How the JET Program Changed Me

My time with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program is coming to an end in exactly two months (sniffles!) and I have been spending a lot of time contemplating how the program has changed me, why JET is worthwhile and also how it could be improved. 

 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 (though Tokyo is rare), suburbs or more likely the countryside (where I live), staying for a maximum of five years if they are in agreement with their local employers.

More than 50,000 people from more than 50 different countries have participated in the JET Program since its inception.

 As part of a new series about JET life, I will be sharing my reflections in the form of Top 3 lists.  I recently had a similar conversation with my friend and colleague Jon Dao for his podcast series, Discussions with Dao.  You can listen to our conversation online here.  My inaugural post is about how I have changed since coming on the JET Program.

 Top 3 Ways the JET Program Changed Me

Me in my new home of Namerikawa, Japan in August 2010, a few weeks after I first arrived in Japan with the JET Program.

1) A Changed View of America – Living in the countryside of Japan has altered my view of America, 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, some of it violent, but by and large, life in Japan is very non-violent and serene.  It’s common here to have your wallet or iPhone returned to you if you lost it.  In comparison, in my hometown of Chicago, you risk getting killed if you get in the way of a robber.  And in America, where violence consumes many, you are 128 times more likely to get killed with a firearm than in Japan, according to this interesting crime rate comparison from NationMaster.

2) An Interest in Asian Culture & Travel – 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 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  (the three writing systems of Japanese).  I can also explain the geography of Japan and know 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 am 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.”

3) A New Life Perspective – When I applied for the JET Program, I was 99 percent certain that I would only stay a year.  Beyond that seemed foolish and not a wise career move unless 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 more difficult than I could have ever imagined.  I sometimes have regrets about my decision simply because I feel very comfortable here and it will be hard to let go of all the friendships I have made.  But 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 saunter meaningfully around this wonderful world.

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

Author: Sheila Burt


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