The JET Program

Pictured: A Typical Solemn Moment at Ainoshima Junior High School

Since it played such an important role in shaping my new comic Tonoharu, I thought I’d devote a journal entry to the JET Program.

The JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Program was founded twenty years ago by the Japanese Government to:

promote grass roots internationalization at the local level by inviting young overseas graduates to assist in international exchange and foreign language education in local governments, boards of education and elementary, junior and senior high schools throughout Japan… [and] to foster ties between Japanese citizens (mainly youth) and JET participants at the person-to-person level.
Source: JET Program Official Website

Japan is, of course, an island nation, and is ethnically homogenous, with 99% of the population being Japanese. Outside of large cities, Japanese kids don’t have much (if any) contact with foreigners, so it’s easy to understand how English education would seem totally irrelevant to their lives. It’s the job of the JET program participant to serve as a living example that English has actual utility outside of the classroom, thereby (hopefully) inspiring students to devote a little more energy to working on their English skills.

There are three different kinds of JET positions, but the most common is that of the ALT, or Assistant Language Teacher. It was in this capacity that I was employed for three years. JET Program ALT positions vary a great deal, but in my particular case it meant teaching grades one through nine. Since I was the only elementary/junior high school ALT in my city, I had a total of roughly 1800 students. I’d see each class once a month, at most. There were a few classes I probably only saw two or three times a year.

English education is mandatory for junior and senior high in Japan. So when I taught at the junior highs, I really did serve as the “assistant” to the real English teacher. They’d usually plan the lessons, and I might prepare a warm-up game or whatever, and then follow their lead for the rest of the class.

Elementary school classes were another story. The homeroom teacher (who usually couldn’t speak any English) would stand in the back of the room and discipline the kids if they got to rowdy or whatever, but I basically had to do everything else myself, from deciding what to teach and how to teach it. It was stressful and energy draining at times, but it was also fun to have a little more creative control.

My favorite school was Ainoshima Junior High. It was on a tiny little island that I had to take a twenty-minute boat ride to get to. The school only had three to five students at one time during my tenure, with no more than two kids per grade (the above photo shows the entire student body, plus the English teacher Ms. Tanaka, during my final year). It was laid back and the kids were great. During every midmorning break, all the teachers and all the kids would get together and play volleyball, having just barely enough people to make two teams. It really felt like a family more than a school.

Like I said, ALT jobs vary a lot (some ALTs had less pleasant experiences and left after just a year), but in my case it was great; one of the best times of my life. I wouldn’t recommend the JET Program to just anyone, but if you have the right disposition and get lucky in your placement, it can be great.

Anyway, I have some old mass e-mails that I used to send out to people during my tenure on the JET Program, so I’m going to post one every Tuesday until I run out of them. (New content will still be added every Friday.) So check back on Tuesday for more JET Program reflections.

  • Connie

    I saw your book in a bookstore in St Louis, MO. I was an ALT in Sasebo for 1 school year. I’ll get a copy and compare notes…

  • Lora, aka “rola”

    I was an ALT in Sasebo from 92-95. I didn’t know anyone with internet access then.

    Your work looks interesting. I’ll check it out.

  • Lars Martinson

    I see your name is as hard to pronounce as mine! The only name that would be harder that I can think of is “Laurel”, which would turn into “Roreru”.