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Challenges of Japan for JETs

Some things you will expect, some things you can't. Here is a list of the most challenging aspecs of living in Japan for JETs. A big part of being prepared is thinking ahead, so seriously think about the things that can challenge you and how you would deal with them.

1. The Language

Nothing is more alienating or frustrating than living in a country and not being able to speak the language. The Japanese language is hard. Study it. Learn it. Use it. When you know even a little of the language it helps tremendously.

2. Homesickness

Homesickness is a real thing. It can creep up on you sometimes when you least expect it and always when living in Japan is really frustrating you. Several things you can do to ease the pains of being away from home: keep in touch with family and friends, make new friends in your area and stay active.

3. Japanese people

Japanese people, while polite, aren’t overtly warm and take a great deal of effort to get them to open up to you. Read between the lines when you aren’t sure what they are saying, Japanese are characteristically non-confrontational and will go to great lengths to avoid or sidestep volatile issues. Talk about your experiences with your fellow JETs and work out solutions together.

4. Isolation

If you are placed in a small town your isolation will be very pronounced, as you may be the only foreigner around for miles. Make friends with your neighbors and keep busy. Get out to see other JETs whenever you can.

5. Creature comforts

Certain technological aspects of Japan can make just about anything a maddening challenge. You may discover upon moving into your new apartment that your shower is located out on your balcony, or you may find that you have no shower at all. You might have a Japanese “squatter” instead of a Western toilet. You will most likely be hanging your laundry out to dry instead of loading it into your Maytag clothes dryer. You might not have a microwave or a large conventional oven. Some of these things you may be able to do something about, others you will not. Think about how you will handle these challenges ahead of time so you are prepared if they occur.

6. Diet

The diet of most JETs changes drastically once they arrive in Japan and find that many of their favorite foods just aren’t available. Before you start stocking your refrigerator with toaster-oven mini-pizzas from your local grocery store, ask the advice of your teachers and friends and find easy things you can cook that are nutritious. Then move onto more challenging things.

7. The Weather

Most of Japan is very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. With no insulation or central air conditioning in most of the apartments, this leads to a very uncomfortable situation. Do what you need to do to stay comfortable. Buy electric or kerosene heaters. Buy rotating fans or get an air conditioner installed. And be prepared to suck it up and just endure what you can. Don’t worry, misery loves company and no one hates the weather in Japan more than the Japanese!

8. Celebrity Status

It’s great at first. It’s like you’ve just turned into a famous actor or singer. Everyone seems to know you or at least turns to look at you. You might hear your name screamed from down the block by an admiring fan. After a while it might get to you, though. People seem to know what you’ve purchased at the grocery store or what you rented from the video store the night before. Take it in stride, have fun with it, but try not to let the lack of privacy drive you crazy.

9. Quiet Classrooms

One of the biggest challenges a JET will face is the silence of the students. They seem shy, monotonous, even apathetic. Getting students to relax, open up and participate in class can be frustrating, but very rewarding. Japanese are scared to death of making mistakes and it’s up to you to prove to them that making mistakes are all right.

10. Disciplining Students

JETs are always astonished to discover that there is no structured disciplinary system in Japanese public schools. In the West, a student can always be threatened with detention, suspension, and if all else fails, expulsion, but they just don’t do that in Japan. A scolding is pretty much the most that can be done, but if you have a student who’s “immune” to scolding, it gets a little more difficult. I used to make my students write lines, talk to the principal, in addition to the JTE scolding if I thought it merited, but you’ll find it very hard to give them detention or make them do an assignment they just don’t want to do.

11. Teachers not keeping you in the loop

Because of the language barrier, you’ll find that there are things happening at your school that you have no clue about. Try and stay up to date as much as possible, asking teachers now and again if anything is coming up that you should know about or what was discussed during the morning meetings (held, of course, entirely in Japanese).

12. Stuck in the office

Sometimes a JET will have a rotating schedule, but for some reason, your supervisor will want you to be in your office at the board of education or the prefecture office for two or more days a week. Maybe you are at your school, but your teachers only assign you to instruct one class per day. If you’re at your desk too much instead of in the classroom where you want to be, talk to your JTEs, principal or supervisor about it.

13. Oddball problems

Upon arriving to Japan you might find you have a unique problem that none of the other JETs in your area have. Maybe your supervisor doesn’t speak any English, or the apartment you’ve been set up in is a real sty. Talk to your prefecture advisor about it and see what can be done if it really bothers you. There is always a solution or a compromise that can be reached.


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