The JET Programme is truly global and attracts all kinds of people from all walks of life. When I graduated, I felt I needed a challenge of a different nature to those presented to me in university. The JET Programme offered the opportunity to share my culture, to see one of the most unique countries in the world, and, most of all, the chance to connect with growing minds and promote grassroots internationalisation.
I applied to the Programme and was accepted. Before leaving the UK I attended the two-day London orientation and met other UK Programme participants. We were briefed on what to bring and what not to bring, the logistics of getting to Japan, and what to expect in the first few weeks. The advice from former JETs and Embassy staff was comprehensive and motivational, and the time flew by as I said my goodbyes to friends and family and made the biggest leap of my life.
Arrival into Tokyo was a well executed whirlwind. We were welcomed by countless Programme staff and escorted to Shinjuku for the Tokyo Orientation. Tokyo was hot, humid and a far cry from the town where I grew up in Northern Ireland. This was also the first opportunity I had to meet JETs from other countries and I quickly realised just how international this Programme really was. The lectures, speeches and discussions were invaluable and answered all my questions. In particular, the Ministry officials and British Embassy talks made me realise that this would be a year unlike any other and that I would genuinely be making a difference in my host community. I left for my new home with a Bullet Train ticket in my pocket, accompanied by other JETs headed to my prefecture whom I had met in Tokyo, so I had familiar faces in my area from the outset.
My placement is Iga City, famous for being the origin of Ninja, in Mie Prefecture. It's rural, but, like most places in Japan, very well connected. My village is typically Japanese but other foreigners and JETs aren't far away. I work in both Elementary Schools and Junior High Schools and my work is varied to say the least. Any given day can involve performing interviews, making examinations, planning and teaching lessons or simply playing "Oni" (Tag) with the shyer kids at break-time. I try to introduce the UK, and British culture, into as many of my lessons as possible; the list of questions about life back home never ceases to amaze me.
As an assistant teacher, I spend most of my time in partnership with various Japanese teachers of English, all of whom have different personalities and visions of what a class should involve. Initially, the Japanese teachers did much more work because they didn't know me or my abilities, but as time went on and our relationships deepened, I was able to take on more and more responsibility. Sometimes I lead the class and provide fun and interesting activities, while the teacher can assess abilities and provide support in Japanese. Other times, the Japanese teacher will take the lead and we will collaborate to create a more balanced lesson. Team-teaching demands a constant need to work together and will test and develop your flexibility, problem solving abilities and cultural sensitivity, and is very rewarding indeed.
Don't worry about not speaking Japanese, two years ago I couldn't even say hello, and now I, a guy from Northern Ireland, am team-teaching kanji to migrant Brazilian children in my schools (it's a novel way to practice my Japanese, it makes the kids feel like they're not different just because they can't read kanji yet, and is also a great opportunity to connect with students who have very little interest in learning English!) This is exactly the kind of internationalisation the JET Programme is about and there really is nothing else like it.
The role of an ALT never stops: outside of school, I have been lucky to get involved with a Taiko group, traditional Japanese calligraphy lessons and countless cultural-exchange and volunteering opportunities. Even grocery shopping usually involves hearing the nickname 'Jelly-sensei' from a student or their parents and, a year on, still makes me grin like a child.
I won't say it wasn't daunting. I had never formally taught before and I didn't speak Japanese, hardly a comfort zone, but looking back, this was exactly what I had come for and I revelled in every minute of it. Thanks to the helpfulness of my schools and the great support network, I quickly adapted to rural life here and I will be very sad to leave.
I would definitely recommend applying to those who are thinking about it. Regarding the application, I would advise any applicant to be as meticulous as possible and pay close attention to the requirements and details. Know the process and timeline backwards. Think hard about what you can offer Japan, and what you'd like to achieve while there. The process is long and there can be lots of paperwork, so make sure you represent yourself as best you can. This kind of confidence and desire to succeed is vital if you are to flourish in Japan.
The JET experience is intense. It will push you in ways you could never expect, and certainly has its share of ups and downs, but these are the experiences which define you and help you grow as a person. As cliched as this sounds, the JET Programme is a once in a lifetime opportunity which you will never forget. The sharing of cultures is the most rewarding of experiences, the diverse range of people and experiences you will have can only enrich lives, broaden horizons, and, most importantly, make lives more fulfilling.