When it comes to teaching English in Japan, the JET Program versus Interac is the Coke versus Pepsi debate of the ALT community. JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) is a government program. Interac is a private company.
Both provide Japanese public schools with Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs). While the average workday of an ALT is similar for both positions, the subtle differences between them will impact your Japan experience.
During my ALT career, I was a JET for three years (the limit for JET program participants at that time) and an Interac ALT for eight. I loved both experiences.
If you enjoy being an ALT, you will enjoy working for JET or Interac. To get the best possible experience out of your time in Japan, you need to understand the differences between them and adjust your expectations accordingly.
The Workplace Situation: The Biggest Difference
The biggest difference I experienced between JET and Interac was my interaction with my schools.
JETs, especially those with a base-school, receive assignments directly from the school staff. Cultivating a good relationship with your OTEs gives you some control over your classes and schedule.
However, the increased involvement in school-life made it harder for me to say no to teacher’s requests. When OTEs didn’t want to be tied down to a schedule or discuss lessons plans, I had no recourse.
Interac ALTs have the opposite problem. Japanese labor laws mean only Interac can assign work to their ALTs. Schedules must be submitted to Interac in advance. The material covered and the ALT’s role in each class is defined on the schedule, allowing you to effectively prepare for each class. Interac staff will also play bad-cop on your behalf, diplomatically dealing with unreasonable demands from schools.
There will always be last-minute schedule changes and unhelpful OTEs, and nothing to prevent ALTs negotiating a schedule with their schools—I did! But having a reliable schedule made a big difference to my working life.
Ambassadors or Teachers?
JETs are regarded as cultural ambassadors. The JET Program is a Japanese government initiative, emphasizing cultural exchange as well as teaching.
Interac ALTs are marketed to the Board of Education as teachers—with an emphasis on “market.”
Interac contracts ALTs to BOEs, selling the ability of its teachers to provide the service of effective and targeted language instruction.
These attitudes are the key to the difference between JET and Interac. There are exceptions. Your expertise, personality and talents impact how your schools utilize you, as do the needs and expectations of the school and individual teachers within your school.
In the Classroom: JET Team-teaching
Any JET ALT follows a similar schedule. Whether you’re based at one junior high school or visit multiple elementary schools, your work placement will have more impact on your schedule than the actual people you will work with. Once you enter the classroom, the first major difference becomes apparent.
JET is based on team-teaching, pairing an ALT with a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE), or an OTE (Official Teacher of English) to be politically correct (since not all English teachers in Japan are of Japanese ethnicity).
The division of roles is clear. The OTE teaches and usually leads the class, while the ALT assists. Your role in class depends entirely on what your OTE wants. Team-teaching at its best makes English fun and easy for the students to learn, as well as making the class fun to teach for both the OTEs and ALTs. A good relationship with your OTE should also involve planning classes together and even chatting for fun (if and when they have free time).
Team teaching at its worst makes the ALT look like a robot instead of a legit English teacher. It’s pretty common for ALTs to be relegated to the dreaded position of being a human tape recorder and just repeating words out of the textbook.
High School ALTs have more control over their classes in general, but in JET, how much teaching you do depends solely on the preferences of your JTE, leaving you free to explore other ways to engage with your students.
In the Classroom: Interac – ALT Led Instruction
Before you step into the classroom as a new Interac ALT, you’ve already had an intensive week of training that included planning and presenting a full English lesson to an audience of your peers. A true trial by fire!
Whether or not you use any of your newfound knowledge depends on your JTE, but I noticed I was taken more seriously as a teacher with Interac.
Team-teaching as an Interac ALT is out. The ALT portions of the class are taught solely by the ALT, with the JTE present but only acting to maintain discipline.
Initially scary, this provides the chance for an ALT to prove they know their stuff and gives the students more of an impetus to try to engage in English.
Application Process: JET Tortoise vs. Interac Hare
The JET Program’s application process is long and daunting. It will take quite a bit of work and preparation on your part. Every year, many potential JETs miss out purely by not getting their paperwork in on time.
Taking the time to fill out the application form thoughtfully and honestly enables the staff to find the best possible placement in Japan for you. That being said, there are no guarantees that you’ll be placed in an area you requested. If you plan on requesting a big city like Tokyo, Osaka, or Nagoya, you’ll probably be disappointed. There are very few JETs in huge urban cities, and getting placed there is very, very rare.
Once you receive your placement, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be able to move. Thinking carefully about what environment best suits you makes all the difference.
Interac’s shorter turnaround is more appealing, but ALTs have very little say in where they’re placed. Competition is fierce for city positions. Most new ALTs are placed in harder to fill rural positions with the option to request a transfer to a city after successfully completing a one-year contract. Priority is given to ALTs with high-performance scores. You’ll have to work hard for that city placement!
There’s no beating the JET salary. No ALT position pays anything like it. Even with the many bonuses that Interac ALTs can accumulate—transportation, rural allowance, Japanese proficiency (JLPT N3+), performance bonus—the Interac ALT takes home far less than their JET counterpart.
However, Interac offers opportunities for advancement (and raises), such as trainer, head-teacher, and manager. Interac ALTs can take on secondary jobs without breaching their contract, as long as it falls within the limits of your visa—an ALT with an instructor visa can work as a private tutor, but not as a waiter. Of course, jobs that can tarnish your image as an educator are not allowed as well. These are jobs such as working for host clubs, bars, nightclubs, etc.
Paid Leave: JET Expectations
Paid leave in Japan comes with a myriad of expectations. Japanese teachers rarely use paid leave for anything beyond medical leave (and often not even then), so ALTs who use paid leave to travel during the school term will possibly receive a cold reception when they return—if permission to travel is granted at all!
JETs receive 20 days of paid leave per year. As a JET, your requests for leave go through your schools, so cultivating a good relationship with your colleagues can result in faster vacation approvals and more flexibility.
Some unused paid vacation days roll over to your next year. Many contracting organizations allow JETs to attend approved Japanese language schools without taking vacation leave. There also special paid days off for things like a death in your immediate family or marriage. Female JETS have additional menstrual leave, though Japanese teachers rarely use this.
Paid Leave: Interac Paperwork
Paid leave requests for Interac are filtered through the branch office and travel the entire office and BOE hierarchy before approval. Requests to travel during normal working days are rigorously examined, and extremely slow to be answered.
Interac ALTs start with 5 days of paid leave though you can’t use them during the first 3 months of your contract. You get 5 more vacation days in addition to this, but your branch will decide and schedule these days for you (i.e., you have no say in the matter).
Summer vacation and winter vacation are written into the annual schedule, with a corresponding PAY CUT for the months of August and December.
The JET ALT must go to their school or BOE during the vacation, even when there are no classes. The Interac ALT can travel locally or stay at home (but unless they’re prepared to take an assignment, must request vacation time).
It comes down to whether you want the extra cash or freedom to explore.
Living Arrangements for JETs and Interac ALTs
Most JETs live in apartments rented by their contracting organization and sub-leased to the JET. It is extremely rare for a JET to have to pay key-money. Apartments range from modern 1DKs (1 bedroom, a dining room, and kitchen) to an entire run-down house.
Since most JETs take over a departing ALTs apartment, they usually move into a partially furnished apartment. Some JETs even find themselves in cheap teachers housing.
Interac has an agreement with Leopalace (apartment rental company) and will place ALTs in these apartments whenever possible. Leopalace apartments are partially furnished and require less set up, but are tiny with a pitiful amount of cooking space.
There are exceptions to the Leopalace rule. My second Interac placement was a rural town with one Leopalace that was full when I moved. I leased an apartment that I chose with Interac as my guarantor.
Couples: Can You Live Together in Japan?
JET places married ALTs together, and will provide spousal visas for non-ALT wives/husbands, but only for ALTs with marriages recognized in Japan.
My Canadian JET predecessor arrived in Japan with her common-law husband, only to find that while legally married in Canada, they had to marry in Japan before the BOE allowed them a shared apartment.
Individual BOEs differ in strictness—I know a JET ALT who successfully lives with her fiancé, so be sure to talk with your potential BOE about your situation.
Interac is more flexible, and where possible, treats ALTs who come to Japan together as a married couple and tries to place them together. This extends to gay and lesbian couples.
Huge, over-whelming, and intense, the Tokyo JET Orientation is a rite of passage. New arrivals are greeted with a plethora of information crammed into two days before travelling to their placements.
ALTs form strong friendships with fellow Group A or B arrivals that become the foundations of their new life. A second orientation follows once ALTs have settled in, with training sessions presented by current JET ALTs. The Mid-Year Conference, a two-day seminar, occurs later in the year.
Interac ALTs arrive to a week-long orientation focused on equipping ALTs for the classroom led by trained head-teachers and trainers. New teachers are observed by a trainer during their first three months, and, where possible, once a year after that. Four, half-day training sessions follow throughout the year, with a strong focus on communicative English teaching. However, this schedule may differ depending on which branch you work for.
Support: Daily problems
The JET community is one of the best things about the program. Active AJET chapters organize social events throughout the year, and the special interest groups offer opportunities to engage with new friends.
There are also numerous JET support groups on Facebook. For daily problems, your supervising teacher is your go-to. How helpful they are depends on their level of English fluency and your relationship.
Interac employs an IC to help ALTs with setting up their apartment and purchasing a phone and car. Requests for an IC go through the office, and once settled in, you will find yourself going to City Hall alone and calling the office for translation help. Although slow to build up a social network, Interac now has a Facebook community for teachers to help each other.
Life After Japan: Leaving the ALT Life Behind
JET hosts a returners conference for JETs of two or more years. Your school or BOE must give you permission to attend, and you pay your travel costs. JET also covers your flight home. Once back in your home country, the JET Alumni associations provides links to Japan related opportunities and chances to network.
Interac doesn’t even provide ALTs with a reference. Once your announce your decision to quit, you receive minimal support. The office grudgingly helps you cancel apartment-related expenses, but for personal things like your phone or Internet service, they leave it up to you.
JET vs Interac: Which One is Better?
As in the Coke versus Pepsi debate, it comes down to personal preference with a side of “every situation is different.”
Your schools are the biggest deciding factor of your ALT experience. I recommend Interac if you want to develop teaching skills and JET if you’re passionate about cultural exchange.
However, I also participated in all sorts of community events as an ALT with Interac.
As long as you know what you want to achieve and understand the expectations you face, you can get the most out of your time as an ALT whether with JET or Interac.
Have you worked for the JET Program or Interac before? Or are you thinking of applying to either of these positions? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.