Transition Japan: The JET Interview (Part 2)

This is the second article in a series about the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) and about life in Japan in general.  Read Transition Japan: The JET Interview (Part 1) here.

I interviewed for JET four years ago, and while my memory of the day becomes less strong every year, I still remember walking down Michigan Avenue to the Chicago Consulate on a sunny February afternoon, hoping that in a few months, I would be on my way to a new adventure (and full-time employment).  Luckily, I succeeded. Below are some questions I recall being asked by my panel.  Good luck to all those interviewing for JET this month!

1). Why are you interested in the program?

How I answered it: I’ve long been interested in teaching abroad.  As a writer, I think it’s important to always explore and experience different cultures and see the world from a new perspective.  I’m also interested in giving back to the community, and I see the JET Program as the most established program to accomplish these goals.

Bottom line: Answer honestly and thoughtfully, but make sure not to say it’s solely for personal reasons (i.e. a Japanese boyfriend/girlfriend).

2). What would you do if you had plans with a friend after school one day but a Japanese English teacher asked you to stay late?

How I answered it: I’d stay after school but hope in the future, the teacher and I would be able to communicate more effectively about our schedules.

Bottom line: Demonstrate professionalism and that you can handle tough situations with grace and with a smile, even if you don’t know the exact solution immediately.

3). What are some of your goals?

How I answered it: Since I’m trained as a journalist, I’d love to start a newspaper with my students.  I think it would be a great way to get to know my students.

Bottom line: Talk about your passions and what you’d like to teach your students, or how you’d like to interact with them outside of class, be it through sports, art or other extracurricular activities.

4). What if you get there and you can’t do that?

How I answered it:  Well, I’d move forward but hope I could find other ways to get to know my students.  I have enough work experience to understand that no job is perfect, but I know how to work hard.   Interesting note: When I got to my school, I asked about creating a newspaper with them or writing a column for my students’ existing newsletter. I was told no (politely) but luckily moved on and still had a great time at my school.

Bottom line: Once again, show that you’re professional and that you won’t be dismayed when something doesn’t go your way.  Chances are, you’ll be told “no” on a lot of occasions, but that shouldn’t stop you from achieving your goals and being a successful JET.

5).  You wrote in your application that you lived and worked in Ireland after graduation.  Did you experience any culture shock there?

How I answered it:  Yes, I still remember asking a bus driver for directions using a street name.   He laughed and told me that streets in Dublin change names every few blocks.  All the streets were so circular that I got lost constantly.  But there wasn’t a language barrier, and lots of people thought I was Irish, so I didn’t have too much culture shock.  I think being in Japan will be more challenging, but in some ways, I think not knowing the language is an advantage because my students will be forced to use English with me. (Note: When I said this last comment, I received some strange looks from the former JET participants. Now I know why.  You MUST study Japanese during JET to have a more meaningful experience, but I still believe in only using English in the classroom and as much as possible with your students).

Bottom line: If you have studied or lived abroad, show that you know how to handle culture shock. If you haven’t studied abroad, that’s OK! Just demonstrate that you have an open mind and can overcome challenges/bouts of homesickness.

6). Tell us about your placement preferences.

How I answered it:  I put anywhere near Kyoto as my first choice because I visited there once before and thought the city was a perfect mix of old and new. Side note: Little did I know that 1,000,000 others also probably placed Kyoto as their first choice.  I now laugh at the fact that I thought I had a chance of being placed anywhere near there.

Bottom line: Be honest about your reasons, but show you’re flexible too.

7). What would do if you didn’t get placed in a city (which was my first choice)?

How I answered it:  I’ll be honest and I say I wouldn’t be the happiest because I think I thrive in cities, but I’d make the best of the situation. (Note: I was placed in a small seaside town/ sleepy suburb of Toyama-shi, far from the fame of any major Japanese city!)

Bottom line:  Show you’re willing to move almost anywhere in Japan (country, suburb, city, north, south, east, west, islands).  Unless there is a specific medical reason you need to be somewhere, your placement choices probably don’t really matter.

Transition Japan: The JET Interview (Part 1)

This is the third article in a series about the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) and about life in Japan in general.  My goal is to “demystify” Japan and encourage anyone with an interest in teaching abroad to consider JET.  Read my first post, Transition Japan: Your Apartment, here, and my second post, Transition Japan: Your Town & JET Placement, here.

An aspiring JET recently e-mailed me regarding her interview for JET.  She asked for some advice about how to succeed, so I thought I’d share some general tips for anyone interviewing for the program.  Although my memory is fading a little bit from my interview four years ago, my understanding is that all JETs will be assessed by a panel of three (likely consisting of two former JETs and a Japanese representative).  These tips are aimed at those applying for the Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) position.

1. Be professional and on time. Consider the JET interview to be like any other job interview.  Wear your best suit, groom your hair carefully, and arrive early.  I arrived about 30 minutes early after hearing, “In Japan, if you’re five minutes early, you’re considered late.”

2. Practice answers to basic questions.  An obvious question that you’ll likely be asked is, “Why do you want to become a JET?”  Be sure to have an honest and thoughtful response showing that you are knowledgeable about the JET Program and enthusiastic.

3. Show flexibility. I think in general, those interviewing JET candidates want to see someone who is flexible — that is, someone who can handle challenges.  Living in a foreign country and immersing yourself in a foreign culture is incredibly rewarding but also incredibly difficult.  With JET, you’ll likely have no say in where you’ll live and what ages you’ll teach. Show that you’re interested in the program, not just living in Japan.

4. Don’t babble solely about your love of Japan. This is only a personal opinion, and let me preface this by saying that having an interest in Japanese culture is vital for any successful JET. However, solely talking about your love of the country may not be the most successful interview strategy.  Remember, you’re competing against thousands of other applicants who may have also minored or majored in Japanese studies.  Showing that you have interests and hobbies beyond Japan will make you seem like a more dynamic applicant.

5. Emphasize past work experience.  Even if you’re a recent college graduate, demonstrate that you’ve succeeded in past positions and understand how to be professional.  I think part of the reason I was successful was because I had a lot of work experience prior to applying for JET, including a lot of positions that required working with individuals from foreign countries.  I was honest in my interview and said that I understand no job is perfect but I know how to work hard.  Ultimately, I think this helped me become a JET.

In part two, I’ll discuss the specific questions panel members asked me during my interview.

Remembering Dreams: An Interview with Filmmaker Regge Life

I wrote an article for Japan Today about a new documentary on the two American victims killed in the tsunami two years ago.  The film, Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story, is directed by Regge Life, who was recently in Tokyo premiering the story.

Anderson, an American teacher living in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, was the first known American victim in the disaster.  The film also includes memories of Monty Dickson, an American teacher from Alaska who was killed by the tsunami in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture.  Both teachers were Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET).

Even though I did not know Taylor or Monty, I felt personally connected to their stories, as I was also an ALT with the JET Programme living in a coastal town during the time of 3/11.  Just like Monty and Taylor, I rotated between several elementary schools and a junior high school; the only difference was that I lived in the northwest of Japan, which was luckily unharmed in the disaster.

My thoughts continue to be with both Taylor’s and Monty’s families, and I hope this film inspires others to live their dreams, just as Taylor and Monty were during their time in Japan.

Life was a wonderful person to interview, and as a storyteller for more than two decades who has worked on numerous Japanese projects, he has a particularly unique perspective on Japanese culture.

You can read the article here, and watch an excerpt from the film below.

Top 3 Reasons the JET Program is Worthwhile

This article is the second in a series of reflections about my time spent in Japan with the JET Program.  You can read my first article, about how the JET Program changed me, here.

Top 3 Reasons the JET Program is Worthwhile

ALTs participating in the annual Toyama JET Fest, a large event that allows JETs to share their culture with the people of Toyama prefecture.

The JET Program occasionally comes under scrutiny – both from officials in Japan worried about shrinking budgets in schools nationwide and also foreigners who like to pontificate about the state of English education in Japan.  A constructive debate is always healthy, and the JET Program certainly is not without its flaws, but I generally have only positive things to say about my two years teaching with the program.  Here’s why I hope the JET Program remains strong and active for many, many more years to come.

1) Grassroots Internationalization – Japan’s population continues to decline at alarming levels, and among the hardest hit are rural communities, where most JETs are placed.  There are fewer and fewer job opportunities in areas of Japan far from the major metropolises of Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya, so many times, being a JET means being the only foreigner, or one of a handful, in your community.  Yes, it gets annoying to be stared at and constantly judged for what I am buying at the supermarket or how I am cutting a kiwi, but living here and exposing Japanese people to foreign cultures is a form of grassroots internationalization, one of the goals of the JET Program.  Every time I visit one of my four elementary schools, despite having lived in my town for two years, there is always a young student whose jaw drops at the sight of me – someone who looks different from anyone they have ever seen around them or on TV.  In my younger classes at elementary school, I’m often asked for my autograph after a lesson.  I’m not in love with all aspects of my job, but I’m proud that I’ve worked to promote the English language and have hopefully inspired some of my students to travel and learn more about other cultures.

2) You Meet People from Around the World – What is the capital of Trinidad & Tobago?  And more importantly, can you find the country on a map?  I live in Japan, but thanks to the JET Program, I have met fellow JETs in my prefecture  from Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, South Africa, Brazil, Canada, Korea, Russia, New Zealand, Australia, England, Ireland and Northern Ireland.  One of my closest friends is from Trinidad & Tobago and whereas two years ago I could barely point to his country on map, I now know its capital (Port of Spain) and have heard much more Trini dialect than I would like to admit.

3) There is a Strong Alumni Network – There are about 55,000 JET alumni scattered around the world.  After you successfully complete your tenure with JET, you can register to be part of the JET Program Alumni Association (JETAA), which has chapters around the world.  JET alumni often are active members in their current community and many continue to promote Japan-America (or their home country) relations through various endeavors and volunteer activities.  I am looking forward to joining the Chicago chapter of JETAA upon my return to the States.  One of the most comprehensive Websites about JET alumni is, which posts interesting articles about unique things JET alumni are doing around the world as well as useful job hints for those transitioning to another career.