If you’ve never been to Japan, it’s easy to cobble together an image based on what you’ve seen in movies—skyscrapers, multi-colored neon lights, scramble crossings where thousands of pedestrians jockey for space in a sort of controlled chaos. And life is very much like this in Japanese cities, but rural Japan is completely different. The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program provides recent college graduates the opportunity to experience life in rural Japan while teaching English in local elementary and secondary schools.
Aaron Miller, a Political Theory major at UCLA with no prior knowledge of Japanese language or culture, was accepted to the JET Program and placed in a rural Japanese town. He shares his experiences of culture shock and adaptation—and why you should consider joining JET, too.
Where and when did you participate in the JET Program?
From 2002–2004 in Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku.
What was the JET application process like? Were there any unexpected surprises along the way?
To be honest I don’t remember too many of the details. I do remember it took a while and that I had to interview at the consulate in Los Angeles. You apply through the closest Japanese consulate or embassy.
I also remember that in the interview I answered a few questions very poorly and I remember leaving it thinking there was no way I would get the job. I didn’t speak any Japanese, I wasn’t particularly interested in Japanese culture, and had no knowledge of Japan. To this day I’m not sure why they picked me.
What were the details of your assignment? What was a typical day on the job like?
I was an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) based at a middle school in a very small town of 5,000 people. It felt like the middle of nowhere. There was one stoplight in the whole town, one supermarket, and one restaurant. It was a very interesting experience just from the standpoint of living in a small town, because it’s very rare these days to have the opportunity to relocate to a rural area. Looking back, I really appreciate having been given the chance to have that experience.
A typical day included teaching English classes to middle school students, and three days a week I would teach younger kids at the town’s elementary schools.
On the JET Program, at least when I participated, they subscribed to a “team teaching” philosophy, which basically meant that the Japanese teacher planned the lesson and you would follow whatever he or she said. For a lot of JET teachers with limited Japanese ability, that amounts to just modeling pronunciation of English vocabulary words. Certainly there is some value in that approach, but I made a point of studying Japanese in the evenings so I could teach my own classes during my second year. Not everyone has the opportunity to do that, even if they speak Japanese well, but I was lucky to have open-minded colleagues who were happy to give me a chance.
I wasn’t required to participate in extracurricular activities after school, but I soon found that it was much easier to connect with my students while they were playing sports than it was when they were in the classroom. When they played sports, they were letting loose, which allowed me to get to know them better. It was a lot of fun for me, and hopefully a lot of fun for them, too. That’s a big reason why I study what I study now—because there’s great power in sports to help people connect and communicate, even without words.
How do you think spending time in Japan as a JET teacher compares to going there as a student or tourist?
It’s vastly different. JET provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially in the rural areas where you would probably never have the chance to live otherwise.
The fact that the JET Program is government-sponsored means that you know that the government will respond quickly if any problems arise, your salary is rather generous—especially if it is your first job out of college—and you even receive a pension. From my experience, JET seems to be generally well-regarded here in the US, too.
There are two main purposes of the program. The first is to teach children English, but in reality you have only a limited impact on your students’ English abilities because you’re only in their lives for a year or two. Then they will be exposed to a new person with an entirely different English accent, or they may give up on studying English altogether.
But the second purpose of the program is “internationalization.” The idea is as follows: The Japanese government brings over a variety of people, some of whom do not previously know much about Japan, gives them a generally positive experience of the country, and then those people return home and become quasi cultural ambassadors. I’m really supportive of that purpose of the program; I think it works really well. It wouldn’t hurt if the US government had a similar program for our children.
JET provides you with a way to travel the world without being a tourist and learn some real world life lessons, so it’s really fun to see what some of my former colleagues have gone on to do since their tenure on JET ended. They’ve pursued fields as diverse as business, medicine, law, and academia, and I think one guy even started a commune in South America.
How did you handle logistics like visas, housing, and transportation?
Most of the people that you interact with for your interview, and ultimately at your job itself, speak at least some English, and the documents that describe your duties are generally written in English. For the most part, you don’t have to speak any Japanese to get the job. That’s one pretty important perk of the program: If you can get this job, you can learn a new language and develop deep cultural understanding about one of the world’s most wealthy democracies.
As far as logistics, in my case they gave me my own little house, and they paid my rent for me; I just had to pay for my utilities. That was an added bonus on top of my salary, but it’s not the same for everyone. It was also just a five-minute bicycle ride from my apartment to the school where I taught, so I had it pretty good.
I bought my own small car so I could drive to the nearest big city on the weekends, but that wasn’t provided by the program. I actually liked driving over there because it was a challenge to adapt to the other side of the road. Road signs were not written in English, but that only fueled my desire to learn the language.
What were your favorite aspects of your JET experience? What were some challenges you faced?
Although I did not think so at the time, looking back now I can see that living in a small town at the age of 22 was an amazing opportunity. I got to see how simple life can be without a lot of the conveniences that we become so attached to living in cities and suburbs. Things become much simpler when you don’t have a lot of things to worry about. In a small town, relationships with people are much more meaningful. Everybody knows everybody else. The fact that many JETs are sent to small towns or villages is a strength of the program, I feel, but it is only a strength if you make it a strength. I had a lot of friends who were like me, taking great pains to learn Japanese, but there were a few people who assumed they couldn’t learn the language because it was too hard, so they gave up and didn’t enjoy their experience as much as a result.
JET is really for people who are independent adventurers. The people I knew who were most successful were able to stare down the cultural differences and difficulties of living in rural Japan in a resourceful way. Since JET mostly sends people to small towns, it’s very different living in a small town if you haven’t before. If you want to live in a city, JET may not be the right thing for you. [Note: If you love the idea of teaching English in a city in Japan, check out this post on how you can make that happen.]
The biggest challenge for me was that I went there with no Japanese language ability and no prior cultural knowledge. To be honest, I really was very unprepared. Living in a small town was a challenge because everybody knows everything about you and the Japanese sense of privacy is a little different from our own. That took time to adjust to, but I did feel that I had to adjust my behavior, not expect them to adjust their behavior for me.
Traditional Japanese society is structured around relationships between people, and once you’re part of the community, especially as a teacher, you’re held in a certain regard. That was one thing I loved: I was really respected over there. Here I was: 22 years old, very little knowledge or experience, but by default I was held in high esteem as a sensei. That respect felt very undeserved, but it motivated me to work harder to learn their language and understand their culture.
What advice would you give to students who are thinking about applying for the JET Program?
Do more background reading about Japan than I did! (Or don’t. It probably doesn’t really matter all that much. For me, it was exciting to go there without knowing much about Japan. That made it feel like a true adventure.) It makes sense to do some reading about the things that make Japan Japan. Also, read about things you might be interested in doing while you’re in Japan. Photography, martial arts, cooking—whatever it is that interests you. Having a hobby or interest will give Japanese people a way to relate to you as well. Figure out what you might do while you’re there to get to know people outside of school and work.
What were some resources that were helpful to you either before or while you were living abroad?
At the time I went there, Google Maps couldn’t even locate where the town was that I was going. I don’t really remember using any blogs or websites to learn about Japan. The career center at UCLA was how I found out about the program in the first place. There’s a very large and rather tightly knit JET community that taught me everything I needed to know about living in Japan. Many former JETs are still in Japan, so it is a good idea to try to get as involved as you can with the local JET community. I remember AJET (Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching) being a good resource.
The JET teachers in your prefecture are basically your family. They’re the people you call when something goes wrong. Even when I could speak Japanese it was hard to express myself in the way I wanted to, so I spent a fair number of weekends with those people, especially in my first year. And in a place like Shikoku, where there aren’t many options for employment for foreigners other than JET, most of my foreign friends were nearby JET teachers. If you’re in a small town in a remote place, that support group is even more important.
How has your experience on the JET Program influenced your career decisions since?
I will always feel very lucky to have been able to experience traditional Japanese culture in a small town, but after I visited the cities of Japan, such as Tokyo and Kyoto, I realized there was more to Japanese life than I had seen there. So I decided to enroll in a graduate studies program in anthropology and Japanese studies in order to color in what was by then a rather black and white portrait of Japan. Even before participating on JET I had considered a career in academia, and then JET gave me a foundation of knowledge to build upon in my studies. There is no question that without my JET experience I would have never ended up working for a Japanese university.
Aaron Miller is currently an Assistant Professor/Hakubi Scholar at Kyoto University and Visiting Scholar at Stanford Center on Adolescence. He recently published Discourses of Discipline: An Anthropology of Corporal Punishment in Japan’s Schools and Sports with the Institute of East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. Read more about Aaron at aaronlmiller.com.