On Getting Into the JET Program, Part 1: What is it?


So, some of you are probably about to embark on the mysterious journey that is the JET application process. There’s no information anywhere, no one gives you straight answers, and when people do give you answers, they’re usually snarky.

Well, OK. I applied for JET during my senior year of University back in 2010. I was accepted to the program on my first try and given my first choice of where to teach (Fukuoka Prefecture).

I spent three years in Japan, and while I was there I participated in pretty much every seminar and workshop I could find, including orientation training for new arrivals, Web site maintenance, and workshops. I also helped to write a training manual for new ALTs in my prefecture, a 40-page beast that, for at least a year, was supported by the local Board of Education.

Basically, I have spent way too much time thinking about the JET Program, and now that I have left, all of that information is useless if I don’t pass it on to you.

If this is helpful, I hope you’ll remember me and buy This Japanese Life, the book, when you get into JET. OK. Let’s get started.

What the hell is JET?
Consider this your “research about the program.”

One issue I faced during the application process was wrapping my head around what JET actually is. They talk about teaching English, but they don’t care about your teaching certifications; they seem to stress cross-cultural exchange but then they still expected me to be a teacher? It was contradictory at times. So let’s look at how JET works.

First, JET is a mashup of several government offices, all of which have their own interests in the program. These offices include The Ministry of Education (MEXT), the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). In 2012, JET recruited nearly 4,000 native English speakers to teach alongside native Japanese teachers in English classrooms as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs). The program’s website presents JET as an exchange program, and targets native English speakers with any kind of university degree. The program screens and interviews potential candidates, but there is no teaching certification requirement and any degree will do. The program appeals to English and education program graduates alongside many Japanese studies and East Asian studies graduates.

JET is a way for these Japanese ministries to meet a couple of goals:

  • Expose students to foreign cultures and ideas
  • Expose students to communicative English
  • Give Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) practical experience communicating in English with a native English speaker (few JTEs will ever travel abroad once they start working).
  • Promote Japan abroad when the JETs go home

You should keep these goals in mind during your application process and interview, because this shapes the kind of candidates the program is looking for.

Now, the program has some controversies.

A common criticism in op-eds and online forums is that the ALTs hired by the JET Programme are overpaid and underutilized. In 2013, a volcano of angry blog posts and editorials erupted after the Liberal Democratic Party declared that it would triple the number of ALTs hired by JET – and that it was taking TOEIC (an international standard test for English ability) testing mandatory for university entrance exams, a shift from the government’s own, completely incomprehensible English exams. An editorial in The Japan Times criticized the JET Programme as a failure in education policy, citing the decline in English scores since JET was introduced. It also criticized the program’s internationalization aims, citing a 20% decline in the number of students studying abroad since JET’s inception.

And because of these controversies – and for some very Japanese cultural reasons – nobody in the Japanese government has ever talked about the criteria they use to hire JETs. Some speculate that it’s lead by a team of monkeys with darts (or worse) flung at envelopes. I can say somewhat authoritatively that this is NOT the case.

Here’s one crucial detail: You are not “hired” by JET, and you aren’t going to work for JET, either. Think of JET as your employment agency. JET is basically a composition made of a bunch of agencies in Japan.

First, the embassies collect your applications and sends them to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Tokyo. The MFA wades through the muck of foreign applicants, picks the best ones, and tells the local Japanese consulates or embassies which ones seem OK. Those consulates then conduct some interviews and make recommendations back to the MFA. The MFA skims the cream off of that crop and tells the embassies who they’d like to hire. Those offers go back to the embassies, which sends it to you. When you choose to accept, the MFA hands you off to another organization, the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations, or CLAIR. CLAIR figures out where you should go to work.

The school (or schools) you will eventually work for are completely out of the loop until now. All they do in this process is send a request for an ALT to their local state office, the Board of Education. The Board of Education puts these requests together and sends them to Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which then sends them out to CLAIR. CLAIR then assigns you to a prefecture – let’s say you want to live in Osaka, and CLAIR thinks you’re a good fit for Osaka – then the offices in Osaka get your information once you’ve accepted. The Osaka office then decides if you should be in high school, junior high, elementary, or whatever.

Got it? I know, it’s a mess, and it’s easy to see how nobody seems to be able to give you a straight answer about what your job is going to be, or what they want in applicants. You don’t have to understand every tentacle of the JET octopus. All you need to remember is: JET is the program that hires you, gives you “training” (a two-day seminar in Tokyo, and maybe a pre-departure seminar at home). JET will host occasional training sessions, will offer you a language course, a training guide, and some extracurricular activities, such as working at future orientations or doing voluntary workshops. (AJET, which is a kind of social network for JET hires, is a completely different thing).

You don’t work for JET, and JET can’t fire you. No one you talk to in person will decide where you get placed, what school you work at, or where you live (though they can make recommendations). But they are, nonetheless, the first gatekeepers. So let’s make sure you impress them!

What do JETs do?
There are a lot of misconceptions about being an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) with the JET Programme, especially during the application process. The Japanese government basically makes it seem like you’re applying to Harvard University. There are stringent and mysterious standards for who gets in, and websites full of paranoid speculation abound. Meanwhile, JET officially seems to suggest a life of leisure as a “cultural ambassador,” paid to hang out and talk about your home country to legions of curious and excited Japanese people.

So, what is JET, exactly? As mentioned, an ALT is an Assistant Language Teacher. This is the most crucial acronym of the bunch, but you’ll certainly encounter another: ESID. “Every Situation is Different.” This sounds like a copout, and it is. Basically, nobody who is hiring you actually knows what it is you’ll do when you arrive at your office on day 1. It’s hard to explain exactly what an ALT does on a daily basis because every school or municipal office has a different idea of what an ALT should do.

Fact is, the selection process is wildly randomized by a few factors, including the local embassies who make the initial selections. And so, no book can promise you a “Get JET Quick” set of guidelines. I’ve known people who were wildly qualified – studied Japanese, had a masters in education, volunteered with ESL and played a variety of musical instruments – and were still rejected. But I can tell you what I’ve learned from the successful applicants who I worked with, and I can draw from my own experience as a candidate who received my top choices for placement and work environment.

Here is a general composite of a JET’s day at work:

6:30 am: You wake up in your small, government-provided apartment. You have to hand-crank your shower for warm water in your bathtub. You turn on a kettle for tea and coffee, shower, and get dressed in a business suit for your commute to work.

7:30 am: Head to the train station, bus, or your bike, and take it to your job.

8:25 am: You must arrive by 8:30 am – not just walking into the door, but seated at your desk. So, in fact, 8:25 is the start of your workday. There’s a meeting at 8:30 where everyone stands up, bows, and listens to announcements in Japanese for about 20 minutes.

Now, your office could be a school, or a municipal office. If you work in a municipal office you’ll be told what school to go to once you arrive at work, which means more commuting. If you work for a high school, you’ll have a semi-regular schedule.

Some ALTs make lesson plans, some don’t. Sometimes this will depend not just on the school you teach at, but on the person you are teaching with that day. Usually the lesson plan isn’t talked about until just before the lesson. You might teach 20 classes a week at 5 schools, you might teach 1 class a month at one school. Generally, schools with “smarter” (really, just more pressured) kids will probably use you less than schools with “less smart” (again, less motivated) kids. If the teachers want the kids to go to university, they will drive home university-related English, which is grammar, in Japanese. If the kids aren’t going to college, you’ll be very busy.

Elementary School ALTs generally wear track suits and spend a lot of time jumping around with kids singing the names of animals, which is quite fun. Junior High School ALTs generally spend more time playing vocabulary-driven games. High School ALTs vary: Smart schools may ask you to correct essays and grade exams, while lower-academic schools may ask you to do more advanced versions of the vocabulary games being played in Junior High.

1:00 pm is lunch time. You may socialize with some teachers, you might not. You might be allowed to go out for lunch, you might not.

4:15 pm was the end of my school day. If you’re at a high school and dedicated to it, you might lead an English Activities club for about a half an hour with a handful of kids. This is where you get to do the cool stuff, like games and movies and “internationalization.”

Then you go home. Now, this is what a lot of people don’t understand, but going home is still, in a lot of ways, your job. You are living in a foreign country, so there’s a lot of stress and loneliness involved, but you do get used to it over time. (If you’re interested in my struggles with that lifestyle, you can read the entire book I wrote about it, This Japanese Life, which is being sold on Amazon, did I mention that yet? OK!).

That’s enough for today. Click here to read part two, What JET Wants.

Did you know? It totally helps your application if you follow This Japanese Life on Facebook

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11 Responses to On Getting Into the JET Program, Part 1: What is it?

  1. westmt01 says:

    I haven’t read the book yet, though I plan to buy it very soon, but I’m guessing both reviews are spot on. This is the best blog I have ever read, hands down. I’ve never been to Japan (though I planning on spending a few weeks there next year), but the insights and observations imparted to us by the author on a weekly basis have relevance no matter where you live. Absolutely great stuff!

  2. renmi86 says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Its really helpful because I will be applying to JET next fall.

    • owwls says:

      There’s lots more to come. :) And feel free to ask me any questions!

      • Jack Moore says:

        Hello, I’m Jack. I am applying for 2014 JET when the application is available. I have some experience teaching as a substitute teaching assistant for the Sonoma County Office of Education. It is the job that got me through college, I started in 2009 and continue to work for them. You mentioned that fully capable and qualified applicants are rejected, I was wondering if you would elaborate some as I feel it is a bit off-putting considering my major was History and I haven’t a TEFL, TESOL, or JLPT to my name. Can you please also explain the outcome of the Liberal Party’s announcement to triple in size/breadth.
        Thank you,
        Jack Moore

      • owwls says:

        Qualified candidates CAN be rejected, by no means does that mean all qualified candidates are rejected. We’ll look at why qualified candidates end up rejected in future posts, but it’s generally through simple application mistakes. Asto the expansion: they’re hiring more, in theory. Not sure what that means for 2014.

  3. Awesome! I’m doing a series of tips on how to apply to JET too. You’re much more comprehensive than me, though! I was right below Fukuoka in Kumamoto :D

  4. Pingback: The Japanese Job Search and You | TICKETS TO:

  5. tesolconnect says:

    Here is a free article on teaching English in Japan with the JET Programme. It explains how to work with the co-teacher and use the Communicative Approach http://teaching-english-abroad.ontesol.com/teaching-english-in-japan-with-the-jet-programme/

  6. Rose Denmark says:

    this information is really helpful, though I do wonder when it says that you can have a degree in anything I assume they still care what that degree is in? because I would like to apply but am afraid I don’t have much useful experience and am doing an art based degree…any advice?

    • owwls says:

      It doesn’t matter at all. I’ve seen people with degrees in film studies (mine was close to film studies), science, etc. The trick is to talk about it as a cultural exchange opportunity!

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