When talking to people back home in America, I get a lot of general "What is the JET program?", "What is an ALT?", "What the hell is your job?" "Why do people pay you?", "Are you a volunteer?", "But you majored in Computer Science, why are you teaching English?" type questions. This entry will be an attempt, although certainly doomed to failure, to answer all of these questions.
What is the JET Program?
The JET program stands for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program. It is run by the Japanese government (with three separate ministries sticking their fingers into its rules and regulations), and is a program intended to enhance cultural exchange and English education in Japan.
At least... thats the official definition. But, it turns out, even the official definition varies fairly dramatically depending on who you ask (there is also a lot of verbiage about cultural exchange and internationalization, but that element seems to be increasingly less central). The casual definition would be that its an organization that hires native English speakers to teach English in Japan (it also has some other jobs available, but something around 90% of the jobs are in teaching English). This year there are around 6,000 JETs employed in Japan.
So you work for the JET Program?
Sort of. Technically my contract is with my local Board of Education, and I am not in the official employ of any of the three Japanese ministries that run the JET program. So, I am a JET, but I don't work for the JET Program. Although the JET Program did hire me. Weird. I know.
Which makes your job what exactly?
I am an ALT. An Assistant Language Teacher. Sometimes you'll see ALTs referred to as AETS (Assistant English Teachers), but at some point someone realized that ALT was more politically correct and thus the acronym was altered (also, it should be acknowledged that a very, very small minority of ALTs are actually teaching a language other than English, usually French, Chinese, Spanish or Portuguese).
Some ALTs teach at senior high schools. Some teach at junior high schools. Some teach at elementary schools. Some teach at a number of schools. Sometimes an ALT is shuffled among ten or more schools, and only sees each school once or twice a month. Some ALTs teach at only one school. The faux-meaningful description of the job of an ALT is ESID: Every Situation Is Different. This is the refrain to the chorus if you were ever so reckless as to compare your situation to another, or complain, or make any remark that could be construed as negative.
What I do at any specific school varies tremendously. At my elementary schools I choose the content of my lessons, design lesson plans, and have free reign (barring mutiny by children or teachers). This is not how it is supposed to be, ALTs are supposed to be assistants, but the reality is that most elementary school teachers have no knowledge of English, and thus feel uncomfortable participating in the teaching of English. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your outlook (that pretty much describes everything you may encounter as a JET).
At my middle schools my role is much more limited. I am occasionally asked to prepare something for class. Meaning that I occasionally have some purpose to my time at the middle school, but I am typically used for pronunciation and only for pronunciation. As such I spend about twelve hours a week standing in a classroom and repeating words or standing in corners. This is not particularly glorious.
How long do ALTs teach? Are you on a contract?
JETs sign one year contracts. It is possible to renew the contracts for up to five years, with certain stipulations. First and foremost, you can only renew if your Board of Education (and/or your school, depending on your specific situation) allows you to. The word on high is that it requires a catastrophic failure to be denied the opportunity to recontract. Among other things, it is much cheaper to recontract an ALT than it is to contract a new one, so there are incentives to keep you around if possible.
You get your recontracting form in the first couple weeks of October (we have already received ours, despite being here for less than three months...), but you don't have to submit them until February 8th (excluding atypical circumstances). Its not very convenient to have to decide upon recontracting six months before your contract ends, but... thats part of the cost of doing business with such a large program.
Why do people join the JET program?
The three reasons I hear the most frequently as:
To develop proficiency in the Japanese language.
Because they have no idea what they want to do, but they want to be paid while they figure it out.
To gain experience in education.
There are other, worse, reasons why people join the JET program. In particular some elements of the JET program are transfixed with elements of Japanese pop culture to the extent of making it hard for them to conduct conversations on any other topic. Please don't come to Japan because you love anime. Thats like going to America because you loved Seinfeld. Its setting yourself up for failure, and you'll probably take some other people with you.
Why did you join the JET program?
I wish I had a more sound-byte worthy answer to this question. At the orientation in Atlanta one of the presenters said we ought to spend our time on JET finding an answer to this question. I had some explanations coming into JET, but after being here they feel much more akin to excuses than explanations. So... at this point I am still looking for an answer to this question. Which I should probably finish doing as soon as possible, since I get asked this question by everyone who meets me.
Speaking of being paid... what is the compensation like?
Compensation is one of the areas where Every Situation is Different gets bandied around... a lot. All participants in JET get a salary of 3,600,000 yen per year. Which means 300,000 yen per month. A bit of that is deducted towards paying into the national health system, and also into the pension system, so your take home pay might be closer to 270,000 yen per month. This is roughly $2,500 US, depending on exchange rates, and is a comfortable wage. How comfortable though... that depends hugely on your specific placement.
Simply put, if you live in the countryside, your money is going to go much further. Coupled with that, placements in the countryside tend to have more economic perks (very low or free rent, low cost of living, nothing to spend your money on anyway, etc). I have heard of ALTs paying rent of 50,000 yen per month (around $450 US, and others paying 1800 yen (around $16 US). It really varies. Of course the quality of your living arrangement will vary a lot too.
Taxes vary depending on how many years you have been in Japan, and what country you are from. Americans are essentially income tax exempt for the first two years on JET, and then begin paying Japanese income tax the third year. But tax matters are pretty confusing, so... take this with a grain of salt.
Other than ALTs, what other jobs does JET offer?
There are two others: CIRs and SEAs. CIRs (Coordinators of International Relations, give or take a couple of words) require a fairly high level of Japanese proficiency, and their job is not very defined. They do whatever they are told to do, essentially. Usually they are working for a municipality and do a lot of translation, but some CIRs end up teaching English too. There simply are not very many CIR positions though. For the most part you will need to have passed the 1 kyu level of the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), which means ~2000 kanji, maybe 10,000 word vocabulary, and strong grammatical, listening, and reading skills.
The third position is the SEA, which stands for something like Sports Exchange Advisor. There are very, very few SEA positions, and some years they simply don't take any applications because there are no positions to fill. In order to even be eligible as an SEA you need to be an Olympic level athlete. I have only met one SEA, and I think he was from Germany and played volleyball. This is not a reliable job prospect.
How do you become a JET?
You have to apply through a local embassy, along with being a native English speaker from a handful of specific countries (US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand are the biggest participants, with more than half of all JETs coming the US). Do you need some experience with the Japanese language? Nope. Do you need teaching experience? Nope. Provided you come from a participating country, you need to have three things:
A bachelors from a certified four year college.
A fairly high GPA.
Enough people skills to survive a shockingly easy interview.
That said, a whole lot more people apply for JET than are accepted. Less than half, maybe only a quarter of applicants are actually accepted. So... its not really a guaranteed gig either.
How do you like being a JET/an ALT/working in Japan/etc?
Ask me in August. At this point it has its ups and downs. I think this is true regardless of where you are, but its really the people that matter. When you have good people in your life, you'll like your situation. There are good people in my life.
Bonus Question: What about other English teaching jobs in Japan?
Unless you have extensive EFL (English as a Foreign Language) experience, this isn't the time for you to be looking into other English teaching jobs in Japan. The once sweeter-than-sweet honey pot of English teaching in Japan has lost much of its glow, and there is some intense speculation that NOVA, one of the largest private English schools in Japan, may be forced to shut down before the end of the year. This means that all of their teachers are flooding the market searching for other jobs. This has always been a hit or miss industry... and appears to be getting even shakier.