The JET Program - 4 Tips for When You First Arrive in Japan
The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program can be an excellent way for people to experience living in Japan, but many JET participants are sent to rural placements where support can be hard to find.
Most ALTs and CIRs participating in the program complete their terms with no problems and have great experiences in Japan; others experience real horror stories that take a toll on their well being. Those in charge of the program are supportive and want JETs to succeed, but given the nature of random placements, there are things that the application process and interview questions can't cover.
I was a Kyushu JET for two years, and am grateful for the experience despite some difficulties. Still, life in Japan is far from easy, and there are some steps I wished I took when I first arrived in my placement that would have made my life so much easier. This article contains some advice for new JETs to get off to a smooth start.
Get Detailed Information from Your Predecessor
Hearing Your JET Interview Results
The JET Program application process is long and drawn out. Successful candidates will hear their results in April, and it takes around two months after that before your Contracting Organization (CO) contacts you.
Most JETs do not get their placement requests, so you have no idea where you'll end up. In between getting your results and getting contacted by your CO, you will get your placement information - during this time you should do as much research as you can on your new home. At the same time, don't panic, especially if you get placed somewhere you didn't expect.
In my case, I got a very rural placement (I was hoping for urban or semi-urban), and almost considered dropping out of the program entirely! I spent more time worrying and thinking about a backup plan than being excited at the possibility of living in Japan. If your reaction is similar to mine, then try to calm yourself down and wait until you hear from your Contracting Organization first. The hours, benefits, and job description of my particular CIR position were what convinced me to take the plunge.
Your predecessor is responsible for telling you about the job and placement You will receive information, through e-mail and the post, about your location and what the position involves. You'll also have a chance to ask your predecessor questions. However, it's important to not just settle for basic information about your job duties, and leaving it at that.
Questions to Ask Your Predecessor
Why did you not recontract? In this case, it's not entirely likely that you will get an honest answer - your CO will likely be reading your exchanges - but it's still important to ask.
What is the work environment like? Japanese workplaces in general are serious and conservative, but even considering that, there is still going to be a lot of variation. Of course there are things you'll pick up when you get there, but having advance knowledge will help you know what to expect, and avoid some pitfalls in adjusting.
What does this CO expect from their ALT/CIR? It is important to probe a little deeper, and not just settle for a checklist of job duties. Some COs have very particular expectations for their JETs. ALTs, for example, might be placed in a position with relatively few responsibilities, and just be expected to be nothing more than an assistant. Others might be expected to handle everything in the classroom themselves.
For CIRs, you may be expected to be a jack of all trades, an English teacher, or just a translating and interpreting machine. Depending on the CO, both jobs might have expectations of longer hours, overtime, and volunteer work - such as helping students with speech contests.
In my case, my CIR predecessor gave me a list of job duties and simple information about my placement, and not much else. This tripped me up in my first few months when my CO was upset with me for not doing things like being involved in the community and attending events in my spare time! The place I worked for, despite its merits, took the "cultural ambassador" aspect of the JET Program to an extreme, and it would have been nice to know this before arriving.
Say Yes to Everything at First
Of course i don't mean everything - my point is that you want to get started on building your network of friends as quickly as possible, simply because it gets harder to do so later on.
The best place to start is your JET pre-departure orientation in your home country, where you can meet friends who are obviously in the same situation as yourself. Try to make friends with those going to your placement; if you can't, you'll still be able to have an excellent country-wide support network.
As for your placement itself, say yes to as much as possible. Coworkers invite you to a BBQ? Go for it! A local AJET event coming up, even if the event itself isn't something you're 100% interested in? Attend anyway - there will likely be a lot of JETs there in the same boat as yourself.
Get to Know Your Placement
Take some time to get familiar with your area. See if there are any clubs or special interest groups you can join, especially if you speak Japanese. In my case, I wasn't interested in anything like that, and spent many Friday and weekend nights in my placement's bars and pubs. It took a while to find local bars that suited me, but in the process I met a lot of interesting Japanese people. Also, if you're placed in a small town, check what's available in the nearest big city. The biggest city in my prefecture had an active International Association, as well as more options for classes and bars where I could meet other foreigners and more internationally minded Japanese.
Basically, get out there and build your network ASAP. I didn't do a very good job at this when I first arrived - I made some good friends, sure, but I passed up on other opportunities because they didn't interest me. I also didn't like my placement at first and did everything I could to escape it - making frequent weekend trips to other parts of Japan.
Establish Boundaries Early On
This may seem like it contradicts what I posted above, but it really doesn't. Due to issues like cultural differences in the workplace, and the lack of foreigners in rural JET placements, it can be hard for some to establish boundaries in their work and private lives.
Now I am not saying be lazy at work, or pass up on hanging out with someone if they're not exactly the type of person you'd spend time with back home. It is important to give your coworkers a good impression, as well as to build your personal network, and to open yourself up to many experiences in Japan. But if something makes you uncomfortable, say no to it early on. It becomes much harder to establish those boundaries later, especially in the workplace; some JETs can be taken advantage of because of this.
Establish a Support Network
As I wrote above, it's important to hit the ground running with your social life in Japan - it makes things so much easier in the long run. A big part of that is not just making friends with everyone possible - though it's nice to meet people and have new experiences.
More important is finding people who you know you can trust, and who can advise you when you're having difficulties living and working in Japan. My personal suggestion would be to befriend expats who have lived in your area a long time, and English speaking Japanese people who have lived abroad. They will not only be the most knowledgeable, but also the most empathetic to your struggles.
Japanese who haven't been overseas can make excellent friends, but they will not be able to understand much of what you're going through. Your fellow JETs will mostly inexperienced when it comes to Japan. Older expats and internationally minded Japanese have the experience of living in a foreign culture and can offer sound advice when you need it. As people who've lived both in Japan and overseas, they're also excellent at explaining cultural differences.