The JET Program has been sending native speakers to Japan for almost 30 years to teach in classrooms as language teachers, mostly for English. The program was designed to improve communication and understanding between Japan and foreign counties, and it gets a lot of criticism. Whether or not the English education system has improved since JET was started is hard to say, but there are some advantages and disadvantages to actually taking on the role of ALT. (Note: Every position and school is different, but these are my findings from my own experience and in talking with other ALTs.)
1. Freedom – Depending on your teachers and your location, you will probably have a lot of freedom to be a foreigner and a lot of the rules that regular Japanese teachers must adhere to will not be forced upon you. For example, I can dye my hair and (sometimes) paint my nails and not get much reaction from the teachers, even if my students notice. I took out my earrings and try to only do nail art on breaks off of school, but no one will explicitly reprimand me. Since I am fluent in Japanese and have lived in Japan for a while prior to JET, they expect a little more out of me than those with less Japanese ability, but I have gotten a lot of people who are surprised I know certain phrases or aspects of Japanese culture. This also means that I don’t have to use tons of keigo (formal speech) and I am treated like a guest in many of the schools I visit infrequently. I even know some ALTs whose freedom extends to joining P.E. class on pool days to – yes – swim!
2. Community – The ALT/JET community is so large that it is often easy to make friends. We came over to Japan as a large group, had roommates in the hotel during orientation, and are placed near other ALTs. Many of my friends live in the same apartment complex as one another, but even my friends in the countryside are able to drive to another ALT’s house for some social time. Maintaining relationships with people who are in a similar situation to you is always a good idea. Other ALTs completely understand what you are going through and often you will find someone who came to Japan for a similar reason as you. Also, many JETs will offer you a room if you want to travel to another part of Japan, and can act as a local tour guide. You just have to remember to offer up your room for them to visit as well!
3. Salary – The JET salary is very generous and allows you to travel, save for graduate school (like myself), pay off student loans, etc. Often, our housing in subsidized, and most JETs live in rural or semi-rural locations where the rent and cost of living is less expensive than in the bigger cities. I knew a married couple who lived on one JET salary together, and I have been able to travel for concerts, pay for school, and take trips outside Japan to Hong Kong and Korea.
4. Celebrity Status – My students sometimes treat me as if I’m a celebrity, especially in elementary school. The younger kids get wide-eyed and ask me where I’m from, and my regular students know that they can ask me questions about America and about how well I’m adjusting to Japanese life. Sometimes if I don’t have stickers, I use my signature as a “prize” on student’s BINGO sheets, and they flip out. I rotate schools and class rooms with enough infrequency that they are always excited to see me, and I bring a fresh face to liven up certain classes that are otherwise not in the mood to study English. I set up an English Letter Box, where my students can write to me, and it’s fun reading their “fan mail”. It’s a great ego boost on days when I am feeling low, to know that at least some of my students try to speak English because they want to talk to me.
5. Games/Activities – Most of my classes turn into game sessions, and my teachers often choose fun activities for me to help with when I join their classes. Sometimes, boring classes are unavoidable, but at elementary school, I am the main teacher since the homeroom teachers can’t speak much English and weren’t trained to teach it. This may change as time goes on, but for now, many elementary teachers are hired because they possess a good command over the Japanese language, meaning they can handle the class on their own if needed. My elementary lessons consist of: vocabulary introduction or review, cultural discussion or a powerpoint of pictures and customs in America and other countries, a game to enforce the learned vocabulary, and songs or chants. The students get a chance to hear only English spoken for at least 45 minutes, whereas in middle school, the classes are still taught in mostly Japanese. My students are usually more excited about English if there is a game involved, which means I usually get to have fun with the kids.
1. Privacy – As an American, I expect a certain level of privacy about my life. In Japan, however, certain rules of Japanese culture don’t apply to me since I’m the foreign teacher. On the first day of class, I had students asking me how old I was, if I was married or had kids, and even my bra size. A lot of it is very uncomfortable, and sharing so much information with everyone so soon is a little unnerving. I sometimes see my students in the grocery store or when I’m running errands, and they are not afraid to a) come up and talk to me then or b) tell me in class that they saw me. Every Japanese person in my city knows that I’m the ALT because I’m white, so I feel like no matter where I go, even on trips outside my city or prefecture, I have to be on my best behavior because if I slip up at anytime, someone will attribute my actions to the actions of all foreigners. That’s a big weight on my shoulders. Also, go to the doctor, and everyone finds out and wants to know intimate details.
2. Clowning around – Games were listed as a pro, and while I love playing with my kids, sometimes I feel as though all I am is the butt of a joke. Sometimes my students see foreigners on T.V. talking in funny accents, so they will copy them when I am around. My students also sometimes don’t respect me or take me seriously because I’m not a “real” teacher. Playing simon says is fun and all, but the reason I started my graduate studies was to put some intellectual reading back into my daily life. Many ALTs are used only as human tape recorders and clowns in the classroom, so it can be discouraging to think that you aren’t really doing “real” work to improve English or relations with your home country.
3. Not enough information – Since I am not expected to help out with things that “normal” teachers do, such as club activities, I am often left out of the loop. Many many times, me and my friends have lamented about a time or four that we have dressed inappropriately for work, showing up in our normal outfits, only to see every teacher in a suit for some special ceremony. Teachers will also dash off to meetings without telling us ALTs, leaving us in an empty, dark teachers room. My class schedules even get changed around without me knowing, and teachers have come, or worse, sent a student to get me to come to class. Most of the time the reason is because the time schedules for the day were changed without me being aware, and sometimes it’s because the teacher added a class without letting me know. As frustrating as it is, teachers are often too busy to keep up with keeping me in the loop, so I can’t really get angry anymore.
4. Lunchtime – For many ALTs, this is a pro, but for me and a few of my friends, it’s quite lonely. Since I visit four schools, and because I don’t eat seafood, I have opted out of eating school lunch, which is mandatory for the other teachers and students. This means that I am often encouraged not to eat with the students, and I feel awkward eating my bento or conbini lunch with the teachers who have to scarf down their rice and fish. I also have friends who are forced to eat with certain classes or students during lunch, which causes them distress, especially since there is little time to eat the food, and because the students are too shy to actually talk to ALTs during this time. ALTs who have dietary restrictions, or who simply don’t like certain foods (like me) are sometimes heavily scrutinized by teachers and students during lunchtime as to why they don’t eat school lunch. My supervisor has an allergy to shrimp, and every time we go out to eat, without fail, someone will try to get her to eat shrimp, despite her protests that she would have to be hospitalized. Vegetarians and others whose diets are restricted face a much harder time during lunch than, in my opinion, is necessary. I wish this topic would just be dropped, but without fail, almost every day, I get a comment on what I eat for lunch or why I don’t eat school lunch, and it has become an annoyance I would love to get rid of.
5. Re-contracting (aka culture shock) – JETs are (in most cases) asked if they want to re-contract for another year on the program. This year, we are expected to turn in our papers a month earlier than last year, which was in February. For many ALTs, winter is a very cold and depressing time, and we often face the hardest stage of culture shock, where everything in Japan is being compared to our lives back in our home countries. Many ALTs also travel or return home for Christmas or New Year’s close to the time when they must decide to stay in Japan for another year or not. The pressure is enough to drive a person crazy, and although the decision is easy for some, this year I was asked by my supervisor to give her a decision by the end of October.
Every ALT’s school, community, and living situation is different, which is the fun of having so many other JET friends. We can offer perspective to our friends who can’t see the light, and we can sympathize with those who feel alone in their situation. No matter your reason for coming to Japan or Asia to be an ALT, we all face exciting and new situations, but we also go through times of anxiety and isolation. Make sure your decisions while abroad aren’t only affected by your moods. Make a list of your own pros and cons about your job and keep it handy when you are feeling especially high or low. Re-contract season is upon us, so take the necessary time to evaluate what you love and dislike in order to feel good in your decision.
For all of you who are applying to JET for next year, good luck and keep these things in mind before coming to Japan!