Most of you know by now that I’m headed to Japan to teach English as a participant on the JET Programme. I wrote previously about how this was a long time coming (I first heard about it in 2006!) and a basic breakdown of the timeline. This post will be more detailed, and will probably only be interesting to those of you who found my blog while searching for info about JET, sorry! Please keep in mind while reading that I am a Canadian (Vancouver consulate) JET, and things differ by consulate and country.
Timeline: November 30
The application process took a long time to get everything together. I applied from Roatan, which made things extra-tricky since there is no functioning or trustworthy mail service there. I had to have my application ready a month early so that I could have tourists take it back to Canada for me, mail it to my mom (she had some other documents that needed to be included), and then my mom couriered it to the Japanese consulate for me.
I had to order transcripts from both my post-secondary schools online and had them delivered to my mom. I wrote my Statement of Purpose (SoP) in Roatan, filled out the application form, and got two local references to write reference letters for me. They were both work-related references, because I haven’t been in university for 8 years so there was no way I could get one from a professor. I lost my degree years ago, so I had my university send a letter of confirmation of degree, which was supposed to function as the same thing as a degree. Well, my coordinator told me that the letter was sufficient for application purposes but if I got in I would have to provide a photocopy of the physical degree (so yeah, I ended up having to shell out $75 later on to get a reprint).
I wrote a first draft and some lovely people in one of the Aspiring JETs groups on Facebook offered to read over and provide feedback on it, so I did. I sent it to three people who offered to read SoPs, and only one actually did it. I’m really grateful to her because she provided excellent feedback and a good direction to tweak it. When someone offers to read over your SoP, take them up on the offer. Get as many current or past JETs as you can to read it and offer advice so you can draw from all the feedback. Be prepared to take constructive criticism. If you can’t take constructive criticism at this stage in the game, you’re gonna struggle in this program.
The SoP was hard for me, because everyone tells you to write about “Why Japan?” (ie. over Taiwan, or Korea, or Ecuador) and “Why JET?” (ie. over AEON or NOVA) and I didn’t feel like I could accurately put my answers to those questions into words. I tried to focus on a few things in my SoP:
- My international experience living and working abroad, and traveling. I really focused on the fact that I had successfully been living and working in Honduras for four years on an island with limited resources and language barriers, to show that I was capable of doing the same in Japan. I also talked about my interaction with local friends and staff. I made a big deal of this stuff (without bragging) because I didn’t have a whole lot of kid-interaction experience.
- My work experience as a whole – being 30 at the time of application made me
older than most JETs, but it also was a bonus that I already had many years of
professional real-world job experience behind me.
- My passion for teaching in a non-traditional teaching path. I talked about teaching scuba diving, and volunteer ESL tutoring. I talked about my eagerness to learn more in this area and backed it up by being enrolled in an online TESOL certification course.
- My interest in Japan, without being a weebo or otaku. It’s fine to mention anime as something that sparked your interest in Japanese culture, but if that’s the only reason you want to go to Japan then you better keep it quiet in your SoP. I talked about my Japanese roommates during university and the cultural exchange I had with them, my trip to Japan in 2009 that furthered my interest in the country, the beginner Japanese course I took in university, and the Japanese cooking classes that I took and hoped to continue learning more about once in Japan. I didn’t go overboard on this section though. They don’t care if you’re a Japan expert, and it’s probably better if you’re not. The cultural exchange is supposed to be going both ways.
- I tried to really make it clear the benefit that Japan would get from having me (without sounding too conceited, haha) rather than the other way around. Never forget that this is a JOB. The application is part of your job interview. This program is not about what it can give you in Japan. It’s about what you can give to Japan.
When I finally sent the package off, it was time to hurry up and wait. Get used to waiting if you’re applying to this program. It’s literally nothing but waiting for like a year.
If you’re trying to decide what to do to make your application stronger, I recommend getting as much traveling/living abroad experience as you can to show you can hack it. If that’s not possible, maybe volunteering with a newcomer organization or an international organization at your school. Try to get some experience with kids, whether it’s ESL volunteering, coaching sports, or tutoring after school. Make sure you have some kind of professional work or volunteer experience you can talk about. They want to know that you know how to behave in professional settings. For your reference letters, you may need to steer your references. Make sure they hit points like: professionalism and punctuality, ability to follow directions, ability to successfully interact or give instructions to people of all ages and backgrounds, adaptability and flexibility, etc. One of my references wrote me a glowing letter, and attached one page of TripAdvisor reviews from her business she had screenshotted that specifically mentioned me by name.
Timeline: interview notification January 20, interview date February 12
Yes, you need a suit. By a suit I mean formal business attire. Ladies, yes, you can wear a blazer with dress pants or a (knee-length) dress skirt and a blouse, or a collared dress shirt. It’s a job interview, for fucks sake people, and it’s not an interview with a IT start-up, a fashion line or a graphic design company. You’re trying to be hired as a Japanese civil servant. This is a government position and they dress extremely conservatively at work in Japan. Dress appropriately. If you don’t get the job, you can use the outfit for another interview. If you do get the job, you’re gonna need two suits anyway. So just get it. I wore a $79 Zara blazer with $19 dress pants from Winners, a $14 button-up collared dress shirt from Winners, and $26 low black heels from Payless. The whole outfit cost me $138. If you can’t afford this, you’re gonna be in trouble because this program is going to cost you a lot more than $138 if you get in. (See end of post for more.)
My interview was a breeze. I had a panel of three former JETs interviewing me, and when I talked to other applicants later everyone agreed they were all super nice and seemed to be rooting for us. I was only a bit nervous, mostly that I would be asked to stand up and do a demo lesson which is something I had never done before. I knew I had an upper hand on most applicants here – I have had TONS of job interviews because of my age. I’ve been working since I was 16, and I was nearly 31 when I interviewed. Most applicants are fresh out of university and many have never had a job before. I’m a pretty confident and outgoing person and I can read social cues well, so I wasn’t worried. I had read a few blogs and websites about preparing for JET interviews, which was good because I did get a few of the standard questions that everyone gets. Be ready for “Why Japan” and “Why JET” again. The only question they asked me that tripped me up a bit was “What would you do if you were drowning in work with very little free time, and another JET in your town barely had to do any work and had tons of free time? Or the other way around?” I wasn’t sure what they were getting at with it, but I said I was the one with free time I’d see if I could help out the other JET a bit, and if I was the busy JET I would suck it up if it was all job-related work.
A lot of the questions they asked me ended up going back to the same answer… there were lots that I could tell were trying to see how you would handle culture shock. We all ended up laughing because the answer to most of them was “well I’ve been living on a small island in a third world country with limited resources for four years and I’m doing fine”. I didn’t have to do a mock lesson but they did ask me what I would do to teach a low-level class about colors. I made some stuff up on the spot, but made sure to talk about different reading, writing and speaking activities, getting the kids involved and active, and using the JTE to team-teach. Watch some YouTube videos of team teaching in Japan if you want to see how some people are doing it. You can get an idea of lesson activities that way too, or Google some beginner ESL lesson plans and look at the activities. They asked if I could say “My name is Rika” in Japanese (I had indicated I had zero-low beginner ability on my application) which I did and then they went on to other stuff. If you indicate any higher Japanese ability, be prepared to answer a few questions in Japanese.
At the end they’ll give you an opportunity to ask them questions. There’s a whole debate about what the best thing to ask is. I don’t know what it is. I asked them if there was anything they wished they had prepared before departure knowing what they know now. I also asked one of the girls how she communicated with her JTE (she had mentioned she spoke no Japanese and had a JTE that couldn’t speak English – yes, the English teacher – Japan, the land of irony).
At the end of the day, the interview is not really about the answers you give. They’re more interested in seeing if you can think quickly on your feet, are enthusiastic, not shy, can speak English clearly and are not a total fuckwad. If you get tripped up when you’re talking, stop for a second, think, and keep going. They’re looking for people who aren’t going to crumble and hide if they make a mistake or aren’t sure what to do. Put on your genki smile and just keep talking!
Timeline: April 4
Bet you can guess what you do after your interview… yep… you get to wait again. For another six weeks or so.
I got the email saying I had been shortlisted (which means you got in – otherwise you’re an alternate, who gets bumped up if a shortlister drops out, or you’re rejected) while I was in the back of a taxi on Roatan with 2% battery on my phone. I remember opening it up on my phone with shaking fingers. I had been in limbo for so many months and just wanted to know if I got in or not so I could get on with my life.
“It is our great pleasure to inform you that you have successfully passed the 2nd stage of the screening process for the 2016 Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme year and are now on the final short-list for ALT candidates. You are now scheduled for placement with a Contracting Organization, which is possible in almost all cases.”
That poor taxi driver. I let out a whoop and began to cry right in the back of his taxi. I was all alone and he was worried he had a gringa loca in the back of his car. I tried to calm him down in broken Spanish as I frantically called my mom through Skype and Whatsapp with my dying battery – at 1% she finally answered and all I could choke out was, “I got in…I GOT IN! I’M GOING TO JAPAN!” and she said congratulations before my phone died. I couldn’t get home fast enough to get online and tell everyone the news. I was so happy and proud that I finally achieved this dream, 10 long years after I first wanted it.
I came back to Canada mid-April and the first things I had to do were go straight to the RCMP to get my criminal record and vulnerable sector checks ($70) and order a new copy of my degree since I lost my original ($75). The deadlines for these and other documents varied between June and July. I don’t think I would have been able to get it done in time from abroad, and trying to order my criminal record check from abroad would have been a nightmare and taken months. Don’t do it! Make sure you can be in your home country to get your checks done.
Timeline: May 19
I received the email notifying me of my placement while I was sitting at a Milestones in Saskatoon having lunch with my mom. I was so fucking sick of everyone asking me where I was going in Japan and having to explain over and over that I didn’t know yet. When the email finally came, I was too scared to open it and my mom had to encourage me. I had asked for placements in Hokkaido and Tohoku, which are basically the northern half of Japan. I was in the Caribbean at the time when I requested them, and I was sick of sweating.
I opened the email from my consulate and read the first line.
“We have been informed that your placement on the JET Programme will be in Naruto-shi, Tokushima-ken.”
I looked up at my mom and looked down again. She waited with an expectant grin. I read it out loud and she cheers-ed me and asked where it was… and I had to answer with, “I don’t have a fucking clue!”
I started furiously Googling and it took me a while to find the information (these are the breaks when a popular anime character has the same name as your town). When I finally realized I was in a town of 60,000 in southern Japan, on Shikoku no less (which is famous for a lot of great things but also for being very rural and inconvenient to travel from) I felt my confidence waver a bit. I knew zero about Shikoku. I had been picturing myself in a semi-rural northern town, jumping on trains on the weekend to other parts of the country and exploring. You can’t even take a train off Shikoku to the main island Honshu.
However, I hadn’t worked this hard for this position for nothing. I kept Googling. I found out that my town is on the farthest north east corner of the island, which means it has a fairly temperate climate. The summers are hot, yeah, and that sucks, but the winters are mild and rainy (which I love). It was right on the ocean (always a requirement for me to enjoy living somewhere). There was a big city and an airport less than 40 minutes away (yay). The JET apartments were near a train station (convenient). There was scuba diving and surfing on the southern part of the island (what! YES!). There was a massive dance festival happening right after I got there, and my prefecture had its own style of famous ramen (RAMEN!!!!!!) The more I started reading, the more it felt like JET had picked a better location for me than I had picked for myself. Once I talked to my pred and the current JETs there (see below) it got even better.
Here’s the thing – most JETs don’t get their requests. So go in knowing that. Most JETs are in semi-rural or rural areas. So go in knowing that. Some placements might seem crappy at first glance, but the more you learn about it, it usually turns out to have some really awesome perks. If you are the guy who gets the infamous Ogasawara placement, you are one lucky son of a bitch. I know no one wants this placement but I think it looks AMAZING. It’s the frickin Galapagos of the Orient! How could you not want to live there and explore that area?! If I could apply to JET again, I would request it. (If you are the JET in that placement, I’ll be looking for you at TO! I want to come visit you! Please message me!)
Anyway, the main point I want to make here is this: if you can’t handle any of the placements in Japan – and I do mean any of them – do not apply to JET. This is the wrong program for you. You have no control over where you’ll be placed, and if you are going to get shitty with what you get and not make the most of it, you have the wrong character for this. I suggest trying to get a job with private eikawa where you can pick your location.
The First Contact
Timeline: May 29 (supervisor/CO), June 2 (leaving/current JETs), June 19 (predecessor)
I got the first email from my supervisor 10 days after receiving my placement, but by then I was expecting it because I was already talking to the other JETs in my town. Once I got my placement, I immediately got on the ol’ Facebook and found my prefecture and block groups, and lots of other special interest JET groups. I reached out on those and on the JET Programme subreddit, and found the other JETs going to Naruto with me as well as the current JETs there right now (plus some other cool people around the island!). Everyone told me how lucky I was to get the Naruto placement as the BoE is nice, the holidays are generous, and the people are awesome.
The current JETs didn’t know who was whose predecessor because we had a new situation this year where three out of the current six JETs were leaving, but four new JETs were coming in. So there was an ‘extra’ JET who was going to have to live in a different apartment (our Board of Education owns a 6-plex apartment where the JETs live). All six of them got together and wrote the four of us a welcome letter on June 2 that included tons of helpful info about our housing, pay, holidays, BoE, supervisors, and the town. It was incredibly sweet and had lots of useful info – by the time my contract and other documents arrived by mail from my supervisor, there were no real surprises. On June 19, I heard from my apartment predecessor. I’ll be taking her apartment, but they are re-dividing the schools among the seven JETs once we get there, so no one really knows who has which schools yet. But she did send me an email with photos of the apartment I’ll be moving into and offering some household stuff and her car to buy. All the JETs in our city have been so kind and great about answering our questions (and we’ve had a lot!). I think they remember what it’s like to be new and really feel like you have no info about anything. It’s hard to know what kind of clothes to bring and how much money you’ll need straight away and stuff like that if you can’t talk to your pred.
I was very lucky that I had contact so early. By June 4, I had received my welcome package in the mail from my CO which included my contract, a welcome letter, an AJET block welcome letter, and a Tokushima tourist guide. Some people (especially prefectural ALTs, I’m a municipal ALT) don’t hear from anyone until a week before departure! I would lose my mind. But again, in JET, every situation is different (get ready to hear that three million times) and no two JETs have the exact same situation. You have to be ready to roll with the punches and be ready for anything. Things will be thrown at you at the last minute all the time in Japan so maybe they’re just trying to get us ready for that by leaving all the info to the last minute, I don’t know.
Here’s something no one tells you but they should: this program is going to cost you a lot of money before you make any, so start saving right from the day applications open. From ordering transcripts, to courier fees, to buying a suit…all just for the application and interview. If you get the job, you’ll need to have appropriate teaching clothes, a few days of formal wear, bring certain items you can’t get in Japan, pay for criminal record checks, and oh, by the way, you’re expected to show up in Japan with AT LEAST $2000-2500 USD to get started with rent, phone, utilities, buying stuff for your apartment either off your predecessor or from the store, groceries, transit, possibly paying for transportation to your placement from Tokyo before reimbursement from work, etc. in your first month before you get paid. Oh, your placement requires a car? You better have another $800-3000 with you. Oh, you don’t have a predecessor’s apartment to move into? Get another couple thousand dollars for key money. Oh, you’re one of the new Tokyo JETs? Best of luck, and get a bank loan before you come. Remember when I moved back to Canada in April and I’ve been living back at my parents’ house all summer? Yeah, that’s why. I needed to save money!!
Okay, wow, that was long. But then again, it was a long eight months. In the next JET post I’ll be going over pre-departure orientation, packing, and the departure reception. If you’re an aspiring JET reading this, let me know if this was helpful and also feel free to leave any questions in the comments below, I always answer all of them!
Guys, make sure to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter … there’s lots of extras posted there that don’t make it onto the blog. I also have Google+ if anyone even uses that? And I’m on Bloglovin’, so you can follow me there too! Plus it makes me try to post more than once a month. So there’s that.
You can also check out DigiNo’s 2019 Jet Application Guide for an extensive overview of the application!