Right after she graduated from college, Kim Miyake embarked on an adventure in a small Japanese village that would deeply immerse her in a foreign culture and allow her to become nearly fluent in Japanese. She spent three life-changing years
in Tessei, Japan as an English teacher, and was one of the best choices she’s ever made.
Prepare for the Ride of Your Life with the JET Program
Kim’s experience was made possible through the highly respected Japan Exchange and Teaching, or JET Program, which is managed by the Japanese government. Founded in 1987, the JET Program places about 4,000 teachers from 40 different countries as teachers throughout Japan each year.
Kim studied Japanese language in college and was interested in pursuing teacher as a career—so the program was a natural fit. If you want to apply but you don’t know any Japanese language, don’t worry—it’s not a requirement.
A Straightforward but Competitive Application Process
Kim’s application process for the JET Program included writing an essay, detailing teaching and overseas experiences, and securing references. The applications are reviewed by the Japanese embassy, with lucky candidates interviewed at nearby consulates.
Kim explains that acceptance has always been competitive, but it’s becoming even more so recently. Many teachers are choosing to stay five years, or the maximum number of time allowed. With teachers happily staying put, fewer spots are opening for new ones.
Most of Kim’s fellow teachers were in their twenties. It’s fuzzy whether the Japanese government has any kind of age cap that would restrict more mature teachers from participating, but they don’t discriminate against bringing children and families.
Starting in the Fall at a Year-Round School
Kim started her JET Program adventure in late summer to start teaching in the fall, which is actually mid-year for Japanese children. American kids would be startled to learn that the school year here starts in April and ends in March—with a couple weeks off before the new year starts.
JET Program teachers almost always teach at the elementary, junior high, or high school level. Kim’s situation was somewhat unique because she also occasionally taught at the local nursery school outside of the junior high and elementary schools she spent most of her time.
Training for the JET Program
It’s not necessary to be a trained English teacher in order to be selected for the JET Program. Kim had done some tutoring before, which was helpful, and she had a strong suspicion that she’d enjoy working full time as a teacher.
The JET Program provides teacher training mainly after you’ve arrived to your host community. Prior to that, there are a number of helpful orientations. You’ll have one orientation in your home country before heading overseas, followed by another orientation in Tokyo. Once you’re sent to your English teaching location, the local prefectures will provide guidance through additional information sessions held throughout the year.
Assisting a Japanese English Teacher
In general, most JET Program teachers are assistants to full-time Japanese English teachers. At your local orientation session, you’ll meet other English teachers—including the Japanese teachers of English you’ll be working with. During these sessions you’ll also have instruction on how to be an effective ESL teacher and they make sure to give you the tools you need so that you know what you’re doing and can feel confident.
Kim said that it’s common to feel that you could always use more training, but the JET Program provided a good basis. As the assistant, you can rely on the head teacher to provide guidance.
Making a Real Difference in Students’ Lives
The type of teaching you’ll do—how your English skills will specifically be used—largely depends on what your head teacher would like to emphasize. But for the most part, JET teachers are relied upon for speaking and interacting with the students. The foundational purpose behind the JET Program is to provide Japanese students with real-world English language training and to take the focus off of simply memorizing vocabulary and studying grammar. This emphasis is certainly good news for the foreign JET Program teacher who will have a great time interacting with students rather than merely grading papers.
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Urban and Rural Locations
JET Program teachers are asked for their preference regarding the size of the city they’ll be working in. Kim requested a small town, and that’s exactly what she got in Tessei. This was different from how she grew up on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon—she ended up experiencing a bit of culture shock in a tiny village without all the activities going on in a big city, where almost no one spoke English.
Her surroundings forced her to learn Japanese well and she was able to experience the culture in a richer, more authentic way than if she had remained in a big city with its westernized practices. Also, being out in the boonies didn’t allow her to spend time primarily with other foreigners, or expats, which would have been easier but less enriching long-term.
Becoming Fluent in Japanese
Although Kim studied Japanese in college, she had a long way to go to understand others and make herself understood. As the months passed and she interacted daily with others in her town, Kim became nearly fluent in Japanese by the end of her third year.
She found that her new friends and colleagues were incredibly appreciative of her efforts to learn their language, and were very supportive and understanding when she had a challenging time expressing herself. She said that Japanese men and women are quite timid about using English, even though most study it in school.
Genuinely Enjoyable Work
Kim enjoyed the day-to-day work of teaching and found it fascinating to learn about the differences between the U.S. and Japanese school systems—for example, how students bow to the teacher when she comes into the room. Kim was also able to debunk the stereotype that Japanese kids are extremely serious and always focused. After just a few days, it became obvious that they’re the same as any others across the world in terms of their priorities, goals, and insisting on having fun whenever possible.
Tessei, Japan is located between Kobe and Hiroshima and is made up of just 3,000 people. When she first arrived, Kim admittedly was faced with some challenges to having a standard social life. For one thing, all of the Japanese people her age had gone away to school and to work elsewhere. In fact, Kim says of those who do come back, it’s only after they’re in their thirties and they’re ready to settle down.
She was not at all discouraged by the social opportunities and forged some great friendships. She still keeps in regular contact with many of these friends over 10 years later, and writes most of her friends in Japanese. Although for some of her former students—many of whom are in college or who have graduated—she’ll write in English because they want to practice with their former language sensei.
Three Years of Teaching
Kim had a great experience each of the three years she was in Japan, but each year was also markedly different. The first was focused on getting adjusted, meeting people, and learning the routines and customs of her new workplace and environment. During the second year, she started to feel settled, and by the third year Tessei, Japan was simply “my home, and I loved it.”
Each year, Kim would receive about three weeks of vacation time. She’d take time off when the students were on break, except for the Christmas holiday, for which she took at least several days off to fly back to the U.S. She also returned home for a little while one summer. But for the other two summers, she made a point of traveling around Japan and the rest of Asia.
Kim says that most people taking part in the JET Program end up traveling worldwide. With her fellow JET teachers, there were regularly organized bonding excursions within Japan—these were put together typically when the students had a holiday. Kim didn’t travel with other JET teachers for her other trips, mainly because many of her peers had families and didn’t have the freedom to roam around as she did.
I asked Kim how common it is for JET teachers to date, marry, and settle down with a Japanese spouse. She says she’s certainly seen this take place, along with many intra-JET teacher relationships. In addition to all the teachers from English-speaking countries, there are a fair number of ones from other countries—and international relationships have definitely arisen in various forms.
Kim was paid roughly $30,000 each year, which went a long way mainly because it wasn’t taxed by either the U.S. or Japanese governments. In addition, Kim didn’t have to pay for housing—which isn’t always the case—because the Board of Education in her town was happy to have her there. You should expect to pay for your own housing in the bigger cities, which are typically in higher demand by teachers. Regardless, the JET Program makes sure no teachers have to pay over a certain amount, and will kick in some yen for rent for teachers in Tokyo, for example.
Verdict? The JET Program is One of the World’s Best Opportunities to Teach Overseas
Was Kim glad she did this? Absolutely.
It’s hard to think of a better way to invest your time than becoming deeply familiar with a fascinating culture, to do valuable work that others appreciate, to make lifelong friends, and to travel throughout a beautiful part of the world.
All images are Kim’s.
Featured image via Unsplash.