Thursday, July 17, 2014

The JET programme: Change Your Life

Summer vacation is just around the corner here in Japan, but things seem to be speeding up rather than slowing down around here. August harolds an exciting time in Japan full of festivals, sunny beach barbeques, Koshien, and many partings and meetings for us JETs. I wish every JET near and far the best as they embark on their newest adventure and personally look forward to welcoming our two incoming ALTs in the next few weeks.

Over the ocean in the US (and perhaps other parts of the world), students fresh-faced from summer break are gearing up for their very last year or semester of college. This a busy time for all of you as well and I remember the frantic excitement of finally being done with school and mounting panic as I realized I need an actual plan for the future.

Every college student right before graduation. 

There was really only one thing I was completely sure of when I came home from my study abroad in Tokyo: I wanted to go back. As I slogged through my last semester at UW-Milwaukee in the Fall of 2012, I looked for ways back to Japan. Teaching wasn't really on my radar, but JET was always in the back of my mind as an option. I looked on a few websites such as Ohayo Sensei and GaijinPot, but I was intimidated by actual job-hunting in a foreign country and nothing came close to the benefits offered in a JET contract. I finally decided being a CIR in the JET programme would be a great working experience and threw my proverbial hat into the ring.

To those of you thinking about JET, I want to say that it is an invaluable, life-changing experience and I have no regrets accepting my position. But before you start getting everything together for that application, there are many things to consider. As much research as I did, there were many things I wish I had been told beforehand and I want to share those things with you. My goal is not to discourage anyone but to make you as fully prepared as possible for the challenges that lie ahead (multiplied by getting your last credits together and your thesis/final projects done) and set reasonable standards for life in Japan as a JET.

Should you find yourself wishing to partake in the insanity that is the JET programme after reading this, then I say go for it and the best of luck!

1. The JET application process

a) The application
The entire application process starts in October/November and runs all the way through April when people receive their acceptance/rejection letters. Many candidates are University students trying to get through their senior year and making time to get the necessary documents including transcripts (including any overseas transcripts), proof of graduation, 2 letters of recommendation, a 1,000-word statement of purpose, and the very lengthy application itself together mulitplies the already-existing stress of senior classes, projects, and dissertations. If you want to shoot for an April departure time, you have even more paperwork to do at the time of application.

b) The waiting
After you have everything sent in and you receive your little slip of paper with your application number on it comes the hardest part: the waiting.  Considering the app is due sometime in November and candidates don't receive results until sometime in February (depending on the consulate), it all adds up to approximately three months of nothing especially after doing all that work. Students can try as they might to focus on school (and for those that graduate in December, job-hunting), but JET is going to start burrowing a little niche in the back of your mind where it will sit and nag at you until you FINALLY receive that email.

c) The interview
JET interviews aren't intrinsically terrible, but it does take time to properly prepare for one and the experience varies greatly between consulates and the candidates themselves. Those who want to read in length about the JET interview can do so here, but long story short, you will be questioned about your application repsonses and statement of purpose, and there will be a few questions designed to test your adaptability and how you deal with difficult situations. You need to be able to keep a cool head and think on your feet.

c) MORE waiting
Yep, the next 1-2 months are another whole lot of nothing. Having passed the first stage of the process, the anxiety is going to be amplified by your success and the hard work you've done thus far. As February rolls into April, you're going to start checking your email every day and freak out whenever you receive one.

d) The notifcation
The moment has arrived, and one of two things will happen: you'll read the word congradulations and go crazy with excitement, or you'll read through the whole thing in despair as you realize you were rejected. This can be hard. REALLY hard. Receiving that rejection from a normal job sucks as it is so I can't imagine the disappointment of being rejected from a programme you not only dreamed about but worked on for the better part of a year. If you're going to apply to the programme, you need to be prepared for and be able to deal with this situation and have a back-up plan handy.

2. Being a JET

While the JET programme is a great opportunity that has given me priceless experiences and professional development, there are many challenging aspects that I feel many prospective JETs aren't aware of and need to know.

a) Placement
The Downside:
You probably will not be placed in Tokyo or Osaka. However...

There have been short-listed applicants announcing their placements in Tokyo popping up all over the internet. It is true- JET has opened up almost a hundred new placements in Tokyo proper for the 2014-2015 year and I couldn't be more excited (and jealous). They will be adding even more positions in the coming years as the Japanese government prepares to push the English program back even further to start in the 3rd grade.

The Bright Side:
On your application you can request three different placements. I tried to get as large a placement as possible close to the big cities and they gave me Japanese Wisconsin (aka Akita prefecture). The other two ALTs from Milwaukee got Gunma and Saitama (both urban and close to Tokyo). While there may be plenty of openings in urban centers, there are many other factors such as municipality, prefectural, or board of education requests (gender, Japanese ability, teaching experience, sister city hometown, etc.).
Many people who do request countryside locations tend to get them. And let's face it, I gotta be one of the luckiest JETs out there to be able to come to work and see this every day:


Even if you want to live in the countryside, you need to be prepared to go anywhere. If you decide to drop out after placement, you will not be able to apply to JET again for a whole year.

b) The Money Pit
The Downside:
The application process takes a lot of time, energy and perhaps a bit of money, but the real drain on your wallet as well as your free time doesn't start until you've been accepted. Right away there will be paperwork to hand in by the end of the month, and even more paperwork to start which takes both money and time waiting for the government to process for you. The most expensive will be the criminal background check ($18 application fee and $84 for the check) and the tax form proving your US residency ($64 each). Then factor in time traveling to and from your municipal police station, doctor's office for the health check, and any FAQs or other meetings (which are in your best interest to attend).
Next up are any purchases you may need to make such as clothing, luggage, medications, a laptop and/or e-reader, and toiletries that are hard to find in Japan. There is also the high possibility that you will need a car (which you can buy outright from your predecessor or lease when you get here).
Finally, we have the cost of starting your new life in Japan. I wrote up a comprehensive list of things you will need to pay for upon arrival here, but every situation is different (or as we like to say, ESID), Estimated starting costs can range from 100,000yen-300,000yen.

The Bright Side:
Boards of Education understand how large of an undertaking moving to a foreign country is and many are willing to help. Most JETs get a subsidy on their rent. Depending on their budget situation, they may be able to loan you out money or help you make other arrangements.

And then there's your more-than adequate salary. I'm not exactly sure why, but JETs get paid a whole lot more than the average teacher in any country. Even after I send home around 60,000yen every month, I still have plenty left over to take care of both myself and my husband and still have spending money left over.

JET is widely considered to be the best of its kind for this reason plus the free plane ticket they provide to and from Japan.

c) Transportation
The Downside:
One of the things I miss about Tokyo so much is the train system. It's efficient, goes everywhere, easy to board with a rail pass, and runs past midnight. Here on the west coast in Northeast Japan, the main line runs along the coast, runs about once an hour and has a tendency to be severely delayed by high winds and snow especially in the winter. Trains that run all the way to my town run even less frequently and the last one departs Akita City around 8:30pm.

The reality is that most JETs end up getting a car at some point. Many JETs live within walking distance of convenience stores, 100yen shops, and grocery stores, but chances are you're going to have to travel a bit if you want access to things besides survival needs. Almost every JET in my area that tried to make do without a car ended up at least leasing.

Of course, cars come with additonal responsiblities like car insurance, an annual automobile tax, and the mandatory bi-annual car inspection.

The Bright Side:
So much more will be open to you. In a place where public transport is so unreliable, the mobility and self-reliance a car provides gives one peace of mind. You don't have to worry about the weather or what time of day it is- you can just go.

d) The 'A' in ALT really does mean "assistant"
The Downside:
Some ALTs come to Japan raring to revolutionize the education world and create the best damn English department Japan has ever seen. These ALTs end up extremely disappointed. There are some aspects of the Japanese language education system that are, shall we say, 'lacking', but there's really not much one can do about it. There is an association of JETs called AJET that work with the Council of Language and International Relations (CLAIR) to improve the overall work life of JETs, but there really isn't a way to permanently impact the core curriculum.
Many ALTs can find ways to personalize and create their own lessons, but rarely do they have opportunities to teach a whole class by themselves. The Japanese teacher of English (JTE) will always be the primary instructor and may allocate an entire lesson to their ALT or merely use them to pronounce vocab words or read passages. Every JTE is different and some may be very open to new ideas while others would rather stick to their own plans. This can be very frustrating for JET teachers with lots of experience who are used to being in charge.
This can also apply to a CIR who thinks they'll be translating masters by the time they leave JET. Some translate a lot, some don't do any at all. Job duties will differ depending on your placement and the expectations of your superiors.

The Bright Side:
Your "duties" extend outside the classroom. Lets throw some positivity into this mess of pessimism.
JETs fall under the title 'civil servant' which means you work not for the school, but for the city or prefecture itself. Therefore, there are other things you may be expected to do such as help with sister city exchanges or run English conversation classes at the community center. The are even English camps and volunteer activities in many places run by JETs.
Even if you can't make a huge impact in the classroom, these activities are a great way to get involved in your community, make friends, and be in charge for a change.

Something else to watch out for are the changes being considered to prepare the English curriculum for the huge pushback in 2020. As a part of these sweeping changes, CLAIR and MEXT are considering allowing ALTs to teach solo in the classroom. This wouldn't include all classes, but the Japanese government is considering the benefits of at least one class being taught exclusively by the ALT. If you don't find the prospect of being an "assistant" teacher appealing, keep an eye out for these and other changes coming to the JET programme...

e) The free time
The Downside:
There are times when you will have very few or no classes at all. During long breaks you will have absoutely zero to do at work. Many JETs simply don't know what to do with themselves with all this time and most of the teachers won't have answers for you since they aren't very well-versed in the specifics of your job. This can also make you feel isolated and forgotten as everyone else in the office shuffles around with mountains of work to do while you sit at your desk with nothing.

The Bright Side:
This is where creative people shine. While an entire day sitting on your ass can be a drag, take this opportunity to do something productive. Many JETs find the extra time a plus in which they can write, read, study, translate, or make culture boards, games or lessons plans. Hell, I've even budgeted my finances at work.

Just because you have nothing to do doesn't mean you're glued to your desk. Feel free to take a walk around your school. If you get the immobile blues, simply moving at all can help tremendously.

f) School climate
The Downside:
As I've mentioned before, Japan has always been a fore-runner in energy conservation, but after the Great East Japan Earthquake, these policies were kicked into over-drive. My school doesn't tend to turn on the air conditioning during the hot, sweaty summer months and will wait til the last possible day to start turning on the heater in early winter. The interim months between cold and hot are hard to bear since they turn the heaters off pretty early. As a person with bad circulation to begin with, I find that I get so chilled that my fingernails turn a lovely shade of purple.

Another interesting aspect is that the hallways and bathrooms aren't heated at all. It's very strange to walk out of the heated office to freezing hallway to heated classroom. And while you may have those fancy heated toilets, there probably isn't any hot water to wash your hands with.

By the way, Japanese buildings have little insulation and usually lack central heating completely. My schools have smaller heaters installed in each classroom that be individually turned on and off and hallways aren't heated at all.

The Bright Side:
The conversation of energy came with a huge slackening in dress code. On extremely cold days, teachers can shed the suit jackets for an extra cardigan or even a track jacket and can even skip jackets all together in sweltering summer. I've seen teachers sitting with fleece blankets at their desks as well.

There are many alternative heating options available for the home as well.

g) The annual teacher shuffle
The Downside:
Before the start of every new academic year, teachers are moved around their local region. Your school will lose teachers and gain new ones. This means that the JTE you loved working with and spent a whole year building a great relationship with might leave you. Some teachers are even promoted. I was sad to see my principal, vice principal, and gyomu-sensei leave, but was relieved when it turned out the latter two were replaced by promoted teachers.

The shuffle varies from year-to-year and depends on many factors (most of which are a mystery to most of us). Most teachers don't stick around for more than 3-4 years.

The Bright Side:
You might be finally rid of that teacher you just can't seem to get along with. Maybe you'll get to keep the great ones around longer than usual.

Even if your favorites get traded out, they may not be far away. Many are club leaders who you may see at regional competitions or events. It's amazing how every teacher in the southern region in Akita seems to know one another (or at least "about" one another). If you're not sure about your new incoming JTE, chances are someone around you can tell you what to expect.

h) Unpredictable schedules
The Downside:
When you first get here, school schedules will be a complete mystery to you. There will seem to be a billion charts and "jikan-wari" (timetables) that look unreadable and incomprehensible. Your only saving grace will be the office ladies handing out printed daily schedules, but sometimes they forget or don't seem to know whether to give you one.

If your head JTE is nice, they'll make you a schedule of your classes for the week. Sometimes, however, there is a class switch without warning or your JTEs may need/not need your help regardless of what the schedule says. Your JTE may run up to you a couple minutes before the next period and hurriedly ask you to join their class.

Always have your class materials handy and be ready for anything.

The Bright Side:
There is a method to the scheduling madness and it will make sense once you figure it out. My junior high can have one of four schedules on any given day:  A6 (6 50-minute classes), B6 (6 45-minute classes), A5 (5 50-minute classes), and B5 (5 45-minute classes). There can be other variations of this format such as a B4 (4 45-minute classes) or something completely different (which will have the 特 kanji next to the schedule format which means "special").

Once you have the system figured out, it's pretty simple to plan your day out, but again, be ready for anything.

3. Life in Japan

a) Welcome to the cash society
The Downside:
Say goodbye to your plastic friends, because most of them won't do you any good here. Japan is a 'cash' society- it's considered normal to carry around exhorbitant amounts of cash, most places don't accept debit or credit cards, and checks don't really exist in the conventional sense. When somebody needs to send someone else money, they typically receive the relevent account information and transfer it over at an atm. This may seem extremely inconvenient, but if there's someone or a company that you regularly send money to, you can have the atm make you a card so that all you need to do next time is tell it you want a transfer, stick in the card, and then put in the amount. You can also set up automatic withdrawal for most regular payments like bills (you still receive a notice in the mail).

The Bright Side:
Having to pay in cash is a double-edged sword. Yes, it's super inconvenient to have to drive to the bank so often, but having the inconvenience makes your money less easy to spend and make you spread your funds out to avoid unnecessary trips. I find it's a lot easier to budget when you're limited to the physical amount in your immediate possession instead of having a card you can swipe an infinite number of times whether you have the money or not. Another boon to budgeting is having account books that can be automatically updated by sticking it in an atm. You can also have online banking set up.

b) The Japanese Language
The Downside:
As I've mentioned in previous posts, while the JET programme does not require any previous experience or credentials of any kind outside a bachelor's degree (in anything), the truth is that more and more accepted candidates are either at least basic learners of Japanese or previous teachers or both. I know a few JETs who had little to no Japanese ability, but at least one of them has a supervisor who doesn't speak English and I know a good majority of their troubles could be made easier or non-existent if they knew at least basic Japanese.

At the bare minimum, you need to express your intention to study Japanese if you were accepted to the JET program.

The Bright Side:
I recently discovered a great website created by a world traveler called Mark Manson. One of his many great articles is called "22 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language" in which he remarks, "Studies have shown that the most common 100 words in any language account for 50% of all spoken communication. The most common 1,000 words account for 80% of all spoken communication. The most common 3,000 words account for 99% of communication." He emphasizes that just learning those first 100 words will carry you a long way. To someone who hasn't seriously studied a foreign language, it may seem like a lot, but you'd be surprised how many words you can get down in one sitting. When I work on vocabulary, I usually limit myself to 10-20 words at a time. At a pace of once a day, I can get a hundred words down in 5-10 days. Then, of course, you need to continue to review and expand your usage of them.

c) Weather
One of the most unexpected things newcomers to Japan will discover is that the climate here is actually extremely humid. This makes the colder seasons seem colder and the warmer seasons seem hotter.

The higher humidity brings a few extra challenges. One of these is mold. I've never had to clean my shower and bathtub so much as I have here. People who have tatami rooms have to be especially careful since tatami mats are pretty expensive to replace.

Another particularly dangerous risk in the summer is food poisoning. Bacteria love moist, warm climates (aka: Japan). Be especially weary of food stands.

With the humidity and still air, there's also a heightened risk of heat exhaustion. Cute posters have popped up all over my school reminding kids to hydrate and I see announcements all over the news warning the populace of particularily hot days.

Those who are new to Japan eventually notice that the country has a special relationship with umbrellas. Due the strong sun and rainy seasons in summer, umbrellas have become a big industry in Japan with many different kinds, syles, and brands available. The large amount of rain and long stretches of cloudy days can be hard to deal with at times.

And of course, the large amount of precipitation herolds a massive amount of snow in the northern regions. Dealing with the massive amount of snow can be a daunting challenge to most new JETs.

Pictured: winning in Akita
(all the credit to Jeff Lowther)

Japan is also infamous for it's seasonal typhoons. These can be scary, but are usually nothing to worry about as long as you stay home and pay attention to the news.

c) The infamous ginormous bugs
The Downside:
With the I'm not gonna lie- this was probably my biggest hang-up about living in the countryside. It might seem silly, but the thought of finding a multi-legged creepy crawler or humongous spider in my apartment freaks the hell out of me.

Fortunately, the worst we get up here in Akita are giant spiders and giant wasps. Other harzardous fauna include bears and poisonous snakes. I've seen neither since I got here, but I have seen the destruction they're capable of:

They only come out to eat your face at night...

I'd imagine you'd have to traipse pretty far into the forests to see them. We've had a Serow (a kind of large goat with stunted horns) visit close to my junior high and caused quite an excitement during school lunch.

Even when I lived in Tokyo, I heard stories from fellow students who had a roach problem (and apparently, they FLY!). This is so common, I see commercials for roach removal sprays all the time on TV and they are prominently displayed in just about every store. Roaches don't only live in dirty places in Japan- they can invade the cleanest of buildings.

The moral of the story is that you need to be prepaired to deal with the worst possible situation. The variety of critters that can potentially invade your home increase the farther south you live. Maybe you'll be fortunate like me and be given a relatively new building to live in or maybe you'll get something super old with a mukade nest.

Oh, what's a mukade you ask? None other than the first-born satan-spawn from the ninth circle of hell (aka Japanese centipedes). Many of them can grow to be 20cm long, are venomous, territorial and are never solitary. If you find one in your home, chances are it isn't the last one you'll find. I almost cried with happiness when my predecessor told me it's too cold up here for them to live!

The Bright Side:
You get to see things like beautiful dragonflies and praying mantises:

so-named because other insects beg for their lives in its precense

I want to reiterate that I'm not trying to scare you (well, maybe enough so that you'll be careful), but you need to know about local flora and fauna before deciding to live anywhere. There is a great, comprehensive blog about Japanese bugs written by a nice German lad who's been all over the countryside.

d) Bodily Difficulties
The Downside:
Of course everybody gets sick, but many foreignors are hit with something they'd never in a million years think they'd have to deal with: allergies. I have 2 brothers and a step-mother with nasty respiratory allergies, but I've never had anything serious besides a slight allergy to ceclor (a component in some medicines) before a couple years ago.

I started to suspect I had allergies when I started getting sniffles around spring time of 2011 particularily in the damp, underground lecture halls of the chemistry building at college. Due to the fact that it went away with the season and it was extremely inconvenient to get tested (I would have had to find time away from work and school to travel home), I didn't give it another thought.

That fall I went to Tokyo. I had no problems.

Then I came to Akita. About a month later, I came down with what I thought was a cold, but it left me with a post-nasal drip that always grew nastier at night and cause me terrible throat-pain. Every once in a while (again, usually at night), my eyes would randomly burn and itch. Sometimes simply tearing up would cause the burning. I came to the conclusion that there was something here my body simply didn't like.

Apparently, I'm not alone. There is an unusually high number of people (foreignors and Japanese alike) that are allergic to cedar pollen. Why? Well, it turns out it's kind of their fault. A long time ago, the Japanese government reforested a large chunk of Japan with these cedar trees because they were thought to be more economically productive than other trees. Unfortunately, the project turned out to be a complete failure. That article from 1996 sites a statistic of 1 in 10 people being allergic to cedar, but more recent ones state percentages of up to 16%. Now the government is desperately trying to reduce the number of cedar trees. It's not uncommon too see Japanese people in facemasks here due to illness, but they also wear them just to keep out allergens.

Up next, we have the inevitable bowel issues that come with a drastic change in diet. Of course this will vary greatly depending on what you ate in your home country. Japanese food tends to be high in sodium that can irritate sensitive bellies. There is also a lot of seafood both raw and cooked and JETs will find themselves eating fish on a regular basis for school lunch. Those who are allergic to or don't like seafood will find this a bit of a challenge.

Those with a chronic problem like IBS will need to bring their own loperimides (the active ingredient in "Immodium") or see a doctor here for a prescription since it isn't sold over the counter in Japan.

If you have a prescription, you're going to either do more paperwork, have someone send it to you a month at a time, or see a doctor here for it. Ladies: birth control is not covered here. Get it taken care of in your own country if it's cheaper.

Lastly, I'd have to say the most out of left field problem I encountered was sleep deprivation. I'm not even talking about jet-lag (which is an issue for any world traveler). You'll find out quickly that even if you have a western-style bed, it tends to be the arcane spring-style firmer mattress. On top of that, a coastal town such as Nikaho can have high winds fast enough to rattle your windows and I'm a light sleeper.

On the bright side...
Social health insurance. Going to the doctor is extremely cheap here. While not entirely free, it'll cost you a pittance of 500yen to just talk to a doctor and any medications will be extremely cheap and effective. A doctor visit plus an x-ray for my husband cost me about $25.

Another great thing is the adaptibility of the human body. Any problems you may have when you come here may simply be a product of not being acclimated yet. Both taste buds and stomaches can adapt to accept a wide variety of foods and many JETs come here hating seafood and leave loving it. It's also quite nice that Japanese people are just less squicked out by talking about bowel issues. You'll notice that not once have I mentioned the word diarrhea (until now), but I've heard my school nurse tell homeroom teachers in not-hushed tones that their student is out of commission due to "geri" (Japanese for diarrhea).

e) Culture shock
The Downside:
I'll probably write a whole separate post about this topic, but it's still important to mention here. This will happen to you in the most unexpected ways no matter how much time you spend here or in other countries. There is no getting around it, but you can minimize it by doing your research and having reasonable expectations.

Culture Shock is typically thought to occur in "stages": after you get over the excitement of being here (stage 1), you're going to sink into a low (stage 2). Culture shock affects each individual differently, but you can almost guarantee that you'll feel negative emotions such as depression, frustration, anxiety, or just a vague feeling that something (or everything) is "wrong" or "just not right". This can be triggered by some minute difference between your home culture and Japan's, or it may seem like you're feeling that way for no reason at all.

The point is that it happens to everyone and you won't know how it affects you until you've experienced it first-hand. It's extremely important that you have an idea about healthy ways to deal with stage 2 when it happens.

The Brightside:
Most importantly, it gets better. Stage 2 typically ends within a few days then you're on to stage 3: assimilation. Now the differences that got you down feel more acceptable or maybe you found a good substitute. The more you're exposed to the culture, the more it will start to feel normal. You'll eventually cycle around to stage 2 again, but you'll start to notice that it takes longer and longer to occur.

Also, you're not alone. Every foreignor goes through it and it helps to share your experiences. JET has a particularily good support line run by fellow JETs that fills the time that the official JET helpline is not available.

The last great thing about living in a small town is that you will get to know a lot of great people who will help you at a moment's notice. I've had my fair share of difficulties, but members of my community were always there for me.

4. Just Do It

Screw it. You know what? Just do it. I've been through all of these challenges and I wouldn't take back my decision to come to here for anything. There's just too much awesome that offsets the amount of suck you have to go through and come out the other side a stronger, better person. If you read through all of this and still feel that pull, a yearning for the adventure living here can provide and are willing to allow yourself to change and be shaped by the experience, just do it.

There were times when I wondered why I'm even here. The road to understanding the answer has been long and arduous and can't be adequately expressed with words. It's the popping sound of an arrow piercing a target. It's getting lost on your way to Bon Odori. It's watching the sun set over the Japan Sea. It's feeling lonely and unloved. It's the mysterious and haunting sound of a Japanese flute during fall matsuri. It's every time I see a spark of understanding in my student's eyes and the fascination I both see in them and feel in myself. It's your car breaking down an hour away from home in a blizzard. It's seeing the country anew through the eyes of my husband. It's every time I walk outside and feel the awe and wonder at how a country can be so green and beautiful.

It's all of these things and more. And it wouldn't have been possible without the JET program.

Just do it.

**Easter Egg: to those who got the reference in the title, kudos! For those who didn't, allow me to educate you.

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