Is the JET Program worth it? In my opinion, it is 100% worth it. If you have the chance, you should definitely do it.
HOWEVER… working in Japan is not all sunshine and rainbows. Many JETs get sick of the job, or even Japan itself, after just a year or two. So how can I say with such confidence that the JET Program is worthy of your time?
The truth is, I can’t. I can only tell you about my experiences and give you an inside look into the pros and cons of working as an ALT with the JET Program. You’ll have to make the final decision on your own, but I hope the information in this article helps you out.
A Quick Note: In this article, I’ll be using the terms “JETs” and “ALTs” interchangeably to mean the same thing. While the JET Program has other positions available (CIRs and SEAs), this article will focus on ALTs.
The application process to get into JET is long and tedious. To put it bluntly, the JET application really sucks. I guess I must be a glutton for punishment because I applied to the JET Program 6 times before finally being shortlisted on my 7th try (lucky #7!).
Yes, you read that right. It took me 7 years to successfully get into JET.
Before I left for Japan to start my ALT (assistant language teacher) career, I went to a party hosted by JET alumni. At the end of the party, each of the sempai JETs took turns to give us advice.
Even though this was over a decade ago, I can clearly remember many people saying, and I quote, that JET was a “life-changing experience.” I also remember being a pessimist dick, thinking, “B*llsh*t….sure Japan is going to be fun, but it’s not going to be life-changing.”
When I finished my time with JET 5 years later, I ended up eating my words. JET did become a life-changing experience for me too. So much so that I decided to live in Japan permanently. I met so many wonderful people, experienced things I would never have dreamed of, and just had a blast. Of course, there were bad experiences as well, but going to JET was one of the best decisions I made.
The question is, will it be worth it for you? Let’s look at the positives and negatives of the JET Program.
Pros: Reasons Why the JET Program is Awesome
Let’s get into some of the best things that JET has to offer.
1. Best Way to Get to Japan
Do you love Japan and want to go there no matter what? Maybe you’re not really interested in teaching English or working with kids, but you’ll do it just to experience living in Japan?
If this sounds like you, the JET Program is by far the best and easiest way to get to Japan.
If you have a Master’s, Ph.D. or special skills in certain fields, you may be able to get a job (and visa) related to your area of expertise. But I think that the vast majority of people who want to go to Japan are those with a 4-year university degree.
The reason why JET is so great is that they help you with everything you need to move to Japan. They take care of your transportation, do most of the hard paperwork, and most importantly, they give you a visa.
Compared with other similar teaching positions in Japan, JET has the best pay and the most benefits. Some private or direct hire schools have a higher salary than JET, but they are hard to find. Many of these schools won’t sponsor your visa or help you with housing like JET does.
Other big haken-gaisha (employment agencies) that offer teaching jobs in Japan are easier to get into than JET. But the pay is usually much less, and some of them can be sketchy. My advice is to try JET first and have those other companies as back-ups.
2. The Money is Good (For What You Do)
As of this writing, you’ll make around 3.36 million yen the first year you do the JET Program, but that amount will increase the longer you stay (capping at approximately 3.96 million yen for your fourth and fifth year).
For the actual work you do (which isn’t incredibly hard), that salary is awesome. Sure, you may have times where you’ll have a lot of work. I often prepared for classes at home because I could only talk to my teachers at the very end of the day, literally 5 minutes before the end of my working hours.
Also, having a full day of classes at an elementary school can be pretty exhausting. But believe me, compared to other teaching jobs in Japan, you’ll be getting the best salary and benefits with JET.
If you were to work at an eikaiwa (English conversation school), the classes might be shorter, but you could have 10 classes a day, making significantly less money than JET.
If you’re wondering if the JET salary is enough to live in Japan comfortably, the answer is an astounding yes. Most of the ALTs I know live very comfortably. They have enough money to go on trips and eat out regularly while still sending money back home to save.
Your biggest expense will most likely be your rent, especially if you’re in a city. The amount you pay will depend on where you live. I heard some ALT’s paying upwards of $1,000 per month, while others barely pay $50. Even if you spend a lot on rent, you should still have more than enough to live comfortably.
3. The Unique Experience
This is obvious, but it is by far the best part of the program. If you have never been to Japan before, you will be in for a treat. The huge buildings, neon lights, and bustling sounds of people are a huge trip. I’ve been to big cities before, but nothing like Japan. It’s almost like you’re in a video game.
Of course, this is only in big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Nagoya, etc. But even if you are placed in the countryside with no neon lights, your experience will be completely unique. In fact, living in the countryside of Japan is probably more memorable than living in the city.
It’s true that you’ll have these wonderful experiences no matter where you go. But Japan will challenge and reward you in ways that staying in your home country will not.
When you’re older and telling life stories with your friends, would you rather say something like, “yea, I’ve been working at this job for a few years, and I’ve got some crazy co-workers!” Or would you rather have a story like, “I was just in Japan in the buttf*!k middle of nowhere teaching a bunch of junior high school kids English! This kid in class always called me Brad Pitt!”
The first year of your ALT career will most likely be your hardest, and you’ll probably spend lots of time preparing, experimenting, and changing your lesson plans. By your second year, you’ll probably be so comfortable teaching that you can walk into a classroom with no plan or preparations and still have a good class.
4. Challenges You to Grow
The reason why JET looks for people who are open-minded and can adapt to different situations is because that is exactly what you’ll be doing in Japan. You’ll most likely face challenges with the language, culture, and even your job.
You’ll have days where you will thank the heavens above for this opportunity. You’ll also have days where you’ll want to put a picture of Japan on a punching bag and pretend you’re Mike Tyson.
All of these physical, mental, and even spiritual challenges can help you to grow. You’ll be amazed at how many things you faced and overcame during your time in Japan.
You’ll also grow a LOT working as an ALT. I never liked giving speeches or even talking in front of people. But now, public speaking is no big deal, and I don’t mind it at all. You’ll also find ways to connect with your students and other teachers, despite the language barrier. And for many ALTs, you’ll learn to have fun in class and use your creativity to come up with exciting ways to teach your students.
5. Can Lead to Other Opportunities
The experiences mentioned above can help build your resume as well. If you decide to continue teaching in Japan, the experiences you gain in JET will help you. I also know many ALTs who didn’t continue teaching after they finished their time with JET. However, they got other jobs related to their experiences in Japan.
Some JETs get jobs with tourism departments, hotels, video game companies, or universities.
You can also make connections when you are in Japan. The connections you make can lead to some wonderful opportunities.
6. Learn the Culture….and Language??
There’s no better way to experience a different culture and language than being immersed in it. Being exposed to Japanese all the time provides you with the opportunity to learn quickly.
If you do study Japanese and USE what you learn while you’re in Japan, you can get really good, really fast.
7. The Job Is Rewarding (Whether You Realize it Or Not)
You might have students who go crazy and don’t listen to a word you say. The teachers you work with might just want you to be a human tape recorder. This makes it difficult to feel like you are making a difference in your student’s lives. You may even feel useless.
However, no matter how big your school is, where you teach, or what you do, you’ll probably influence at least one student (hopefully for the better).
It might be that student who never says a word in class. Or it might be that student who is too shy to say hello back to you. But I’ve heard Japanese students say that the ALT influenced them to change the course of their lives.
Some students choose to study more English. Some study abroad. Some even decide to live in another country or to become a teacher. From my personal experience, this happens more often than you think.
I met former students who told me how much of an impact I made in their lives. The thing that surprised me is that I never even had a conversation with some of them. I just would greet them when they came to school and when they left, and maybe helped them out in class. Sometimes, these small gestures can mean a lot.
So go and connect with the kids inside and outside of the classroom. You never know who’s life you’ll change by positively influencing them.
Cons: Reasons Why The JET Program Sucks
Here’s a quick overview of some of the bad things that can come with the JET Program.
1. You Get Placed in a “Super” Rural Area (Google Maps Hasn’t Even Been There)
This is a valid and genuine concern. When I applied to JET, I was told that there were very few positions in big cities. The chances of being placed in a rural area were very high. I still believe that this is true today.
However, this is not as bad as you may think. I know you have probably read stories of people placed on small islands or villages with no public transportation connecting them to a city. Yes, there are places like this (more on this below), but I would say most of the “rural” areas where JETs get placed aren’t very rural at all. I would say that most of the rural areas have access to public transportation, with a bigger city within an hour or two away.
I first got placed in a “rural” area in Nagano. When I got there, I was surprised to see many restaurants and even a small shopping mall. Sure, there wasn’t any nightlife (except for snack bars), but I enjoyed living there.
I do know JETs who were placed in VERY remote areas. They had no access to public transportation, no other JETs in the area, and not even a convenience store nearby. Most of the JETs I knew in those rural areas hated it.
Some JETs can’t handle the countryside, while others thrive there. You could have a fantastic time in a rural area and even be “famous” there. Your Japanese would probably improve a lot since you’ll have time to study and be closer to the people in your neighborhood. But unless this is your goal, living in the inaka (countryside) can take a toll on your mental wellbeing. Without having access to things you want to do or see in Japan, you may feel like you’re trapped.
This is my opinion: If you want to live in Japan, don’t let the fear of a bad placement stop you from applying to JET. Even if you do get placed in a rural area, why not try it out? You may end up liking it, or at the least, you’ll get your foot in the door and might be able to find another job in Japan after you’re finished with JET.
2. Your Bosses, School, Students, Teachers, or Co-Workers Suck
This is another real situation that happens to most, if not all ALTs. I would say the overwhelming majority of ALTs have amazing experiences with their school. Some even become close friends with the teachers or staff. However, it’s pretty common to have some problems with the teachers or students.
The most common situation you’ll have is probably bad students. When I first came to Japan, I thought students were super studious and listened to every word the teacher says. This is NOT true at all.
I have taught at over 17 different schools in different areas in Japan. There are always a few students who cause trouble in and out of class. Most of the time, it’s minor things; laughing at you in class, not paying attention, disturbing the class…things you’ll find in every school around the world. This is usually no problem at all since it’s easily dealt with by you or your lead teacher.
You may run into problems with other teachers as well. Sometimes the teachers you work with have unrealistic expectations for what an ALT should and shouldn’t do. Sometimes the teachers are just dicks. But more often than not, it’s the ALT who causes or even escalates the situation unnecessarily.
Just remember that your job is to ASSISTANT the lead teacher as an ALT, not step on their toes. If the teacher comes up with bad ideas that you’ll know will fail in class, kindly tell them your opinion, but be 100% willing to give their idea a try. By doing this, you’ll avoid most conflicts. But know that there are ALTs who have had some problems with the teachers they work with.
3. You Might Have Lots of Free Time & Be Bored
A common complaint that ALTs have is that they have a lot of downtime. If you get placed in a junior high school, you’ll probably have a lot of free time. Some high schools also will have a lot of free periods.
ALTs get bored sitting at their desk with nothing to do. Sometimes, you won’t have any classes to prepare for. Or maybe you’ve already prepared amazing activities, refined your lessons, and even made tentative teaching plans for future lessons. In either case, you now have nothing to do except twiddle your thumbs and stare at the clock.
I’ve been there, done that. But now, this is not a problem at all for me. I love it when I have free time at my schools. If you use this time productively, then it’s like you’re being paid to better yourself. I know some JETs who even used this time to earn their Master’s degree in Japan.
You may also have classes where the teacher just wants you to repeat words or sentences (the dreaded human tape recorder). Doing this makes it hard to enjoy the job, let alone feel like it’s rewarding.
4. There is Too Much Work (and You’re Doing All of It)
I just said that in junior high school, you might have lots of free time on your hands. But you man have some schools where they work you to the bone. There are usually 6 classes per day, 50 minutes each, at most junior high schools. Doing this many classes (even 5 per day) gets to be exhausting after a while. However, this doesn’t happen too often at junior high or high schools.
Elementary school is an entirely different beast. The classes are usually shorter (40 – 45 minutes), but it’s very common for ALTs to have 5 or 6 classes per day. Elementary school classes also require more energy since you may be singing, dancing, or doing physical activities. Students might also want you to play with them during their recess and eat lunch with them. This means you are interacting with the students the whole day. This gets tiring, especially if you have a lot of elementary school days.
As for me, I was okay with the number of classes I had. The HUGE problem I had was with the teachers. 90% of the teachers did not help at all during English class. They just sat in the back and did their work while I conducted the class. This isn’t supposed to happen. The lead teacher SHOULD be taking an active part in the English lessons. But this still happens a lot, and you should be prepared if this happens to you.
5. You Need to Be “On” Even When You Don’t Feel Like It
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being introverted, quiet, or shy. You don’t have to be this crazy ball of energy in your classes. You don’t need to be a social butterfly outside of class, either. However, you do need to be friendly and outgoing if you would like to connect with your students and other teachers.
If you are introverted, being at a school with hundreds of students and dozens of teachers can feel overwhelming at first. If saying hi and talking to students multiple times a day is difficult for you, then you might be very uncomfortable at your job. You’ll also want to connect with other teachers, which can be hard to do if you are not outgoing. The language barrier only makes things that much more challenging.
You may work with other ALTs at the same school. It’s also common to have events throughout the year where you’ll work with other JETs and Japanese school students. These social events can be difficult for those who rather work alone or at their own pace.
You also have to watch your back. You’ll probably see your students everywhere you go. If a student sees you lying in the middle of the street surrounded by 10 beer cans, you can bet your ass the whole school will know about it the next day.
Who Should NOT Do the JET Program
Let’s look at people who SHOULD NOT do the JET Program. Of course, people who have bad intentions and take part in illegal activities should never apply. But here are other reasons why you shouldn’t do JET.
- You Hate Kids: You don’t necessarily have to love kids, but you should be friendly and approachable. If you hate kids, working as an ALT will be like a florist who’s allergic to flowers.
- You’re a Negative Person or Are So Boring That You Could Make Someone Skydiving Fall Asleep: You also don’t need to be super “genki” as most people say. But you do need to bring good energy to your school and your classes.
- You Think Your Country is the Best: If you think the way things are done in your country is the best, and any other country that differs is dumb, avoid Japan. Let’s face it…who likes people that think like that? If this sounds like you, you will run into many unnecessary conflicts (which you probably caused) in Japan.
- You Can’t Control your Emotions: You’ll probably have some bad students. You might even work with bad teachers or staff. Patience and understanding are essential for this job.
- Toilet Paper: You set your toilet paper roll with the loose end hanging under the roll (vs. draping over it). Okay, this isn’t a deal-breaker. But that doesn’t mean it’s a sh*t reason either (you see what I did there?).
If any of the first 4 reasons apply to you, you should avoid the JET Program. You’ll end up hating the job, and this will more than likely cause you to HATE Japan too. And when that happens, you’ll be miserable.
This is just a small list of the general pros and cons of the JET Program. There are a lot of other things to list, but I tried to stick to the major stuff.
So, is the JET Program worth it? If you have a genuine interest in Japan and can adapt to new situations, I think the JET Program is 100% worth it. Of course, you may have bad students, problems with the language, and face many unique challenges living in Japan. I know I did. But my JET sempais were right; doing the JET Program was a life-changing experience.