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How the JET Program changed me


My time with the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) is coming to an end in three weeks (sniffles!) and I have been spending a lot of time contemplating how my two years with the program has changed me.

If you’re not familiar with JET, it is one of the largest cultural exchange programs in the world and is run by three Japanese government ministries. Started in 1987, JET “is aimed at promoting grass-roots international exchange between Japan and other nations.”

The program welcomed 4,330 participants from 39 countries in 2011 to work as either Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs), my current position, Coordinators for International Relations (CIRs) or the less-common Sports Exchange Advisors (SEAs). Participants sign a one-year contract, usually beginning in late July or August, and decide on a year-to-year basis if they want to renew their contract. JETs can be placed in large metropolises (Tokyo is very rare), suburbs or more likely the countryside, staying for a maximum of five years if they are in agreement with their local employers.

When I applied for JET in November 2009, I was working as a freelance journalist in the Chicago area and looking for a change of pace in life. I liked my job and left behind a lot of connections, but I wanted to try something different while I still could. I was born and raised in the Chicago area and also went to school there. I never studied abroad in university and always regretted it. Japan seemed so wildly different than any of my familiar surroundings, so I took a big gulp, closed my eyes and soon found myself sleeping on the floor of my Japanese apartment in the humid summer. All of my belongings were still in my two black suitcases.

I’m unpacked and well-adjusted to my life in Japan now, so when I look back to the person I was back then, it’s like seeing a shadow of a former self. I feel so different and so much stronger.

Below are some ways the JET Program changed me.

A Changed View of America

I live in Namerikawa, a seaside town in Toyama Prefecture on Japan’s west coast. My town has a population of about 30,000 people and is known for "hotaru ika," squid with a natural fluorescence that causes them to glow in the dark. Although Namerikawa certainly isn’t a tiny village, every day the pitch black streets by 8 p.m. and croaking frogs remind me that this definitely is not Tokyo. I’m quite far from anything that reminds me of Chicago or any major metropolis.

Even so, I think about America a lot, and living in the countryside of Japan has altered my view of my home country for the better and for the worse. Now more than ever, I really look at America’s diversity in awe. There are certainly still big problems in America with racial and economic inequality that should not be ignored, but America celebrates diversity in a way that Japan never will. A person who is not Japanese will likely never be fully integrated into Japanese society, and there are serious problems with discrimination here that I don’t think will ever be fully addressed.

However, with that said, Japan is a very peaceful society, and I think the younger generation is becoming more open to other cultures as travel to other countries is becoming more popular. Yes, there is still terrible discrimination here, but for the most part life in Japan is serene compared to life in many parts of Chicago, my hometown. It’s common here to have your wallet or iPhone returned to you if you lost it. In comparison, in America, you are 128 times more likely to get killed with a firearm than in Japan.

I did not have a strong interest in Asian culture prior to coming to Japan and to be honest, I was rather ignorant to many aspects of Japanese culture. The first time I visited Japan in 2009 for vacation, I asked my friend to explain the meaning of the word kanji. It’s three years later and I can read katakana, hiragana and some kanji. I can also explain the geography of Japan and know much about its history, though there is still so much I want to learn.

Being in Japan for this time has also allowed me to travel to other parts of Southeast Asia and learn so much about many other rich cultures, including that of South Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia. I never considered travel a hobby until recently, and I hope to continue to travel much more after my time with JET ends. I even plan to explore my hometown of Chicago more when I go back. To quote Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

A New Life Perspective

When I applied for the JET Program, I was 99% certain that I would only stay a year. Beyond that seemed foolish and not a wise career move unless I decided I wanted to become a teacher. After much debate, I decided to stay a second year and have no regrets. I had to decide in February if I wanted to stay a third year, and saying no was honestly one of the most difficult things I have ever decided in my life. I have some regrets about my decision simply because I’ve learned from JET that letting the wind blow and take you places you never expected to go is a wonderful feeling. I certainly don’t want to be directionless the rest of my life, but I’m happy that I decided to explore for two years without letting the pressures of finding a “real” job get in the way. You’re only young once, and I want to use my 20s to explore in any way possible, hopefully with meaning, integrity and tact.

I have JET, and Japan, to thank for this newfound outlook. どうもありがとうございます。

© Japan Today

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a “real” job

... this little three-word gem sums up everything that is wrong with the JET programme, the fact that it isn't viewed as a real job.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

My 21 year old daughter leaves for Japan to work for JET in a couple of weeks. thank you for the article and comments. It gave me a better insight into her decision.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

"Gaijin" means 'foreigner' so technically they do only offer positions to 'gaijins' (I don't like that word myself though). When I was in Japan, there were plenty of racially Asian JETs there, a lot with Japanese ancestry and a lot without (Chinese-Australian, Japanese-Australian, Korean-American, Vietnamese-American etc). I know they also take JETs directly from Singapore too so it didn't seem to me like there was any selection bias against Asian people.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

A good read and a nice article on the joys of travel, particularly for a young person having their eyes opened for the first time. It's never all good but it's what you choose to take from that experience that informs you for the rest of your life. When you travel you learn this you could never have been taught.

1 ( +1 / -0 )


Sounds like you have had a lot of good experiences, Japans a great place, doing the Jet thing for 2yrs & then moving on you will later realize that that is a very wise choice.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Good luck on your next adventure!

JET started me out in Japan, and provided me with great experiences and lasting friendships with incredible people from around the world.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Decent article. Many times we only hear of folks who had a crappy time on JET. I did it 20 ys ago in a small town of 5,000. First & only gaijin there. One 7/11 & the operating hours were true to the name. This was pre-cell phones and pre-internet (at least easily accessible). NHK and the Japan Times were my news. It was somewhat of a boondoggle in my day - business class travel, lots of conferences and I always went a day early. Went on every school trip - skiiing, Kyoto, Disneyland. Interesting to see that some of those kids I taught are now living abroad or have lived abroad. Good times.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

An absolutely wonderful piece of journalism! Thank you Burt-sensei for your your heartfelt article!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

So jealous of people who can work in Japan... JET sounds like a great programme for young people.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Chuichi - had to have been something else. Some people give the wrong impression during the interviews about why they wish to do the program. Even 20 yrs ago, I knew many JETs of Asian and even Japanese heritage on the program. That said, there were occasions when I got the impression that some hosts (teachers, boards of Ed, even parents) strongly preferred stereotypical white people who knew nothing about Japan and found every little thing new and mysterious. One clear example came from a nearby town when I saw a sansei woman from Hawaii with a Japanese surname who was treated fairly poorly by her teachers and Board of Education. She actually left early at the winter holiday and they spread a rumor she was pregnant to save face from the program organizers - nice.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Considering I'm an Asian they probably rejected me based on that...?

Totally, but it's not a secret. Nearly all JET positions are reserved for nationals of 7 Anglo-Saxon countries, educated in universities of those countries. Recently, they took a few dozens of Korean and Chinese. For the other countries in the program, they have a token number of "coordinators", and they usually ask them to be trilingual, even to have qualifications in international relations. So maybe in your country, you were 300 to apply for one position.

without knowing the facts.

Ask the facts to JET.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I am happy that Ms Burt had a great experience on the JET program and that it "changed" her.

What is sad, however is how little the JET program is changing the English ability of Japanese children.

Now I'm all for tax-payer funded feel-good quasi-work experience for foreigners in fields they are not qualified in so they can go home and tell their buddies how good Japan treated them, but to do so at the expense of the education of our children is questionable at best.

No offense to Ms Burt or other JETs... It is not their fault the system is completely screwed up. They're just taking advantage of a good opportunity and I don't blame them.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

The JET program was never really about improving english in Japan, it shud have been called the PANDA Program, because its kinda like Japanese going to Ueneo to see panda's except with JET the panda's are brought to the local schools for everyone to have a gander.

The program is designed to allow Japanese to get used to seeing foreigners & for foreigners to go home & be pro-Japan(doesnt always work so well though)

Thats it in a nut shell.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

you're lucky in that you had experience before you went on jet. For those of us who are fresh graduates, especially those who tried looking for a real job back home before coming, the concern of "What does this mean for the future?", "Will I ever get a real job?" looms large throughout our time in Japan.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

as to the comment on being rejected due to being asian- nonsense. There are absolutely loads of Asian Jets. Asians make up a much bigger percentage of the Jet population than they do the general population back home.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I signed up to the JET program couple of years ago but they rejected me... I wonder if they were only willing to offer these to gaijins / non-asians? Considering I'm an Asian they probably rejected me based on that...? :(

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

I wonder if they were only willing to offer these to gaijins / non-asians? Considering I'm an Asian they probably rejected me based on that...? :(

No, it was because you weren't what they were looking for. Plenty of "Asians" on JET and rather sad you would suggest otherwise without knowing the facts.

... this little three-word gem sums up everything that is wrong with the JET programme, the fact that it isn't viewed as a real job.

But it isn't a "real" job for the most part. ESID and I know folks who were JETs who certainly didn't behave as if it were a real job.

Well written and am happy to hear the writer had a great time.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

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