My personal experiences as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) teaching English in Japan are the basis for this series. I hope my observations can also shed some light on English education in Japan, and hopefully inspire you to come and teach here one day, too.
English Proficiency in Japan
As the balance of power in the world continues to shift toward the east, there has been a greater focus in many non-English speaking Asian countries on improving proficiency in English. According to the most recent EF proficiency index in 2018, Japan ranked 49th in its proficiency in English, while China ranked 47th and South Korea ranked 31st.
While English has vastly improved across the tourism industry, there is certainly room for improvement in other industries as Japanese companies seek to do more business overseas.
The good news is that Japan is introducing sweeping reforms across its English education system that are sure to improve Japanese proficiency in English in the years to come.
From 2020, students applying for university in Japan will face an English component of the entrance exam, which will focus on speaking and writing in English. This has had a large impact on how English is taught in the classroom, bringing more of a focus on interactive communications as opposed to the previous prioritization of reading and listening exercises.
In addition, English education will become compulsory for 3rd and 4th grade elementary school students. However, many regions in Japan have already started introducing English at a much earlier age. This is where I come in.
About the JET Programme
In August 2018, I came to Japan through the JET Programme as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) and was sent to Fukushima to teach English. The JET programme 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 a local level.
I work in eight different schools: one nursery school, three kindergartens, three elementary schools, and one junior high 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 has actually worked out rather well. As the only English teacher in my village, it has put me in the very unique position of being able to teach English to every student in the area.
Those of us on the JET Programme are placed all over the country, many of which in rural areas where English speakers are generally hard to come by. Having JETs in these communities gives the opportunity for us to engage in a cultural exchange with locals, as well as the students and teachers we work with.
Over the course of the JET Programme’s history, there have been over 68,000 participants from 73 countries, making it one of the largest and most successful international programs in the world.
There are three positions you can choose from when you apply for the JET Programme. The first is the ALT position, the one that I applied for. The second is a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) position, which focuses on work related to international exchange activities in communities (it’s important to note that speaking Japanese is a requirement for this role). The third position is a Sports Exchange Advisor (SEA), which is for sports professionals to promote internationalization through sports training and the planning of sports related projects.
Whichever role you choose to apply for, make sure your skills match the eligibility criteria. Otherwise, your application won’t be successful.
There is a saying among those on the JET Programme, “Every experience is different.” One large factor in this will be the new place you call home.
On the JET Programme application, you will be able to list 3 prefectures in Japan where you would like to work and indicate whether you would prefer a rural or non-rural area.
My three choices were Fukuoka, Nagoya, and Sendai, which represent the south, center, and north of Japan, respectively. I wasn’t sent to any of the three, but, to be honest, I could have been placed anywhere in Japan and would have been just as happy.
Regardless of your placement, I’m sure that you will come to Japan as one person and leave as somebody completely different.
JET Programme’s Wider Impact
There have been many studies which suggest that ex-JETs have been a major source of “soft power” for Japan. Many ex-JETs go on either to work in Japan or for Japanese companies overseas, which is quite remarkable when you think about how they will continue to contribute to Japan’s growth even long after their time with the program is complete.
Teaching English in Japan has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life thus far. For many of my students, I am their first real encounter with someone from outside of Japan, which for me is an honor. Every time I stand in front of the class, I can’t help but think about how one day these students will be part of a more globalized Japan and will hopefully go on to do many great things.
(In the next article in this series, I will share experiences from my work teaching English in a Japanese nursery school and explain why it is one of the most fun places to teach.)
Author: Senol Hasan