Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Being a CIR on the JET Programme, Part I

So I'm 10 months into my term as a Coordinator of International Relations on the JET Programme in Japan. I've been here long enough now to give an assessment of my role and of the JET Programme in general, but readers should bear in mind that there is a lot of variation between each placement on the programme. Also, bear in mind that every JET comes into the role with a different outlook and set of goals which will affect their time here and how long they choose to stay. I recently decided I'll be leaving JET and Japan in August this year as I'd like to pursue a career in journalism, but I can pass on some of the things I have experienced in applying for and working on the JET Programme.

I'm originally from the UK and currently work as a CIR at Aomori City Hall. Before JET I took Japanese Studies at Sheffield University, UK, studying there for my 1st, 2nd and 4th years and studying as an exchange student at Kobe University, Japan in my 3rd year. I originally chose Japanese as I wanted to learn about somewhere completely different from my home country and I wanted to try living in that place for a year. I was also living in Sheffield at the time of applying and Sheffield University is known for having a well-respected Japanese course. The course is known for having an extremely high dropout rate as well – the number of students in my class had halved by our final year – but around 20 of us made it through with a generally high level of Japanese ability.

Something I'd been aware of throughout my course was the fact that a Japanese degree isn't the easiest or most useful degree for finding employment. Whilst I could speak Japanese perfectly well, job opportunities in the UK would be few and far between, especially considering the job climate when I graduated (2010).

Everyone on our course knew what the JET Programme was, as a lot of former students had gone on to be JETs, and I began seriously considering it after picking up a leaflet on the programme in the university library. A former Sheffield University student who had worked on JET then came to the university and held a talk on her time as a JET. I decided to apply, and here are some of my reasons: (1) I had really enjoyed my time in Kobe during my 3rd year and wanted to go back and experience some more of Japan. (2) I had spent 4 years studying Japanese language and culture and wanted to make sure these skills didn't go to waste. (3) There were few job opportunities back home for someone with a Japanese degree. (4) I would be able to improve my Japanese ability even further and gain experience working in a Japanese office.

A job as a CIR on JET seemed perfect for my situation, and I applied, had an interview and was accepted onto the programme in April 2010 (I'll talk about the application process and give some advice later).  I found out a few weeks later where I would be placed – Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture. This was not somewhere I had requested, but I had requested an urban city and was glad I got one. It was a shame I wouldn't be going back to Kobe, but you shouldn't go into JET expecting to get your requested placement – very few people do. Also, the people who end up in the most requested places often don't request to be there, so placements on the JET Programme for both ALTs and CIRs seem to be pretty much pot luck. Conversely, I think it's a great thing that foreigners get to come to every nook and cranny of Japan and that the Japanese people in those regions get to interact with foreigners. Private English teaching companies will often only send people to the big cities, but JET sends people to places in Japan where the residents may never have seen anyone outside of their small village's population, let alone a foreigner. A lot of people want to be sent to Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka etc., but you shouldn't go into JET expecting that to happen. However, I believe the JET Programme still far outweighs any other method of coming to Japan as a foreigner.

The JET Programme is supported by the Japanese government, meaning it's a stable job and the salary is insane. This is partly because of the high value of the yen right now, but I'm currently earning more than some of my co-workers who have a family to support. When you couple this with the fact that you often have your rent subsidised by your place of work, you're going to be rolling in it. I've heard of it happening, but no JET should ever complain about not having enough money. And again, because JET is such a big and well-supported programme, all JETs have various support networks and organisations to use during their time here. You'll be enrolled in a government insurance scheme, there's a helpline in English should you ever want to talk to someone, there are regional organisations which plan regular events/booze-ups for all the JETs in the area, there's an organisation which helps you find work back in your home country after you leave etc. You'll generally be extremely well paid and well looked after, to the point where JET can seem like an extension of university or some kind of paid holiday, because you don't even have to work that hard; the amount of work for the majority of ALTs and CIRs isn't that high, and being a foreigner here means that you will never have the full responsibility of a Japanese employee. This has its downsides in that you'll never be truly accepted as a normal worker and made to feel like an outsider, but you have to take the good with the bad, and on the whole there is more good than bad.

Within the last month before leaving for Japan I was contacted by my predecessor and a couple of other JETs from Aomori, attended an orientation in London and received my contract in the post. All of this comes fairly late. You have to be patient and wait, and when it comes it's all very helpful and the questions you have will be answered.

At the start of August I flew out with all the other UK JETs and stayed at a hotel in the middle of Tokyo. I had a good time taking in information at the Tokyo Orientation and everything was pretty relaxed. It felt great to be back in Japan, and it was funny hanging out with the new ALTs, most of whom were experiencing Japan for the first time and commenting on how much it was like Lost In Translation. We were then split off into our prefectures and all the Aomori JETs flew together on a plane to Aomori. Aomori Airport looked like Jurassic Park as we landed, surrounded by forests and a thick mist rather than the motorways and high-rise buildings of Tokyo. As soon as we stepped off the plane our contracting organisations were waiting for us like a mob of screaming fans at a movie premiere. One group was even waving a big sign with a hand-drawn cartoon of their new employee. One by one we were sent out to the mob and I took the short car journey from Aomori Airport to Aomori City Hall with my new supervisor. After being introduced to my office, I went out for lunch with a couple of my co-workers, where my 課長 (section chief) commented on how he was scared about showing me the apartment. Again, it all depends on your placement, but one of the biggest downsides of JET could be your apartment, as it will be generally old, dirty and cramped. Mine was all that and more, which lead to me requesting a new place pretty early on. I've found that inner-city JETs tend have cramped, dirty apartments, whereas those out in the countryside will have much more spacious and comfortable abodes.

Work started the same week as I'd arrived and it didn't take me long to get used to things. Everyone was welcoming and wanted to talk to the new foreigner in town. I took part in the Aomori Nebuta festival, appeared in the local newspaper and met with various people who were interested in international exchange within the city. Work consisted mostly of translations, interpreting and the occasional presentation or school visit. And it's pretty much stayed that way since, apart from the quantity has dropped off, even more so because of the big earthquake we had recently. This led me to create work for myself, such as re-designing the English section of the city's website. I had to push hard to be able to do this, with various phone calls and meetings where I assured them that I wouldn't leave the site looking like a bad Geocities page. A few times meetings would be planned but wouldn't materialise, or I'd submit the site but it wouldn't get looked at. There have been quite a few cock-ups and it's still not done, but I'm confident it will all be uploaded properly soon.

On the whole I'm really glad I came and being in Aomori City means I've had a chance to experience a part of Japan most foreigners will never see, with the advantage of being in a biggish city. Ultimately, there are other things I want to do away from Japan, such as study broadcast journalism, but ideally I'd like to eventually combine journalism with my knowledge of Japan in a role à la Roland Buerk (BBC).

In Part II I'll give some advice on applying for JET as it's something I get asked about quite a bit.

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