How to Fix the JET Programme – Problems & Solutions

I’ve been working for a while on a proposal for how to fix the JET Programme. And here it is! First, I’ll talk about the biggest problems the organization faces, and then various ideas to reform and reorient it so that we can finally start progressing things.

If you don’t know, the JET Programme is a project by the Japanese government. It’s run since the 1980s and is still going very strong today. Foreign university graduates from (mostly) English-speaking countries apply through their consulates to assistant teach English in Japan! Those accepted are placed in various schools across the country, at elementary, junior high, and high school levels, and sometimes work at city halls as cultural assistants or as sports ambassadors. They are commonly called Assistant Language Teachers (ALT), or 外国語指導助手.

It’s mildly prestigious, with countless thousands applying every year and only a select few ever making it to Japan. The salary and benefits haven’t changed in decades, but it’s still far and above what an assistant teacher job with any private dispatch company is offering. Even today, if you are dead set on moving to Japan and getting a good thing going, I would still recommend working a few years in the JET Programme as your first job–it’s a really nice experience.


With all the good it should bring, the program has had many problems and controversies and its reputation among Japanese teachers is quite poor. Hence the whole “How to fix the JET Programme” subject here. There’s fundamental issues that haven’t really been addressed, and it seems like every year there are fewer and fewer JETs in the country. Which is VERY WEIRD because Japan has been ramping up its English education in the last few years!

English is now taught starting in 3rd grade of elementary school. Ages 8 and 9, if you aren’t familiar with the system. I think even that is a bit too old–1st and 2nd grade students are extremely good at picking up pronunciation and regular classes would be a huge boon to that–but it’s still an excellent time for a child to start diving into a foreign language. They have class at least once a week in 3rd and 4th grade, and learn the alphabet for computer class at the same time. Then, in 5th and 6th grades, it becomes a full graded subject, with class at least twice a week.

That’s a huge departure from even when I started working in early 2019. Back then, classes at most schools would be every two weeks, and it was little more than playing games and trying to remember the colors in English. Now, students are actually studying grammar points and communication skills and cultural differences from a very young age–so they’re not totally lost when they go to junior high school and things ramp up quickly.

There’s still a long way to go, though, and that’s why Assistant Language Teachers are so important. A properly trained, experienced native English teacher will be able to inspire students, to make them want to communicate, want to learn about other cultures and even study totally on their own. They’re an instructor, a cultural ambassador, and as much as a teacher can be, a friend. In our increasingly global world, in a Japan which has seen a gargantuan increase in foreign residents, cross-cultural awareness is absolutely vital for our youngest generation.

But with the JET Programme, conditions are not improving–they’re deteriorating. We have to address these huge problems before things get even worse. The future of Japan is at stake, in a very real way.

First, let me introduce what I see are the best points of JET. Then, the main problems with the JET Programme… Then how to fix the JET Programme aftewards. A three-for-one listicle!

JET’s Best Points

  1. Massive subsidies
    • For boards of education (BOE) that choose JET over private dispatch or direct hire, the national government is hugely generous. The government provides a LOT of money for each JET. Their salary (3.3 to 4 million yen) and more money to help boards of education manage and house them. Poor rural villages who could never afford it themselves still have a chance.
    • According to this article
      • “Prefectures using JET ALTs can receive up to ・246 million. Small cities and towns can get a lump sum of ・1.18 million plus ・4.7 million per JET, with the majority of that latter total going toward the participant’s salary. One Shimane Prefecture city estimated that with tax transfers, they paid only 10-20 percent of the cost for their five JET ALTs. Using dispatch company ALTs leaves the tax money on the table and 100 percent of the cost comes out of the prefectural or city budget.”
  2. Foreign culture exposure
    • JETs often serve less as actual teachers and more as cultural ambassadors. They represent their home country and help expose Japanese children to a world beyond. In many parts of Japan, this will be a kid’s only exposure to foreign culture all the way through high school, and in small towns, there’s a time-honored tradition of That One White Guy Who’s Around. They can really help a lot in community events.
    • This benefit is not as strong the more that Japan brings in immigrants even to small communities, but it’s still a very good thing.
  3. Fair salaries and benefits.
    • JET Program salaries are totally transparent. Everyone makes the same wage, and almost all JETs become well-protected civil servants who work directly for their board of education. It’s a stable job that, for many, serves as a very safe stepping stone into a full career in Japan.

Those, to me, are the best points of JET Program.

But they’re outweighed by the problems.

JET Programme Problems

  1. No support structure. No real hierarchy.
    • JET Program isn’t an employer. The embassy picks its JETs, then connects them with a board of education, city hall, or directly with a school. Then, for the most part, that’s over CLAIR, the organization that runs things, will not intervene except in the most extreme situations. A JET is now an employee of whoever selected them, and that causes issues with both the JETs and their employers.
    • Things got especially bad during COVID-19. People poured out of the country, going back home to be with their family or to escape heavy restrictions. Boards of education were baffled as they lost half or even all their ALTs. ALTs were baffled as they waited for CLAIR to give them any guidance and received next to nothing. In my city, the ALTs got into conflict with the board of education over school closures and virtual work, and ultimately CLAIR could do nothing to help.
    • JETs can’t transfer to another city or region, not unless they’re married or there’s a huge conflict. If a JET faces heavy discrimination, or has a huge workload, or simply wants to move on, they simply have to quit and find another job on their own. Things are very strict.
    • Boards of education are often hard-pressed to manage their ALTs, and CLAIR can’t help. Most of these foreigners are very young, with little life experence, most will face extreme culture shock, and most have never even had any teacher training. Actually managing these ALTs is so stressful that, despite the massive subsidies, many cities and towns just turn to private dispatch companies.
      • From this article:
      • “Perusing city assembly minutes and other sources, you get the sense that reducing civil servants’ workload is a more important reason for communities shunning JET. Even after 30 years, many teachers, schools and cities still apparently find managing foreign staff troublesome. Arranging apartments, using CLAIR templates to write English contracts, having to discipline problem employees, and generally being responsible for young foreigners with little Japanese ability often proves an unwelcome nuisance.”
  2. No cost of living adjustment.
    • As far as I’ve found, the current JET salaries haven’t increased… EVER. The salaries are decent now–3.2 million yen a year is a good starting salary in almost every region–but it’s the exact same as it was n the 1980s! People were flown out to Japan first-class in the begnning. Teachers were treated well, did a good job, and got paid very nicely. Now, 35 years later, things have just slowly declined. Inflation is tough.
  3. Five-year time limit.
    • Besides the exceptional Covid-19 period, JETs can only stay a maximum of five years. Period. Some boards of education even limit it to three. After they reach the limit, they must return to their home country, or find a better job. They can’t get directly hired, not unless the town eschews those tasty government subsidies, and in rural areas there just won’t be any work for a foreigner at all. It creates an endless cycle of veterans departing and newbies arriving. It’s intentional on the part of CLAIR. It’s heart-rending on the part of people who fall in love with their new home.
  4. Constant deluge of Tourist ALTs.
    • When I talk aout how to fix the JET Programme, this is probably on the top of the list. (Then why is it ?)
    • JET itself isn’t necessarily guilty of it, but the narrative around it, the marketing, is so overwhelmingly focused on going to Japan. The “experience.” Articles will talk so much about how JET affects its teachers. How you can “explore Japan.” They minimize the fact that this is a job, that it’s sometimes a very tough one, that it requires some real dedication and study to make an impact on kids. Sometimes kids don’t even come up when people talk about JET!
    • Private dispatch companies are MUCH worse about this; if you check any private company who hires ALTs, their advertising will be entirely about YOU, about how YOU can have FUN in Japan. (What they don’t tell you is you’ll be making 210,000 yen a month and 100,000 of that will go to rent, transportation, and bills, so you can’t even afford to travel.)
    • That creates a HUGE contingent of JETs who try their best to apply and seem like really good teachers, excellent cultural ambassadors. Then they just come to go on vacation and live their anime dreams. They have panic attacks when they’re placed in a small town, and they almost invariably burn out and leave after a year or two. Often mid-contract. Often making long Reddit posts trying to mentally justify why they did it.
    • Tourist ALTs have a terrible reputation and make the whole job seem like a weird grift. It’s bad enough that many teachers in my city on JET, having their very first full conversation with me, would quickly ask, “Oh, when are you going home?”
  5. The selection and hiring calendar is totally wack.
    • Because so many JETs are straight out of university, and so many are from North America or Europe, the whole system is geared towards them. The applications are due early November, interviews in January, selection in April, and then people come to Japan in August. Usually, university students will apply as seniors, then graduate in May or June, and come to Japan right after. SOME people are able to start in April, but it’s usually as replacements for people who quit early.
    • But this is totally misaligned with the JAPANESE school calendar. August has the start of the second term, halfway through the school year. JETs are also forced to make their recontracting decision as early as December, just 3-4 months after starting, to accomodate the whole system. That’s too early for first-year workers to even know if they like the job! Too early to even complete the culture shock cycle! I know so many Tourist ALTs who signed up for a second year, regretted it, and broke contract to leave their board of education hanging. And I know just as many ALTs who declined another contract year and regretted it bigtime–including me with the fifth year I never did.
    • The summer-start calendar makes it hard for ALTs to integrate into their new schools, and heavily favors fresh university graduate applicants, while becoming much more difficult for anyone already working in a career in their home country.
    • And since the contract finishes in July, while Japanese companies hire for April start, there’s a huge contingent of JETs who are forced to break contract in their final year, sometimes with very little notice, just so they can move onto a permanent position in another field. Boards of education are often in such big trouble to suddenly deal with that.
  6. Hiring standards are no longer up to par.
    • JETs are cultural ambassadors first, English teachers second. That’s why CLAIR will accept anyone, regardless of university major, so long as they write a real good essay and do a real good interview.
    • But, as I noted way back up in this blog post, education standards have changed dramatically just in the last ten years. English in elementary school is now a full-fledged subject. English in junior high school is supposed to include topics like debates and even ssays. English in high school is supposed to be taught almost entirely in English, with no Japanese from teachers.
    • But the hiring standards are still just the same as they were when ALTs existed mostly to play fruits basket and make cute English boards. There’s no emphasis on people with an education background, or a linguistics background, or an international background, or even on people who know Japanese. JET ALTs are still seen as people who make fun games and not as actual assistant teachers.
    • There is also ALMOST NO TEACHER TRAINING. In my personal experience, I got a two-hour session, mostly on ettiquite and legal rules, almost NOTHING on actual teaching. I got thrown right into the deep end and it took me months to get even remotely decent. Years to actually be a good teacher. Absolutely absurd.
  7. CIRs barely exist.
    • Last point. Then I’ll get on how to fix the JET Programme.
    • Coordinators for International Relations, CIRs, make up about ten percent of JETs. I haven’t even mentioned them thus far because they are so rare. But they SHOULDN’T be.
    • CIRs help out city halls and sometimes other organizations with cultural outreach, international relations, translation work, and all that kind of fun stuff. They’re deep in the weeds of a position very different to ALTs. And, with rapidly increasing foreign populations in all parts of Japan, CIRs should be more vital than ever as support staff.
    • So then, why are there so few? If JET is really supposed to be about promoting international culture, why does CLAIR hire so few workers explicitly for international relations jobs? They are a boon in even the most rural of areas, but are roundly ignored.

That’s a Lot of Problems!!

Yeah. Seven may honestly be too little, but I wrote a lot of words in that last section and my fingers are tired. I think if even just two or three of these issues went away, the rest would be manageable. (The hiring calendar, for instance, is a problem but alone it’s pretty minor.) All of them at the same time, though? It’s a huge deal!!

Aside from the subsidies, there is little reason for JET Program to even exist nowadays, which is a shame. Direct hire of teachers already in Japan gets much higher teacher quality, direct involvement, and baked-in experience. Or, if a board of education needs to cheap it out, they can get a dispatch company, where quality will often be much, much lower, but at least they don’t have to manage a bunch of whiny 23 year olds.

Luckily, there are solutions. Solutions only CLAIR can implement. Some are easy; just lift some of the arbitrary rules that hinder boards of education. Some will require actual effort, or a lot of money. But, if Japan wants to catch up to the rest of the developed world, it’ll be worth it.

So, here’s my solutions on how to fix the JET Programme:

How to Fix the JET Programme

Caveat… These are just possible solutions on how to fix the JET Programme. Some aren’t compatible with each other. Some are pie-in-the-sky ambitions while some are marginal changes. But I at least want to PRESENT these ideas all together, based on what I’ve seen or heard in my many years in this area.

In no particular order:

  1. Mandatory Japanese language and culture classes.
    • Unless you’ve already got some language/culture classes on your university transcript, I GUESS.
    • All JETs should be expected to learn at least BASIC Japanese throughout their employment. The language barrier is a huge issue for supervisors managing their ALTs, and practically no other job field here would tolerate people who work for four years in Japan and can’t even write their name.
    • CLAIR has created many resources to help with the Japanese language. That’s good. But this should be mandatory for anyone who can’t show they don’t need it. Any ALT working should be expected to pass the JLPT N4 exam at the very bare minimum, and any ALT working should be expected to learn enough about Japanese culture that they’re not collapsing from culture shock stress six months in.
  2. Mandatory teacher training certificates.
    • The JET Programme offers very little training. So at the very least, they should offer fully subsidized outside training.
    • To help ALTs on the path to career advancement, JET should require teachers gain a teaching certificate– a TEFL, TESOL, CELTA, etc.–or even put them on the path to a full teaching license, at least by the end of Year 3. JET should be able to guarantee to every board of education that the employees they send over, if they stay long enough, will be trained, competent, and effective at their jobs.
  3. Recruit for long-term prospects!
    • The number one goal when talking about how to fix the JET Programme.
    • Embassies who recruit for the JET Programme should be looking out for workers to do three years MINIMUM, not maximum. Try to fnd candidates who will actually work long-term in Japan and make a difference in their communities.
    • Obviously, not every prospect will pan out. Many will still be one-and-dones. But advertise the program specifically to get people who will want to stay in their position for many years.
  4. Raise or delete the maximum years.
    • Currently, the JET Programme limits ALTs and CIRs to work for five years maximum, which sucks. Even when the worker wants to stay, even when the board of education or city hall loves them, it’s impossible without ditching JET wholesale–not an option for many places.
    • So, together with , CLAIR can just sorta… fix that. Let JETs stay for up to ten years. A full decade so they can get permanent residence if they really want.
    • Better yet, just get rid of it entirely. It’s OK to admit that the idea of cycling through people hasn’t panned out, and has mostly created an unbearable churn that annoys boards of education nationwide. It’s OK to change something that doesn’t work.
  5. Adjust the salaries!!
    • Again, salaries for JET right now are fine. But due to inflation, and due to the absolutely horrendous, evil exchange rate right now (currently 160 yen to $1.00 USD, when normal rate is 100 yen to $1.00 USD), it’s getting worse and worse over time. After 35 years, it’s tme for a raise.
    • If not a wholehearted raise, at least raise it on the longer end. We want JETs to stay for a very long tme now, in this optimal system. So then, offer a substantial raise after Year 5! Incentivize staying longer, getting a teaching certificate or license, gaining those Japanese skills, by rewarding long-term employees with a bunch of extra money.
    • Offer contract completion bonuses to disincentivize breaking contract.
  6. Help ALTs transition to direct hire positions.
    • Right now, in most cases, if a board of education wants to directly hire an ALT they love, they’ll have to ditch the JET Programme entirely. If you want to hire one great ALT but you have four other current JETs, that’s just untenable.
    • JET is a government program, not some cutthroat competitor in the industry. It should WELCOME people transitioning to permanent direct hire positions. It should help boards of education through the process, and even continue to subsidize the ALT for the next couple years as the city budget adjusts.
  7. Add more CIR positions!!
    • International relations are very important, too. Tourism boards, foreign support staff, community outreach… Heavily subsidize cities so that they’ll hire a bunch more people for positions like this. It’ll pay big dividends later on.
  8. Allow (some) transfers.
    • One of JET’s biggest problems is that JET applicants ultimately get no say whatsoever in where they are placed. When they inevitably get put in the countryside, so many of the Tourist ALTs panic and quit, sometimes within a single week. But… I know how the selection process goes, and I don’t think there’s any good way to fix that.
    • Instead, they should allow JETs to transfer between positions to SOME extent.
    • For example, an ALT with very high performance should be allowed to transfer to another location after three years. It goes against the long-term ALT aspirations, but overall reduces the huge churn of people tired of living in a certain location, or who have a poor relationship with their employer. A transferred ALT will have much more experience than a brand-new one, so they’ll be able to adapt more quickly. Let them have much more say over their next location, too. As long as they can pass the evaluation by their next employer.
    • Controversial, but maybe the salary should reset back to Year 1 level if they transfer, as a way to disincentivize people from abandoning the countryside to flood into Tokyo? It may not be necessary, though, for someone who’s already worked three years.
  9. Have Year 1 be an 18-month contract.
    • My craziest weird idea on how to fix the JET Programme.
    • Having most ALTs leave/start their schools halfway through the school year is so weird for students and teachers. Having contracts end in July hurts people who want to continue into a new job in Japan. Having contract renewals be in December is too early for many ALTs to know if they like the job or not.
    • So fix that by having the first contract be a full 18 months!
    • Say you come to Japan in August 2022, fresh out of university or grad school. You’ll be coming in at an awkward time, halfway through the school year. But then you keep working past August 2023, and all the way to April 2024, before your contract renews or you move on. That way, you got a full school year in there, start to finish, and you’re much more likely to know if this is right for you long-term or not. And if not, your replacement can come in April and start with the school year.
    • Year 2 and on, then, can just be single-year contracts, at least until transitioning to direct hire if you choose that.
    • There are SOME JETs who start in April already; they’d just get single-year contracts the whole time. But to transition boards of education into this new system, we should implement the 18-month system.
  10. A better pipeline to cultural jobs.
    • This already exists, but you have to really network to get involved. Most JETs don’t get enough opportunities. Some ALTs can become CIRs later on, and some departing JETs can get jobs at their local embassy in their home country. If CLAIR can do anything else for how to fix the JET Programme, it’s giving people as many future career path options as possible. Not just teaching, but anything to help Japan become a stronger, more internationalized country.

And that’s all my ideas on how to fix the JET Programme so far. I may edit some in later, but there’s already a ton here.

What’s Your Thoughts on How to Fix the JET Programme?

Tell me! I wanna know!

Do you like any of my ideas here? Do you vehemently disagree? Leave a comment, or share with anyone you think would like to contribute to the conversation. I have had a lot to say on how to fix the JET Programme, but there’s tens of thousands of other JET veterans whose voices should be heard. Nothing will change unless we work together! So let’s do that and have this pretty tough conversation.

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