Teaching English in Japan: The Benefits of Being in the JET Program
My personal experiences as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) teaching English in Japan are the basis of this series. I hope that my observations may also shed light on the teaching of English in Japan and hopefully inspire you to come and teach here one day as well.
English proficiency in Japan
As the balance of power around the world continues to shift eastward, many non-English speaking Asian countries have focused more on improving English proficiency. According to the most recent EF Proficiency Index in 2018, Japan ranked 49e in English proficiency, while China ranks 47e and South Korea ranked 31st.
While English has improved dramatically in the tourism industry, there is certainly room for improvement in other industries as Japanese companies look to do more business overseas.
The good news is that Japan is introducing sweeping reforms to its English language education system that are sure to improve English proficiency in Japanese in the years to come.
From 2020, students applying to university in Japan will be faced with an English component of the entrance exam, which will focus on speaking and writing in English. This has had a big impact on the way English is taught in the classroom, placing more emphasis on interactive communications as opposed to the previous prioritization of reading and listening exercises.
In addition, the teaching of English will become compulsory for 3rd and 4e elementary school students. However, many parts of Japan have already started to introduce English at a much earlier age. This is where I come in.
About the JET program
In August 2018, I came to Japan under the JET program as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) and I was sent to Fukushima to teach English. The JET program stands for Japan Exchange and Teaching, and it has a 32-year history of bringing college graduates to Japan to teach English and promote internationalization at the local level.
I work in eight different schools: a nursery school, three kindergartens, three primary schools and a middle school. I’m sure you can all imagine my surprise when I found out that I would be working in so many schools, but in all honesty it worked out pretty well. As the only English teacher in my village, it has placed me in the unique position of being able to teach English to all students in the area.
Those of us who participate in the JET program are placed all over the country, many of them in rural areas where English speakers are generally difficult to find. Having JETs in these communities gives us the opportunity to engage in a cultural exchange with the locals, as well as with the students and teachers with whom we work.
During the history of the JET program, there have been more than 68,000 participants from 73 countries, making it one of the largest and most successful international programs in the world.
There are three positions to choose from when applying to the JET program. The first is the ALT position, the one I applied for. The second is an International Relations Coordinator (IRC) position, which focuses on work related to international exchange activities in communities (it is important to note that speaking Japanese is a requirement for this role). The third position is that of Sports Exchange Advisor (SEA), which enables sports professionals to promote internationalization through sports training and the planning of sports-related projects.
Whatever position you choose to apply for, make sure your skills match the eligibility criteria. Otherwise, your application will not be accepted.
There is a saying among those who participate in the JET program: “Every experience is different. An important factor in this regard will be the new place you call home.
On the JET program app, you will be able to list 3 prefectures in Japan where you would like to work and indicate whether you prefer a rural or non-rural area.
My three choices were Fukuoka, Nagoya, and Sendai, which represent southern, central, and northern Japan, respectively. I wasn’t sent to any of the three, but to be honest I could have been placed anywhere in Japan and I would have been just as happy.
Whatever your placement, I am sure you will come to Japan as one person and leave as someone completely different.
Wider impact of the JET program
Numerous studies suggest that the ex-JETs have been a major source of “soft power” for Japan. Many ex-JETs work either in Japan or for Japanese companies overseas, which is quite remarkable when you think about how they will continue to contribute to the growth of Japan even long after their program ends.
Teaching English in Japan has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life so far. For many of my students, this is their first real meeting with someone from outside of Japan, which is an honor for me. Whenever I stand in front of the class, I can’t help but think about how one day these students will be a part of a more globalized Japan and hopefully do a lot of great things.
(In the next article in this series, I’ll share my experiences teaching English in a Japanese preschool and explain why it’s one of the funniest places to teach.)
Author: Senol Hassan