How to get a job in Japan

Part 3: The JET Programme

You can also apply to the JET Programme. The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program is run by the Japanese Ministry of Education. Approximately 2,500 applicants within the United States (and about the same number without) are selected each year to become JETs, as they’re called. This job is direct hire, meaning that the pay is much better than any other option, and it’s also a cushier job overall. The application process is very grueling and long, however, and it definitely should not be your first option. The cover letter (called the “statement of purpose”) is extremely difficult to write and the interview questions can take you by surprise. There is almost zero margin for error.

Also, the standard contract doesn’t start until August. You can request to leave as early as April, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get it. You can ask to be placed in a specific region of Japan, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get it. Also, the selection process is somewhat arbitrary so even if you write a great statement of purpose and have a good interview there’s no guarantee you’ll get the job. (And these interviews are definitely not friendly chats. They feel more like inquisitions.) There are far too many uncertainties, so just apply to this one for fun and don’t expect to get in. I didn’t even apply this year because I’d rather find my next job myself, without the hassle.

If this hasn’t dissuaded you from going for it, then here’s some invaluable advice. First, you’ll need a couple of months to write your statement of purpose. It needs to be polished to a mirror sheen. You have to strike a precarious balance between selling yourself and selling the JET Programme to the JET Programme. What I mean by that is that you need to talk about yourself a certain amount, but everything you say about yourself needs to lead toward how the program will be benefited by your presence.

The first draft of my statement of purpose was terribly self-indulgent and basically offered nothing of value to the JET Programme.

In my second draft I still talked about myself and my own benefit too much, but there were seeds of greatness in it. I hit upon a couple of key points: the cultural aspect of the JET Programme, and how I plan to be a member of Japanese society rather than just being a teacher.

The third draft contains much less information about my background, and much more about my future plans. A good SoP will manage to integrate both pieces of information in the same sentence. I asked for help from my friend Lowell, who is a former JET. His suggestions were quite helpful.

For the fourth and final draft, I enlisted the professional services of ALT Insider. The man who runs the website, James, was extraordinarily good at telling me exactly what I needed. He made additions, subtractions, word order changes, paragraph order changes, and so on. He tore down and rebuilt my SoP into a work of art. I also used James to practice for the interview, but I’ll get to that later.

You also need to provide two glowing letters of recommendation, preferably one academic and one professional. I applied for JET during my senior year of college, so I asked a professor to provide one letter, and for the other I asked a teacher whom I subbed for often. I provided a primer showing my activities in previous years and whatever other information I thought they would need to write a good letter. You can see one of the primers here.

The application deadline is sometime in October. No matter how early you send in the application, you won’t hear back until December or January. The interview will then be in February.

There are questions that are more popular than others, but there’s no way to know exactly what the interviewers will ask. During the Japanese-speaking portion, a popular question (and one which I was asked) is, “Which do you like more, mountains or the sea?” Of course, many other questions are specific to you. There are three interviewers, and usually one of them is the “bad cop.” Unfortunately for me, the bad cop was also the only one who appeared to have any emotional or mental investment in the interview.

To make matters worse, there was one question which I was prepared for but was asked in a way that I wasn’t expecting, so I wasn’t able to answer it very well. The question was about my GPA in college being extremely low for a few years before drastically turning upwards as soon as I changed my major to Asian Studies. I had prepared a satisfying and inspiring answer, but the wording of the question tripped me up so I just stammered. Another problem was that I didn’t have time to think (the interview only lasts ten minutes or so) so if I didn’t have an answer prepared for a question, I simply didn’t have a good answer. If you’re really good at improvisation then you may do better.

As I left the room I felt decently about it, but as the hours went on that evening, and I had more time to digest the events of that short encounter, I became more and more convinced that I failed. Sure enough, I didn’t make it in to the JET Programme. The interviewers made their decision directly after my interview but I didn’t receive the email until March 26th. It informed me that I was put down as an alternate. What that means is that if a successful candidate had to withdraw for whatever reason, I would take their place. So, basically, I probably wasn’t getting in, but the faint glimmer of hope toyed with my emotions and tormented me.

I immediately began looking for jobs. (Here’s some good advice. Don’t wait that long! Assume that you won’t get in!) In the last week of March I applied for 21 jobs and got three interviews. I received job offers for all three but I decided to go with the one that I interviewed for first. The company immediately got to work on my visa and I managed to get it in the nick of time. I had to drive eight hours to San Francisco to leave my passport with the embassy, and then return the following week to pick it up. I got my visa on May 28th (my birthday) then I flew to Japan on the following day. Because of the International Date Line I arrived in Japan on the 31st rather than the 30th. I had training on Saturday, June 1st, I got my new apartment on Sunday, June 2nd, and I started work on Monday, June 3rd. What a ride!

And here I am. I learned many painful lessons in the past twelve months. It’s all a part of life.

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