of this story may not have happened.
Ultimately though, I, like most people, don’t know the finer points of the selection process. Maybe a board of highly experienced individuals spends a ridiculous amount of time analysing each applicant.
Or maybe the applications are scattered across the floor, before the committee members dance over them all to the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. Then, when the music stops, whoever they’re stood on goes to Japan.
And whilst the latter process would certainly be more fun, I’m slightly more confident it’s the first one.
That being the case, here are some tips that I’m fairly certain will affect your ability to pass the application process, based on two years of first hand experience.
1. Teaching is the key.
If I was to give a ballpark figure (and this is the first time I’ve ever used the phrase “ballpark”), I’d say around 70% of the ALT’s I know on JET have teaching background or teaching experience in some capacity.
Maybe it’s through a TEFL course, or a module they took in their degree (as in my case), or maybe its through actual real classroom teaching experience. Sometimes it’s just an interest in a career in teaching.
Whilst the JET programme brands itself as the physical manifestation of grassroots internationalisation, the bottom line is you will be teaching in a classroom 5 days a week, hopefully for 3 or 4 hours a day. (And when I say teaching, I of course mean working as an assistant).
And first and foremost they’re looking for teachers who can motivate and inspire students to learn and use a language many feel they’ll never need to use.
If your application contains references to any TEFL you’ve taken, any mentoring experience you may have had, any class you’ve taught, any teacher training you’ve had, or any experience working with children or teenagers, then it will go a long way.
If your applying for JET in the future, take some time out to do an online TEFL course and it’ll seriously boost your chances.
And if there are those of you reject the idea of English teaching altogether – don’t. It’s serious fun. You might think its scary or difficult standing in front of 40 students, but after a few times, its far from scary. In fact, its made me a lot more confident in public speaking amongst other things. Don’t reject the notion of teaching out right though, as in my opinion it’s one of the greatest opportunities you’ll ever reject. I’m so passionate about this point I’ve already written an article on it. I mean look at the length of this damn hyper link for god’s sake.
2) Japanese Ability
It’s ballpark figure time again (making this the second time I’ve ever used the term “ballpark”).
I’d say around 50% of people I know on JET have experience with the Japanese language; albeit through University, through personal interest (as a hobby) or through previous experience in Japan.
Please note though, I said 50% had experience – not 50% of JET’s were fluent or even good at Japanese. Fluent speakers of Japanese on JET are quite rare (unsurprising given the time it takes to become truly fluent at Japanese). This can range from a few hours of classes, to a full blown qualification (e.g. JLPT test).
However, it’s certainly less important to have knowledge of Japanese than it is to having teaching experience or an interest in teaching, because as I mentioned before, the job is first and foremost working as an assistant language teacher.
Knowing Japanese shows you have a genuine interest in Japan, it means you’ll be able to adapt more easily when you’re randomly placed and it will prove invaluable in building relationships with locals outside work.
In my own case, I said I had no experience in Japanese except for a few hours of classes taken at Uni (in which I learnt how to say “This is a pen” and nothing else of real value).
But I made it clear that I was coming to learn with an aim to being fluent in a few years. I didn’t want to feel like a tourist the whole time I was here.
If you have a year or more to spare before you apply, get learning. It will also prove invaluable.
3. Show you are a GENKI Yes Man (or Yes Woman)
If you’ve already done your research on teaching in Japan, you’ll already have seen this word a disturbing number of terms.
And still probably won’t have a damn clue what it means.
Here’s what Genki means:
Healthy, Robust, Vigor, Vitality, Spirit, Energetic, Sausages.
Translated into actual real world terms, Genki means:
“Walk into every classroom situation, whilst being energetic, lively and more fun than a chocolate bouncy castle.”
Always smile, always be happy and friendly, always say “YES” when someone asks if you want to participate and make yourself feel ridiculously approachable by staff, students and strangers alike.
In the application process, highlight how “outgoing” you are. Demonstrate you are an optimistic, positive individual, in both the application and the interview.
There’s no doubt I went awkwardly overboard during the interview; I skipped into the room, shook hands with the interviewers for an uncomfortably long time, nodded and smiled so much I almost caused irreversible damage to my face and over-laughed at the interviewers every comment.
By the end of the interview, there can be little doubt the Japanese guy and British woman who were interviewing me thought I was insane.
But at least they probably thought I was genki.
Mention all the extra-curricular things you’ve done; sports clubs, charity work at Islamic Charities, hobbies, travel abroad, creative projects you’ve done.
Anything which shows you’re an outgoing, socially adaptable person.
Anything that shows you’re always willing to get involved.
Your work on JET will probably lead you into working in the community, be it at the local international centre for special events or helping in speech contests.
There’s an expectation you’ll say yes to lots of things and opportunities.
In my time on JET, I’ve run an English club at the local international center, participated in a Japanese speech contest for foreigners, given speeches to students at English speech contests, visited an orphanage and help run other various events outside work.
And each time has been an excellent opportunity for new experiences, meeting awesome people and feeling like I’m a part of the town where live.
Your past experiences and attitude will prove absolutely essential.
4. Be Disgustingly Flexible.
I think the fact that I’ve very rarely met someone on the JET programme who complained about where they were placed is testament the success of the application process.
I’ve met people who may dislike a colleague, I’ve met people who don’t like the 3 meters of snow they have to shovel off their doorstep in winter, and I’ve met people who don’t like the fact they’re not in a big shiny city.
But in all those cases, the people pretty much went “meh, oh well” and got back to having a good life. They didn’t mind where they were placed, they didn’t come into the JET programme with expectations of what would happen. They embraced the uncertainty and made the most of it.
Don’t forget JET is a very uncertain process.
You may end in a rice field on the northern edges of Hokkaido, or in a small city in an isolated region of Shikoku; but regardless of where you go, you’ll have incredible experiences and learn a lot along the way.
If you’ve already decided you want to live in Tokyo or Osaka, don’t bother signing up for JET. The odds are you will be placed somewhere you’ve never heard of (and a place most Japanese people won’t have heard of either).
The worst case scenario for JET is taking a new assistant language teacher, dropping them into a rural town and then having that person leave early as they’re uncomfortable. Therefore, JET tends to look for people who feel confident they can dropped into any situations and thrive.
It can be very terrifying. But its also deeply rewarding.
If you’ve already lived abroad you’ll have a major advantage, as it’ll act as proof you can comfortably adapt and work overseas.
With that in mind, if you say you’re happy anywhere, it should give you an edge over other pickier candidates.
In my own case, I’d been to Asia before (China), but I’d never lived abroad. However, I strongly expressed my desire to want to live overseas. I also made it clear I’d be happy to be placed anywhere – I liked the idea of being at the mercy of fate.
I recall in the interview process using the line “You can put me in cave in the middle of nowhere and I won’t mind. As long as it’s in Japan,” to illustrate the fact I’d be happy anywhere.
“There are no caves on the JET programme,” remarked one of the interviewers.
“But I think we see your point.”
5. The Application Process is Everything
You might be the greatest, most bestest, idealistic candidate in the world for the JET programme.
You might be able to speak fluent Japanese and teach blindfolded whilst beatboxing and simultaneously bringing laughter and smiles to millions worldwide.
But if you can’t demonstrate that in your application or the interview, with credible examples and evidence, you’re in for disappointment come next April.
The JET programme is reasonably competitive and gradually increasing year on year. You can’t afford not to write the greatest application, detailing everything you’ve done and every reason you should be chosen.
Above, I’ve listed what I believe to be the four most essential pieces of personal experience you’ll require to get on to JET.
You may confidently have all four, but if you can’t demonstrate that in the application process then its all for nothing.
Invest some serious time in thinking up your personal statement, do not miss the deadlines and be punctual for your interview.
If you’re applying this year, I wish you all the best in your application and if you’re applying in the near future, now is the time to start studying Japanese, taking a TEFL, begin working abroad for a short time or doing anything of extracurricular value to bank yourself a position.
It will all count in the end and most importantly, it’ll all have been completely worth it when you’re sat on an airplane headed for Tokyo in August for a life of magic, adventure and rice.
Godspeed in your application and good luck.