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Decision Time 2: Direct Hire ALT or JET Programme

The JET Programme has its pros and cons but how does it compare to a regular ALT teaching job?

By 8 min read

If you’re coming over to teach English in Japan, you will most likely be coming over as an eikaiwa (English conversation school) instructor or assistant language teacher (ALT). Even if you are already here in Japan, you will probably have to make a decision at some point about whether you prefer to teach at a conversation studio or in a Japanese classroom (as we discussed in the first post in this series).

Within the sphere of assistant language teacher work in Japan, there are three sub categories: dispatch ALT (assigned to a city by a company), the much sought after direct hire ALT (employed by a city directly, with no middleman agency) or the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme instructor. The JET Programme has been running for more than 30 years and brings thousands of new teachers into Japan each year, placing them in elementary schools as well as junior and senior high schools. However, it doesn’t end there. Not all JETs are recruited to be ALTs. Under the scope of the JET Programme, there are actually three different roles.

If you decide to join JET, while you will most likely teach as an ALT, you could also end up working as an SEA or a CIR.

  • A sports exchange advisor (SEA), as the name suggests, assists with sports training and helps to coordinate local and regional sports events.
  • A coordinator for international relations (CIR) is a less well-defined role. As one current CIR told me recently: “The role of the CIR changes from prefecture to prefecture and sometimes from city to city.”

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Unlike ALTs and SEAs who are typically based at local schools, CIRs typically work out of the local government offices and will help to coordinate international events and exchanges between local municipalities and cities abroad.

The fact remains, however, that around 90 percent of the more than 4,000 JETs currently working in Japan are assistant language teachers. For the purposes of comparison, today we will be looking at the working conditions of direct hire ALTs versus those of JET ALTs in three different areas.

If you’re thinking of teaching English in Japan as an ALT, then determining which program is the better one for you depends largely on your own personal circumstances.

Getting hired

First off, if you are already in Japan, it is very difficult to get onto the JET Programme. You can apply from within Japan, but you will need to return to your home country to interview. These interviews are typically held in February, which makes it almost impossible for anyone currently working as an ALT in Japan to apply. Additionally, if you have lived in Japan for more than six years, you are ineligible to apply.

Now, I will preface my next comment by saying that I’ve worked with some truly wonderful current and former JETs down the years. Indeed, last year I had the pleasure of being invited to join their annual regional conference here in Nagano and was impressed by many of the teachers I observed and trained alongside.

… around 90 percent of the more than 4,000 JETs currently working in Japan are assistant language teachers.

However, I’ve met some truly awful people who managed to come to Japan via JET, too. This is one of the flaws in the program, in my opinion: the very scattershot nature of its recruitment. Teaching experience and ability aren’t always prioritized and the acceptance or rejection decisions made often seem to be based on intangibles. You’ll read numerous blogs about how to “ace the interview for JET” but reading these one after the other and seeing the radically different conclusions these “experts” have drawn will show you just how seemingly random the process is. A couple of the more informative ones for your own research are at The Jet Coaster and The True Japan.

Direct hire ALT recruitment, while still beholden to occasional management egos and the odd crazy question at job interviews, generally goes more according to logic. More often than not, it’s the candidates with the highest levels of experience, the best Japanese ability and the most engaging presence who get the job.

On the other hand, JET does have the advantage for those who are new to Japan or who don’t speak Japanese and have no prior teaching experience — they still have a high chance of passing the interview. As I mentioned in my previous posts, direct hire positions usually only recruit from the pool of candidates already in Japan and those that are truly professional will not consider candidates who have less than one-year experience in Japan.

Contract conditions and benefits

Currently, JETs start on a salary of ¥280,000 per month, which is higher than most dispatch ALT jobs, but lower than most direct hire gigs. The median salary for direct hire ALTs is around ¥290,000 to ¥300,000 per month.

JETs who renew for a second year will see this salary increase to around ¥300,000 per month in year two and a further increase in year three.

Direct hire ALTs do sometimes get raises as they renew, but these are typically capped at around the ¥320,000 per month mark. These are just averages based on my own research and experience. You may be lucky and get more or unlucky and get less.

Unless you live in Tokyo, a JET Programme salary isn’t really a problem.

Unless you live in Tokyo, a JET Programme salary isn’t really a problem. It pays well for the industry, especially for an entry level candidate. However, one of the main issues with JET contracts — and indeed those of lesser direct hire programs, such as Osaka City — are the mandatory term limits on contract renewals. No matter how professional you are as a teacher,  how much your students like you or how well you get on with your colleagues, on the JET Programme you cannot stay beyond the maximum of five years. On some contracts, this maximum can be reduced to just three years.

Long-running, well-funded, professional direct hire programs do not impose such arbitrary and unnecessary limits on their employees. Defenders of JET will — rightly — point to the fact that the program is primarily one of cultural exchange, rather than an occupation — and as such, it shouldn’t be viewed as long -term employment.

I’m not sure I buy that.

In principle, I believe no one should be forced out of a job they enjoy doing and have performed well in for a number of years on such a flimsy, bureaucratic premise. To replace an experienced teacher with a rookie arbitrarily does a disservice to students and their schools.

Training and support

This is the one area where even I, as a direct hire ALT, have to concede that JET absolutely excels. They really go the extra mile to look after their teachers: from arranging their flights to Japan, to preparing accommodation for them and organizing various local events to help them settle in and avoid isolation.

With most ALT direct hire jobs, you are expected to organize all of this on your own.

I’m lucky that my city offers subsidized accommodation near my schools, but I know from experience that this is the exception rather than the rule.

This is the one area where even I, as a direct hire ALT, have to concede that JET absolutely excels.

However, I personally don’t view being thrown in to the proverbial deep end as a bad thing. Those first few months in Japan where I tried to pick up the basics of the language, get settled into a nice apartment and get used to local customs and culture was a stressful and, at times, outright infuriating experience.

It was undoubtedly one that made me stronger and better able to cope with living alone in a foreign country for the long term. I’ve actually reached the point now where I feel like more of a tourist when I go back to Scotland than I do when I’m in Japan!

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I should add that, having never worked on the JET Programme and having spent most of my time in Japan working as a direct hire ALT, my views on today’s topic may be somewhat skewed.

The JET Programme is an excellent idea, if at times clumsily executed. The program has enabled thousands of people to come to Japan and experience true daily life here outside of the bubble of the big cities. It has also allowed millions of people in Japanese rural communities to meet and interact with foreigners in a way that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.

While I do feel that the JET Programme is a great way to experience Japan, it might not necessarily be the best move if you’re planning to stay here longer term.

The five-year maximum limit on employment is problematic, especially for those who want to settle in Japan or who have established family ties here in the interim period. Some direct hire ALT positions may employ similar restrictions, but many do not.

Remember, too, that your home and your visa are tied to your employment status (unless of course, you get married to a local in the interim). If you plan to seek a new job after JET, it’s most likely you will need to find a company willing to give you a new visa and also find accommodation on your own.

If you’re only here for a few years to gain some experience and perhaps acquire a new language and some life skills, then the JET Programme is great — if you can get in.

If you’re like me, though, and you view Japan as the place you’d like to  spend the rest of your life, you’ll probably be better off bypassing JET and looking for something more permanent right from the outset.

Have you ever worked on the JET Programme? How about being an ALT? Do you think the two compare favorably? Which would you rather be? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

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