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Non-Teaching Jobs in Japan: Coordinators for International Relations on the JET Program
Work in Japan - Without ESL
Working in Japan not teaching English is something many foreigners living in the country hope for. ESL is the biggest industry for many non-Japanese to work in - both for native and non-native speakers.
Still, many don't mind working at Eikaiwa (English conversation) schools or public schools, but such positions come with limits. Most jobs will have you teaching on temporary contracts, with no room for advancement.
An excellent way to travel or get your foot in the door, sure - but what about people with a long-term interest in the country who want to put their language skills to use?
Such people can always apply to be a Coordinator for International Relations on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. JET is mainly known as an English teaching program, but around 10% of participants work as CIRs - Japanese fluent foreigners working in government offices, responsible for a wide range of tasks including translation, interpretation, event planning, and article writing.
Applying to be a CIR can be an excellent way to get true office experience in the country - and it can open more doors than English teaching, especially for those who want to work Japanese to English translation jobs.
What is a Coordinator for International Relations? What do they do?
CIRs are JET Program participants who speak fluent Japanese, and are dispatched to local Japanese government offices to pursue international exchange activities. Thanks to their fluency in the local language, CIRs are able to be involved in a lot of activities that ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) aren't.
For example, one thing that many CIRs do - something that is a big selling point for people applying - is Japanese to English translation. However, CIR positions across Japan vary a lot more than ALT ones, so successful applicants often have little idea what they will be doing until they first make contact with the government office they'll be working with.
A "Coordinator for International Relations" in one part of the country could be used as a full time Japanese translator and interpreter, while another could be used as a glorified English teacher. (While most CIRs don't teach, some do, and it is pure luck getting a position with work that you're interested in, due to JET's random placements).
Most CIRs do a little bit of everything to varying degrees. Typical CIR duties include but aren't limited to - translation, interpretation, giving speeches, writing articles in Japanese, and organizing events. Still other CIRs are used for different things entirely - I have met several working to promote tourism, for example.
Generally speaking, those who are sent to larger government offices in Japan - such as prefectural offices, or larger cities - will be doing more translation, interpretation, and Prefectural Advisor work. CIRs in rural or semi-urban placements will be like jacks of all trades - doing at least a little bit of all the above mentioned work duties.
What was my experience like?
I was a CIR on the JET Program for two years. My placement was a small rural town in Kyushu, and I had a CIR position where I did a little bit of everything.
For example, teaching free Eikaiwa (English conversation) classes for the locals was something I did most weeks. Still, I had plenty of non-teaching work, such as putting on international exchange events, and school visits to teach foreign cultures. As I wrote above, this kind of CIR position is pretty common for rural placements on JET, though of course it varies depending on the area.
Still, I had some freedom to pursue other interests during slow periods. As long as I had my other duties finished, I could suggest things like English translations of life guides for foreign residents (like trash disposal and recycling, something that is notoriously complicated in Japan), and other projects.
Advice for those Applying to be a CIR
Be Flexible (and don't write off all ESL teaching as "not part of the CIR experience")
Those familiar with the JET Program know they value flexibility; one of their mottoes is Every Situation is Different (ESID) due to the number of factors that go into JET experiences.
For one, JET Program placements are random - you can put down placement requests on your application, but very few people get them. Given this, and the fact that CIR positions are so few, and at the same time so different from each other, flexibility as a CIR is very important.
Even if you don't get quite what you want - for example, a position with less translation work than you had hoped - give it a chance anyway - after all it's only a year long contract to start with.
Some CIRs are in placements where they do nothing but English teaching - and if you are somewhere like that, I can understand your frustration and disappointment. However, if it's just one of several duties you'll have, I feel it's important to keep an open mind. English teaching can still be a great way to foster grass roots internationalization, and depending on your placement you may have a lot of freedom to run classes as you wish.
I loved my Eikaiwa classes as a CIR because I could teach them any way I wanted. This gave me plenty of chances to teach different subjects and in different methods, which will be nice lines on my resume even though I've no plans of pursuing a career in ESL long-term.
On a related note, you can also apply to be an ALT at the same time
The JET Program gives CIR applicants the chance to apply to the ALT position as a backup. Usually this will apply to otherwise excellent candidates who can't get a CIR position for whatever reason - perhaps their Japanese isn't up to the task, or there simply aren't any available positions. An acquaintance of mine, for example, applied to be a CIR, and was told there simply weren't any openings in the prefecture he wanted (where his wife was going to work as an ALT).
For personal reasons I did not choose this option - as I already had several years teaching English under my belt at the time - but for first timers to Japan or those who aren't so particular about what job they'll be doing, this can be an excellent option.
That said, do not be afraid to leave if you don't like your position
Most CIRs and other JET participants complete their contracts with very few, if any, major issues. Go into your job with an open mind, and realize it won't completely live up to your expectations,but if you're in a position you don't like (for example, a teaching heavy job with no chance for other kinds of work) it is best not to renew your contract.
Even if you have good non-job reasons for doing so - such as wanting to save money or travel - it's best for both your contracting organization and yourself to end things on a positive note, rather than drag on a working relationship that neither benefits from.
The Coordinator for International Relations position is a unique non-teaching opportunity in Japan. I enjoyed my time as a CIR, and it's certainly a job that requires patience, open-mindedness, and an ability to adapt, perhaps more so than being an English teacher. For those with the right attitude, being a CIR can be an enriching experience that will open many doors for you when your time on JET is finished.