Adventure of the Headless Fish

So you're sitting at a desk in one of your students' classrooms, lunch tray in front of you as you watch thirteen-fourteen-fifteen-year-olds ladle rice and soup and meat onto small dishes. They are wearing aprons, caps and masks.

After everyone is served, everyone puts their hands together. "Itadakimasu," proclaims a chosen student.

There is a great scraping of chairs; the girls, holding their bowls of food to put some back into the pot; the boys, to get any and all of the leftovers. Then the fight begins. (It's always louder in the older students' lunchrooms.) "Extra milk! Extra pieces of fish!" The boys crowd around, playing rock-paper scissors furiously. The winner screams his victory, walking back to his seat with fists in the air and two cartons of milk. The losers scream too; one collapses against a wall, clutching it like a fainting maiden; another falls roaring to the floor, arms raised to the sky in supplication.

It's like this every day.

The third dish on your plate is always a mystery; usually some mixture of vegetables. Today, it is potatoes and greens mixed with fish. Tiny fish. Tiny, pale, whole fish, no longer than three-quarters of an inch.

I can do this, you think.

You stare some more. You lift a chopstickfull; there seem to be tiny sesame seeds speckling your food.

They are not sesame seeds. They are the heads of decapitated tiny fish, soft from cooking, mushed into your potatoes.

You really can't do this.

Carefully, you use your chopsticks to separate the fish from the potatoes, and set about eating the latter.

This chopstickfull is speckled with seeds, too. You inspect them, wondering if they are poppy seeds.

They are eyeballs.

My friends, indeed, they are eyeballs.

The Squeaky ALT Chair

I have the squeakiest desk chair ever created by mankind.

Either everyone else in the Board of Education has a normal chair, or they are possessed of some congenital ability to move with the weight of a powder puff. Like an elf, or a ninja.

In the quiet of the office there is a shuffling of papers, a cough, an answer to a phone call.

All is silent.

I shift.

My chair squeaks.

Nay, it erupts, fracturing the silence like Vesuvius in the quiet of Pompeii.

Silence again until, butt numb from sitting and back starting to ache, I deign to move once more.

My chair squeaks.

I have insulted the emperor; I have brought shame upon everyone’s mother; I have shit in the milk.

Quietly I subside, mortified and wide-eyed.

My coworkers carry stoically on.

Part 3: Things We Wish Orientation Had Told Us


  • Go to all of your optional pre-orientations, orientations, and information sessions. That way, you can skip all superfluous portions of Tokyo Orientation and sleep off your jetlag.


  • Don't panic about buying presents for your schools or Board of Education. Small, individually wrapped novelty items from close to home are great. Get them for your boss at the BoE, your supervisor, your principal, and your head teachers. Get something like a bowl of individually wrapped American chocolates, cookies, or crackers for everyone to share at your BoE and/or schools (depending on how many you go to).

Your Placement

  • Look into local wildlife for where you are being placed. Various areas of Japan - namely in the south - have all manner of interesting animals. On the plus side, monkeys and deer. On the downside, pit vipers and poisonous centipedes. Much of Kyushu and all islands south of it are also home to hand-sized spiders. This might be no big deal to you, but severely (as in, run-to-mother-crying) arachnophobic JETs have been placed in these areas, and mental preparation is fairly important.


  • You might be living in a house or an apartment. There might be a crapton of leftovers from previous ALTs, and it could be traditionally built, and falling apart. Or it could be brand new, beautiful, and your ultimate dream home.
  • You may want or need to buy a few personal items and/or housewares, but for the most part all housing will be furnished. Your BoE may even help you replace or buy things you need.
  • The rent will likely be minimal, and absolutely never high enough to create financial complications. (Because your salary is pretty darn good.)

Social Interaction

  • This is a job that involves a lot of talking, being in public, and participating in group activities in and out of the classroom, and being surrounded by coworkers both at school and at parties. It requires a lot of amiable smiles and doesn't allow for much alone time during the day.  This would seem obvious from the job description, but is still a worthy thing to take note of for introverts and people used to spending more alone time.
  • If your social battery is quick to drain and needs solitude, relaxation, or loud music to recharge, then there will be times that the day will be trying on your nerves. It depends, of course, on the person: But busy times in the classroom tend to be less draining than, after a day of sitting, eating, and teaching beside your fellow staff members, being nigh ordered to make merry with them for hours at drinking parties afterward. All the while, of course, being expected to keep up the professional yet friendly attitude.
  • JETs have been known to escape to the bathroom, take walks outside during lunch break, and sit alone in their car before leaving for their next school, all just to take a breather.
  • This is still a great job to have.
  • It's okay to need alone time.
  • Ganbatte.

Your First Month

  • When you first arrive, you will be severely jetlagged - falling asleep around 8 PM, waking up around 5 AM - and suddenly expected to go a thousand places, meet a thousand people, and remember a thousand appointments. You can't. Even remembering your new garbage day will seem like an overwhelming task, let alone the location of all your schools. It might help to get some sort of day planner that you can carry around in a pocketbook or leave on your desk. Write everything down, and slowly things will seem less hectic.
  • There will most likely be literally nothing to do when you first arrive, for the entire month of August. Aside for a rare few assembly days and getting dragged around to introduce yourself to new people, almost all of it will be office time. Use it to get acclimatised, un-jetlagged, un-lost, and buy all the shit you need, study Japanese, and make your self-introduction lesson, as well as any other lesson plans you can think of.
  • They may do absolutely nothing to contact you, so hunt your teachers down (respectfully) and ask what will be expected of you in the coming month, what your schedule looks like, and if you need to make lesson plans.

Your Predecessor

  • It may take one to five months for your students and coworkers to stop accidentally calling you by your predecessor's name. More, if you don't see them every day.
  • Replacing someone can be hard, especially if they were well loved. Keep in good spirits.


  • Your supervisor might not speak English.
  • Your JTEs, to be completely honest, might not speak that much English.
  • And unless you are very fluent indeed, your smattering of Japanese will not help you during staff meatings at all. Don't worry. You don't have to say anything.

Japanese Language

  • Most JETs come to Japan with little to no knowledge of Japanese, while others come perfectly fluent. Don't worry about your language level. Study hard, and the people at your office will help you out as much as possible.
  • No need to panic.


  • You may not be allowed to drive anywhere during work hours, for insurance reasons. This obviously does not apply to JETs who are required to drive from school to school.
  • Japanese driver's licenses are an absolute pain in the behind to get. They require full memorization of two driving courses and a great number of finnicky rules. It may take at least four times to pass the practical test. Start working as soon as possible.
  • Some JETs may need to drive to school (or take public transport), while others may not be allowed to drive or own a car at all. Every situation is... yada yada....

Personal Care

  • It may be nigh impossible, in more remote areas, to find: Hair products for naturally curly hair, exfoliating body scrub, large size (by Japanese standards) clothes and shoes, darker-then-creamed-coffee makeup, unusual hair dyes, strong cold medicines, certain health foods, and birth control pills.


  • Plenty of onsen that 'don't allow' tattoos don't actually turn out to be a problem. Tattooed Japanese people will on occasion use them as well; most importantly, to JETs who don't wish to be rude or culturally insensitive, Japanese people in those onsen rarely seem to care or look twice if anyone has tattoos.
  • That doesn't mean there aren't cases of people being forcibly ejected from the baths.
  • Still try to be culturally sensitive; if your tatto is something easily hidden, it may be best to hide it.
  • If you live in a small town, you will definitely run into teachers and students in the hot springs. It will be weird for you to see them naked. Just remember that they don't consider it weird to see you, and might even strike up a conversation.
  • That doesn't mean it's never novel for them to see a naked foreigner, though.
  • If you're a dude, you might have to suffer some variation of the, 'so, you have a penis' conversation. Just... deal with it.

Sick Days

  • It may be very difficult to get sick leave, and nigh impossible outside of a high fever or hospital-worthy illness. You may be forced to take vacation time. 
  • It's usually acceptable, if you don't have classes, to go sleep in the nurse's office for a little while. Even half an hour nap mid-flu can be a fantastic recharge.

The Job

  • Don't take it too seriously. Every JTE wants you to do different things in different ways, and thats something you will only learn over time. The kids largely just want to get to know you and have a laugh. So keep smiling, and dont be afraid to make a fool of yourself.
  • There can be a lot of variation between different schools, in terms of behaviour management, teacher attitudes, etc. The culture of different schools can be very distinct.
  • Study up on basic and advanced English grammar. Make sure you know what it does, when it does it, and why. Make sure you can explain it simply and clearly, and give examples. Being a native speaker does not automatically mean that any of this will be second nature to you.

Local Government

  • Japanese bureaucracy will make you want to scream and claw your face off.
  • Getting special permission for something, especially if it has never been done before - even if it is useful and related to your job, like an English Camp - is full of invisible roadblocks.
  • Imagine an Entmoot.

Contributions by: Cat L, Joanna S, Emily E, Alex V, Cornelius P, David L

Part 1: Application and Essay

The Aim of Your Essay

The best piece of advice one can possibly receive when writing their essay is this: Don't just make it about the things you enjoy, make it about the things you can contribute. Every section of the essay should be useful as potential proof or evidence of what you can bring to the table, and why you will be good at your job. Don't worry about details that don't help show how capable you are.

The JET Program is self-described as being about internationalization (are you self-sufficient and adaptable and interested in getting involved in local culture as well as sharing your own? Can you survive for more than one year all on your own with a language barrier?) and team teaching (what experience do you have and how and why does it prove that you can work in a team, take direction, problem-solve, be imaginative, defer to guidance, learn quickly, be independent? What methods and techniques have you used in the past, and what results did you get?). This is what you should be crafting your essay to highlight.

Opening Hook

  • Make your first paragraph meaningful, striking, and unique, if possible. They will be reading a bazillion of these essays, and it would be all too easy to get  lost in the shuffle. Make them remember you.


  • How did you first become interested in Japan? And more importantly, what have you done since then to involve yourself in activities and learning opportunities associated with the country's culture? How long have you held this interest - can you prove its longevity? How hard have you worked to get to where you are with it? Have you received and prestigious awards, contest prizes, or commendations? Was anything you did in the field particularly noteworthy or even (within reason) unusual? Most importantly, what about this involvement demonstrates your ability to fit into the country's culture, and display a continuing interest after JET finishes?
  • Include any language studies/testing, study abroad experience, or appropriate hobbies that relate.
  • Avoid mentioning manga and anime, unless it is literally what you are planning as a career path.

International Experience and Culture Shock

  • What is your experience in terms of studying and living abroad? Again, this is not your chance to talk about your favorite travel experiences, though enthusiasm is certainly important. This is where you prove that you are highly adaptable, show that you would have no problem living in Japan for several years, and most importantly, will not break contract and go back before your time is up.
  • Have you submersed yourself in a foreign language before? How much of it did you use? Can you be self-reliant? Do you like to explore? Have or would you participate in community events, school clubs, or local teams? What has this taught you about teamwork?

Teamwork and Teaching Experience

  • List all of your teaching experience. State where and when you worked, and what you did - grade and age levels, areas of study, materials, application of knowledge, what ideas you had, how you implemented them, the effect they had, and what you learned from it.
  • For example - did you tutor a pupil in conversation and elocution? How? (I.e. by composing sample dialogues, breaking down words into phonetic pronunciation guides, crafting easy synonyms for difficult vocabulary words, etc.) Did you help pre-primary students read from picture books? How? (I.e. by correcting their misspeaks with clear enunciation and repetition, etc.)
  • What have these experiences taught you about teaching, and how have they impacted your ability to teach and your interest in being an ALT?
  • What is your current line of work? What does it show about your ability to coordinate, observe, understand the task at hand, make proceedings run smoothly, volunteer for last-minute tasks, be trustworthy, schedule accurately, deal with the unexpected, improvise, and above all, work as a team?

Hobbies and Cultural Exchange

  • They want to know about your hobbies and the things you love. Talk about anything that will help you teach, interact with students in clubs, bring your culture to Japan, bring Japanese culture back to your country, or make you stand out as an individual.
  • What of your culture can you share with your students? What of Japan's culture have or will you share with your own country(wo)men? How have or will you do this - photographs? Videos? Blog entries?

Future Goals and JET

  • They are looking for applicants who will stay connected to Japan, JET, and teaching after leaving. This does not necessarily mean that you need to have university classes or career goals that align with JET, or indeed even to know where you are going, but it does mean that you should prove your continuing interest.
  • As you conclude, remind your readers why your experiences will help you feel comfortable as a teaching assistant. Remind them that you understand the importance of cross-cultural understanding, and how you plan to use JET to make that happen.