How the JET Program Changed Me

My time with the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) is coming to an end in three weeks (sniffles!) and I have been spending a lot of time contemplating how my two years with the program has changed me.

If you’re not familiar with JET, it is one of the largest cultural exchange programs in the world and is run by three Japanese government ministries. Started in 1987, JET “is aimed at promoting grass-roots international exchange between Japan and other nations.”  The program welcomed 4,330 participants from 39 countries in 2011 to work as either Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs), my current position, Coordinators for International Relations (CIRs) or the less-common Sports Exchange Advisors (SEAs). Participants sign a one-year contract, usually beginning in late July or August, and decide on a year-to-year basis if they want to renew their contract. JETs can be placed in large metropolises (Tokyo is very rare), suburbs or more likely the countryside, staying for a maximum of five years if they are in agreement with their local employers.

When I applied for JET in November 2009, I was working as a freelance journalist in the Chicago area and looking for a change of pace in life.  I liked my job and left behind a lot of connections, but I wanted to try something different while I still could.  I was born and raised in the Chicago area and also went to school there. I never studied abroad in university and always regretted it.  Japan seemed so wildly different than any of my familiar surroundings, so I took a big gulp, closed my eyes and soon found myself sleeping on the floor of my Japanese apartment in the humid summer.  All of my belongings were still in my two black suitcases.

I’m unpacked and well-adjusted to my life in Japan now, so when I look back to the person I was back then, it’s like seeing a shadow of a former self.  I feel so different and so much stronger.  Below is a list of the Top 3 Ways the JET Program Changed Me.

A Changed View of America

I live in Namerikawa, a seaside town in Toyama Prefecture on Japan’s west coast. My town has a population of about 30,000 people and is known for hotaruika, squid with a natural fluorescence that causes them to glow in the dark.  Although Namerikawa certainly isn’t a tiny village, every day the pitch black streets by 8 p.m. and croaking frogs remind me that this definitely is not Tokyo.  I’m quite far from anything that reminds me of Chicago or any major metropolis.  Even so, I think about America a lot, and living in the countryside of Japan has altered my view of my home country for the better and for the worse.  Now more than ever, I really look at America’s diversity in awe.  There are certainly still big problems in America with racial and economic inequality that should not be ignored, but America celebrates diversity in a way that Japan never will.  A person who is not Japanese will likely never be fully integrated into Japanese society, and there are serious problems with discrimination here that I don’t think will ever be fully addressed.  However, with that said, Japan is a very peaceful society, and I think the younger generation is becoming more open to other cultures as travel to other countries is becoming more popular.  Yes, there is still terrible discrimination here, but for the most part life in Japan is serene compared to life in many parts of Chicago, my hometown.  It’s common here to have your wallet or iPhone returned to you if you lost it.  In comparison, in America, you are 128 times more likely to get killed with a firearm than in Japan.

I did not have a strong interest in Asian culture prior to coming to Japan and to be honest, I was rather ignorant to many aspects of Japanese culture.  The first time I visited Japan in 2009 for vacation, I asked my friend to explain the meaning of the word kanji.  It’s three years later and I can read katakana, hiragana and some kanji.  I can also explain the geography of Japan and know much about its history, though there is still so much I want to learn. Being in Japan for this time has also allowed me to travel to other parts of Southeast Asia and learn so much about many other rich cultures, including that of South Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia.  I never considered travel a hobby until recently, and I hope to continue to travel much more after my time with JET ends.  I even plan to explore my hometown of Chicago more when I am back.  To quote Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

A New Life Perspective

When I applied for the JET Program, I was 99 percent certain that I would only stay a year.  Beyond that seemed foolish and not a wise career move unless I decided I wanted to become a teacher.  After much debate, I decided to stay a second year and have no regrets.  I had to decide in February if I wanted to stay a third year, and saying no was honestly one of the most difficult things I have ever decided in my life.  I have some regrets about my decision simply because I’ve learned from JET that letting the wind blow and take you places you never expected to go is a wonderful feeling.  I certainly don’t want to be directionless the rest of my life, but I’m happy that I decided to explore for two years without letting the pressures of finding a “real” job get in the way.  You’re only young once, and I want to use my 20s to explore in any way possible, hopefully with meaning, integrity and tact.

I have JET, and Japan, to thank for this newfound outlook. どうもありがとうございます。


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Author of this article

Sheila Burt

Sheila Burt is an English teacher and journalist currently living in Toyama-ken. She loves exploring the inaka life and chatting it up with obaasans. Read more of her writing at www.sheilaburt.com.

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  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Very interesting read.
    I think that it doesn’t really have to do with the JET program, but with living abroad in a culture that is very different from your own. Life abroad can change people quite a lot.
    It’s always interesting to look back and see how much you’ve changed.
    I thought it was interesting you mentioned your love for traveling. My interests since moving to Japan 5 years ago have changed a lot, too. I’m totally into traveling nowadays and I also feel the strong desire to explore my home country more once I move back – or generally travel some more in Europe.
    Living in a foreign country always shows you what was good in your own country. Things you might not have noticed until then, but also the bad things. Personally I think that’s a very valuable experience and I highly suggest everybody tries to stay in a foreign country for a certain time!

  • leslie nguyen

    Great to hear about your experience through JET. I am looking into the JET program to be able to teach, travel and do many other things. I am eager to see the lifestyle changes overseas from home.

  • Aswin Ara

    Namerikawa => Amerika = America =D That’s awesome :D

  • http://www.jasonbrockvocals.com/ Jason Brock

    It was really great to read your story! Thanks for sharing. I’m inspired. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/corinnemorier Corinne Morier

    Thanks for sharing this! I’m an aspiring JET, and it was really inspiring to read your thoughts about this. I graduate from college in a year or so, and so I’m gearing up for the application process this coming year. (I want to go as soon as I graduate.) I’ve been obsessed with going on JET ever since high school, and since I’m graduating soon, I’ve been researching endlessly about JET and what the application process is like and stuff like that. I’ve had a couple of doubts, but reading this, I’ve decided that I’m going to do it. Now I just have to wait for October so I can start applying.

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