Note: The contents of this FAQ are specific to the JET Programme and are based on my own experience as an ALT in Shiga-ken from 1999 to 2001. As you will often hear in connection with the JET Programme, Every Situation Is Different (ESID), so you may get what I describe here, or you may get something completely different. I can only tell you what I know!
Generally, what I think they're looking for is someone who's outgoing and open-minded, and stands a good chance of being able to adjust to life in Japan. If you have previous experience of living overseas, or of dealing with people from other cultures, then it will probably count in your favour. Also, because it's the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, part of the idea of which is to promote Japan's image abroad, to some degree they want people who are likely to achieve influential positions in later life.
You definitely need a Bachelor's degree (any subject will do), since this is a condition required by the government before they will grant you a working visa. So if you don't have the requisite degree, either forget JET or go to university and apply during your final year there. Forget the idea of getting a fake degree too; your application has to be supported by academic transcripts from your university.
As far as age is concerned, the powers that be are not secretive about their ageism: when I applied they said that applicants should "in principle" be under 35 years of age, though I believe the upper threshold has been extended to 40 now. I don't know how strict they are on this, but I don't know of any JETs older than that. I was 28 when I applied and came to Japan, and some of my neighbours are older than me, though the majority of ALTs seem to be straight out of university. (A lot of them are in for a shock when they finish their time on JET and have to get a proper job!) For some reason the average age of the New Zealanders and Australians tends to be a bit higher though, in my experience. Some schools actually express a preference for a mature ALT, so don't worry if you're 30-ish and think you may be a little long in the tooth!
Well, I can tell you what my interview in 1999 was like, and offer one or two general suggestions. As mentioned above, they want people who are outgoing and open-minded, and stand a good chance of being able to adjust to life in Japan. It will help if you can give them some indication that you've read up about Japan and have an idea of what you're letting yourself in for.
The selection process varies from one place to another; it depends on your country, your hiring centre, and your interview panel. I was interviewed in London and had quite a tough time of it (I'd met some JETAA people - former ALTs - shortly before the interview and they'd primed me on the kind of questions I was likely to get, and except for the name of the emperor, every single one came up!) but another guy who had his interview at the same time as me said his had been easy and they'd talked mainly about drinking games! I don't know whether he got accepted though... An American ALT was telling me recently that the centre she applied to had no cap on the numbers to be accepted and as a result had something like a 97% acceptance rate once you got to the interview stage. (In London I think it was about 50-60%.)
When we turned up for the interview we were shown into the area by ex-JETs who were acting as ushers. They gave us each a single A4 sheet with a few questions on it. One section was a bit like "Call My Bluff" where they asked you the meanings of a few really obscure words, with multiple choice answers. I didn't know all of them, and I'd be very surprised if any Japanese needed to! Another section asked you how you would explain a particular grammar point (for example "its" versus "it's" - I wish I'd got that one, because people getting it wrong is one of my pet hates so I've got my explanation sussed!). I can't remember what else was on the sheet, maybe one more section. They had several different sheets so that they didn't have two people doing the same one at the same time. I wouldn't worry too much about it, as long as your English is reasonable - I think it's only intended to weed out people whose English is so bad that they probably had to get someone else to fill in their applications. This test/exercise thingy took 10 minutes or so (I don't think it was timed), and then they put us in a waiting area with a video about JET to watch.
My interviewing panel consisted of a Japanese guy (Mr. Yamada), an ex-JET participant (Chloe) and a middle-aged Scottish woman called Carol, who presumably was some kind of ambassadorial-type person or senior academic. (She probably told me who she was but it didn't sink in.) It was a 25-minute interview and they asked me most of the stuff I'd prepared for and quite a few things I hadn't, so I coped well with some questions and less well with others. I was asked the name of the Japanese PM (at that time Keizo Obuchi, then Mori, and by the time I returned to the UK in summer 2001 it was Koizumi), the names of the 4 main islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku & Kyushu), the population of Japan (about 125 million), and what Japanese arts I was interested in (I was hoping to learn how to do woodblock printing (hanga, the technique used to produce ukiyo-e), and even managed to name a couple of artists - Hiroshige & Hokusai - when asked). Those were the Japanese guy's questions. Oh, and I had to introduce myself in Japanese (I'd mentioned in my application that I was studying Japanese at evening classes). He also asked me about the difference between the House of Commons & the House of Lords, which I wasn't too sure about, although I said that the the Commons are voted in by the electorate and some of the Lords are hereditary peers, but I didn't know about the rest of them. He told me that this was the kind of thing that Japanese people would want to know, but he was lying through his teeth! In my experience, very few Japanese people have any interest in politics, which suits me fine. I did once have a conversation of sorts on a train with one guy who seemed to be a big fan of Margaret Thatcher though...
The ex-JET asked me teaching-type questions: what did I learn on my TEFL course that would be useful in dealing with 40 Japanese kids (try to come across as approachable; give them activities where they see different reactions to the same situation, e.g. by working with partners in concentric circles, rotating occasionally (Note: nice idea but too difficult to organise with 40 kids, especially when the boys and girls won't speak to each other!)); what extra-curricular activities would I get involved in (music, art, maybe sport); what would I include in my self-introduction and how would I cope with having to do it countless times? Don't think I actually answered the second part of this, but for the first part I said I could cover where I come from & have lived; my house and how Brits live in general; my work (but only briefly, as schoolkids probably wouldn't be that interested); social & sporting activities; National Trust; festivals like birthdays, Christmas, Easter etc.
Apart from that I was asked about British current affairs, which threw me a bit - what are the big issues at the moment? I don't think I answered that one very well at all, but burbled something about being aware of what's going on in general and having Internet access to keep in touch with developments, but nothing particular springing to mind at that moment.
Yes, as a JET you will almost definitely have your accommodation arranged for you by your base school or town. In most cases you'll be moving into a self-contained apartment vacated by your predecessor, and you will have it to yourself. It could be anything from a tiny studio apartment in a city to a big old house in a tiny village. Mine was a 2LDK, which meant a living/dining/kitchen area plus two additional rooms. My two rooms both had tatami flooring, which is typical. One room was six mats and the other was 4.5; room sizes in Japan are measured in terms of tatami mats; the mat sizes do vary slightly but they're usually roughly 180 x 90cm, so my larger room was about nine feet by twelve and the smaller was nine by nine. The two tatami rooms together accounted for about half my total floor area. If you're lucky you'll get a Western-style flush toilet, but there's no guarantee of this. Squat toilets are still common in older places, and drop toilets are common in rural areas too. Your kitchen will probably consist of little more than a sink, a draining board, a two-ring gas stove with a small grill, and a couple of cupboards. If you're lucky you might get a fridge-freezer, a microwave and a little toaster oven as well. Don't expect any insulation or central heating. Kerosene (paraffin) heaters are common and the cheapest way to heat your rooms; you'll probably have an air-conditioner that doubles as a heater, but these are expensive to run. You will probably find a kotatsu - a low table with a heating element built into the underside - a worthwhile investment. When you arrive in July/August it's likely that you won't be able to imagine ever being cold again, but believe me, Japanese homes get very cold in winter!
Rent is generally between about ¥30,000 and ¥70,000 per month, possibly a little more in a big city, and may well be subsidised, though you might get the subsidy retrospectively. It varies from one prefecture to the next. In my case the monthly rent was ¥50,000 and I got ¥30,000 of that back retrospectively at 4-month intervals. Be warned that on arrival you might also have to fork out a sizeable amount in the form of key money (a thank-you gift to the landlord for letting you move in - landlords in Japan get away with murder!) and/or a security deposit. Some JETs are lucky and don't have to pay any key money or deposit, but I had to pay both. (Part of the reason may have been that I was my school's first base ALT so I didn't have a predecessor; I ended up not having a successor either, which is unusual, so I never found out whether my successor would have had to pay the initial expenses too. I would imagine that it depends on whether the landlord's rental contract is with the school or the individual ALT.) The key money is not refundable; the security deposit may or may not be, even if you leave the place in pristine condition. In my case the key money was ¥100,000, which I had to pay upfront, and the security deposit was a whopping ¥400,000, of which I had to pay ¥120,000. The school paid the rest, and expected to get its share back - but as it turned out, even though I did no damage at all and left the apartment absolutely immaculate when I vacated it, they still lost some of their deposit. I knew from the start that I probably wouldn't see my portion again, but at least the school lent me it and allowed me to pay it back in 12 monthly instalments so it wasn't too crippling. You may not get paid a full month's salary until nearly two months after arrival so it's worth bringing, say, UK£2000/US$3000 worth of yen to tide you over if you can.
Your accommodation may or may not be furnished - in Shiga most of the basic furnishings, plus a phone line, a TV, and the all-important shopping bike, are supplied by our employers, but it varies from one prefecture to the next. The phone line in particular is very expensive if you don't get it provided; a lot of people in that situation just get mobile phones instead, though you may want to fork out for the land line if you want a home Internet connection. (If you do, then take a look at my Getting online in Japan page.) You'll probably have a predecessor who has bought and/or inherited everything you need for your apartment and will be willing to pass most of it on to you, though they may want you to pay for it. Don't feel that you have to buy anything from them, but in most cases you won't be overcharged for what turns out to be a heap of junk. You are under no obligation to pay them any money until you've seen the goods, anyway! Since I had no predecessor, I had to buy all my own kitchen equipment and have also bought a few extra things such as chairs, shelving units, clothes airers, an electric fan, an answering machine and suchlike, and although it doesn't sound like an awful lot, it does mount up.
That depends - on where you are placed, on how much you go out drinking, on the size of the debts you want to pay off... but in general, the JET salary is ample for a single person to live on and save a fair amount of money. If you've looked at other sections of this site you will see the things I did while I lived in Japan, and I sent several thousand pounds home too. I'm not much of a clubber or drinker though; if these are your pastimes of choice then you'll probably save considerably less. People in rural locations tend to save more, basically because they have less opportunity to spend money. Couples tend to find things a bit tighter financially, if they're both living off a single salary, but there are usually English teaching opportunities for someone on a spouse visa.
I would suggest that you don't ask for Kyoto, because that's the most popular place and demand far outstrips supply. In fact this is true of city placements in general; whereas the private conversation schools such as Nova and GEOS tend to be in more densely-populated areas, public schools are everywhere and so the majority of JETs end up in relatively rural locations.
If you do ask for Kyoto, and get it, then you may well find yourself in northern Kyoto-fu (prefecture; for some reason Osaka and Kyoto are -fu and everywhere else, except Hokkaido, is -ken), three hours away from Kyoto-shi (city). A better bet would be to ask for a lesser-known place in the vicinity of where you want to go, for example (staying in the Kyoto area) Shiga-ken, Nara-ken or Mie-ken. If possible, give a convincing reason to illustrate why you want to go there - for example relatives, friends, a previous visit or a sister city relationship.
First of all, bear in mind that I'm not a qualified teacher; the only teacher training I had before I went to Japan was a weekend intensive TEFL course that I'd done about a year before. What I can give you is a few basic principles and ideas that usually worked with the classes I was teaching (15 to 18-year-old students of mixed, but mostly average-to-low, ability and motivation). These may or may not work in your situation!
You'll acquire plenty of ideas for classroom activities at the orientations, but what they don't tell you is how to go about planning an entire lesson. Some people never have to organise more than a ten-minute activity at the end of a lesson, but I think it's true to say that most ALTs are entrusted with more responsibility than that.
A classroom period is almost always 50 minutes. I usually try to follow a pattern that goes something along the lines of:
- greeting and warm-up (a short activity to review recent material and/or stimulate an interest in today's subject matter) (5-10 mins);
- bookwork (introducing new grammar/vocabulary) (10 mins);
- drilling new material (5 mins);
- an activity to use the new material (10-15 mins);
- introducing variations on the material - e.g. a substitution drill, or letting the students personalise the material by using it to produce their own sentences, or a fun activity using the same grammar points.
Other pointers to bear in mind:
- Start and end the lesson with a greeting in English - have them stand up for it, but don't let them bow (as they do in all their other lessons). Try to get them saying something other than just "I'm fine".
- Try to alternate active and passive activities, and don't talk at them for more than 3-5 minutes at a time. When you do talk English to them, punctuate it with lots of gestures, writing/drawing on the blackboard, etc., because most of them will hardly understand a word of what you're saying.
- Encourage participation by asking them questions, but try not to single out a student to answer in front of everyone else unless you're pretty sure that that particular student will know the answer. You could try incentive schemes to encourage them to volunteer answers. Don't penalise them for getting the answer wrong, or they won't want to volunteer again in future.
- If you need to ask a single student to speak in front of the whole class, always try to give them plenty of opportunity to practise the language patterns first.
- Never schedule an activity that relies on them all having done their homework, unless you've allowed time for them to do it in the lesson.
- When you do pronunciation drills, particularly with quiet classes, get the JTL to repeat what you say together with the students, every time. Students are often terrified of being the only one to speak up so they just don't say anything, but if they're confident that the JTL will speak too then they'll be a lot more forthcoming.
- Try to get the students talking English as much as possible, not just listening and parroting what you say. Minimise explanations, maximise practice time. (Minimising explanations can prove difficult with some JTLs, mind you!) Pairwork or small group work is usually the best way of giving everyone a chance to talk, because there are far too many students for you to be able to give them all enough individual attention. You might find that pairs have to be single-sex, particularly with high school first years, otherwise they'll just sit there in silence or ignore their partner and chat to their friends in Japanese.
- Try to use activities that give the clever ones a chance to excel but
still allow the slower ones to complete the task successfully.
- Activities which have a competitive element, but where the students can also work together and help each other, tend to work pretty well. You can pit teams against each other, and even introduce competition between classes.
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