I felt that I ought to make a post about this subject, primarily because back when I was preparing for my own interview it was blog posts from other people that helped me out more than anything else and I figured it’d be good to add my own experience to the collective cache of knowledge out there on the internet.
So before I begin I’m gonna say that I’m predisposed to rambling so if you’re just looking for details of the interview itself to help with your own preparation or whatever then skip ahead. I should also mention that this account applies only to the UK JET programme and furthermore only to an application for the teaching position, so don’t expect things to be exactly the same if you’re applying in a different country to me or applying for the CIR position! I read through plenty of blogs from the USA version of the programme and they definitely were helpful, but there were marked differences between those accounts and what I experienced so do bear that in mind if you’re not in the UK and take my words with a pinch of salt. I’ll try to make it obvious where the interview itself bit is (just keep scrolling til you see bits in bold and caps) and if you do have an interview, best of luck!
So, to explain a bit further for those not necessarily familiar, I applied to the UK JET programme in autumn of 2013. JET is a neat little acronym which stands for Japan Exchange and Teaching. The programme is run by the embassy and basically constitutes an opportunity for anyone with a degree below a certain age to teach English in Japanese schools as a language assistant (or Assistant Language Teacher, which is the programme’s preferred terminology). The contract lasts a year and can be extended for up to five as far as I am aware at the time of writing. There is another position that can be applied for through JET which is a “Coordinator for International Relations”, which I think is generally considered a higher level position which requires fluency in Japanese and certain diplomatic abilities which are not a requirement for the teaching position. If you want to find out more then I’m gonna link the website because they’ll probably give you all the details that I can’t remember and it’s almost definitely more up to date that I am. http://www.jet-uk.org/index.php
Why did I apply for the job? I can’t easily answer that question, but as far as I remember I was thinking seriously about what I’d be doing once I’d completed by degree and, buoyed by a wave of enthusiasm and investigative vigour, I decided that Japan was where I wanted to be and JET was my vessel for getting there. “Why Japan?” Well, I’ll cover how I answered that question in the interview later, but as for my more honest response I have to say just because I want to go. There’s a great deal I’ve heard/seen about the place from various outlets including but not limited to TV, film, the news, anime, manga, magazines, martial arts, anecdotes, music, etc. etc. and I wanted to see the place for myself. We can talk about my general opinion on Japan/media about Japan in another blog post. It’s a bit too big to stick that in here too… I was also exploring the idea of teaching at the time (an idea I’m still fairly interested in, but not in the same way) and the JET job sounded like a great chance to give it a go (even if it’s a bit of an ‘in at the deep end’ introduction). And finally I also wanted to try studying martial arts in Japan (specifically Aikido but I would have been happy to give other arts a go if the opportunity presented itself too, again I’m gonna save martial arts for another post).
So that’s more or less why I decided to give JET a shot. But honestly I was quite surprised by, after a month or two of investing in the application process, quite how much I wanted the job. I would suggest it’s probably the only career-shaped entity I’ve ever genuinely thoroughly wanted a part of at this time. Of course that has no bearing on whether I deserve(d) a place or not, but as a relatively sheltered youth I’m glad to at least have felt what it means to get serious about that kind of thing.
I collected all my references and medical records and whatnot, noone really needs advice on that save “get it done early”. As far my experience went it was just a matter of chasing the requisite individuals until they gave you what you were looking for. I guess if there was anything else to be said about references, my Aikido instructor, who worked in Japan for a number of years in contact with but not directly for JET, as I understand it, told me that references are fairly important to Japanese administrative bodies so get people who you’re sure you can trust to give you a good write up. And of course if you can get someone to write you a reference that you suspect will be glowing, there’s probably no reason not to.
The statement I was required to write was split into three parts corresponding to three questions posed by JET UK.
1) Why do you wish to participate in the JET programme?
2) What can you contribute to the programme?
3a) [for ALT position only] Teaching Ideas?
I reinterpreted these questions somewhat in order to help structure my answers.
1) Why do you wish to participate in JET? That is a) why are you interested in Japan’s culture and society? b) If you are interested in Japan why are you interested in a teaching position with JET as opposed to just a short trip or holiday? c) Do you understand JET’s purpose and ideals and how do these tie in with your interests listed above?
I think that a good answer ties the above three parts together into a coherent, interested, and interesting response. Honestly looking back at what I wrote, I feel that in my first draft I was definitively too woolly. I wrote extensively about my interests without really talking about JET’s project or teaching at all. It sounds even to me now like a naive attempt. In contrast, I feel my final version was too dispassionate. The final version has traded in the original’s disorganised fervour for a regimented “professional” style (whatever that means). In short my first draft says “I love lots of things about Japan! (can I please have the job)” and the final draft says “employ me! (I also know things about Japan)”. It’s really hard to hit that balance between writing your interests into a statement without sounding naive while at the same time advertising oneself as a capable prospective employee, but it’s what I aimed for and I think if I had hit it it would have made this part of my statement significantly better.
2) What can you contribute to the programme? That is a) what makes you suitable for living in Japan or abroad generally? b) What experience do you have living abroad, travelling abroad, and adapting to foreign conditions? c) What skills do you have to act as a cultural ambassador?
If section 1 of my statement was about showing my cultural awareness and interest, section 2 was a parade of skills and experiences mainly with a focus on my ability to adapt to the unfamiliar and accept, understand and negotiate cultural rifts, misunderstandings and misinterpretations. I threw in lots of stuff about places I’d travelled, particularly places where I was required to negotiate a language barrier and experienced culture shock. A training partner of mine in Aikido class who did himself work in Japan as a teacher and once made a JET application many years ago advised me that this was the place for me to show my sensitivity to cultural impasses and the like and it seemed to work out. I also spoke about how, as a British born Singaporean-Chinese, I am one of those individuals who considers himself at once belonging to multiple cultures and also belonging to none. Examples such as these which you can use to your advantage to illustrate how you negotiate and have had to negotiate rifts between cultures should go in here.
3) Teaching Ideas? This one was pretty self explanatory, but also the one that I found the most difficult. I couldn’t really think of a way to split or reconfigure this question to make it easier to answer. I have my own ideas of what a good student-teacher relationship is and what that demands from those in a teaching role, but I do not believe that this is what the question was asking for. What I was being asked was whether I had the skills and abilities to handle teaching very specifically large groups of Japanese speaking children the English language and as such I just threw examples of anything teaching-shaped I had at this question. Anything where you’re dealing with large groups of kids, particularly unruly ones is good here. I used cricket coaching and karate classes here, along with some experience looking after first years on my uni course. My advisors who were familiar with JET informed me that they don’t really expect anyone to come in with a wealth of teaching experience so it won’t count too much against you if you haven’t the foggiest about what it means to be a responsible educator. However, being experienced in a teaching role is definitely an advantageous position to be in and I think you at least want to show yourself as sensible, responsible, level-headed, and capable of handling kids. One thing I neglected to show of myself in this part was the elusive quality of energy or genki as the romanisation of the Japanese goes. My former-teacher-in-Japan friend called his experience teaching out there “edutainment” and I think that it is likely that a more genki approach may have helped my case here. That definitely resurfaced in the interview and may or may not have bitten me in the ass. More on that shortly.
So, the interview itself. I read tons online. I had condensed interview notes of roughly eight sides including all the questions I thought likely to come up and my prepared answers. I had my housemates ask me random questions from my prepared answers and then random questions from unprepared answers. I ran mock interviews with them. I got the train to London where I was having my interview and had the friend I was staying with there run a mock with me too. I highly recommend doing all of the above things. Honestly speaking, it may change nothing on the day with nerves and whatnot, but knowing the extent to which I prepared set my mind somewhat at ease beforehand and let me walk away afterwards feeling exhausted but fulfilled. Just throw yourself at the preparation. It’s a good thing to do.
The instructions JET sent me told me to get to the embassy 15 minutes before my allotted interview time. I actually arrived an hour before, but I did not go in straight away. Instead I went to a cafe down the street from the embassy and had a drink to calm my nerves. The drink was neither caffeinated nor alcoholic, just a regular fruit flavoured kind of thing. I read my interview notes one last time, then I read something completely unrelated until half an hour before my interview time. That helped me relax quite a bit. With half an hour until my interview time I went into the embassy.
Went through security and was given a bunch of instructions by the lady at the desk who asked for my invite and ID and suchlike. After giving me a name badge I was directed to a waiting area. They had an exhibition on display there which I spent ten minutes just looking at and trying to memorise bits of in case it was a trick and something I was expected to pay attention to. I had heard that everyone in the embassy is examining you as a candidate from the moment you enter so I made an effort to look busy. Honestly speaking, I think those reports are exaggerated. I think it’s likely that your general conduct is examined in that you ought to be wearing a suit and be presentable, look the part. But I certainly don’t think it’s the kind of “Big Brother is watching” situation that I was led to believe it might be.
At I think about 20 minutes until interview time a former JET came out from the depths of the embassy and gave me a brief on how things would run. For my interview, candidates were invited into the embassy in pairs, so we waited until my counterpart candidate arrived at 15 minutes til interview time. I used the intervening time to talk to the former JET about his experience etc. etc. All the reports I had read regarding the interview suggested that the former JETs are as much a part of the interview process as the interview itself and you ought to ingratiate yourself to them and pick their brains to show interest and vigour. Again, I think reports are exaggerated. I don’t doubt that the former JETs who guide you through the embassy are part of the process, but I do not think their role is to pick at your mistakes and analyse your every move as some accounts suggest. If anything I think it makes a lot of sense to just be natural (if at all possible under the stress) around them and use them to ease into the process. As I recall, they’re good to talk to and actually I get the feeling that they did their best to be non-intimidating.
So anyway, our former JET guide took us into the embassy and we again received instructions about places we were allowed to go (nowhere) and when we were allowed to move without supervision (never). He brought us to a room and gave us a grammar and language test. Honestly, it was a harder test than I had expected with some points of grammar that I had never considered before. I honestly wouldn’t sweat studying the finer points of English grammar too much though. The structure of the grammar test was such that questions seemed to be a number of the same type in ascending difficulty. For example: “circle and correct errors in the following sentences”, followed by three sentences. The first sentence with obvious mistakes, the second with some commonly seen mistakes and some rare and ambiguous mistakes, and the third with maybe only one obvious mistake and plenty of mistakes which might pass as completely standard grammar unless you spend a lot of time looking for them. I think the point is to pass the “easy” and “medium” levels of the questions. Obviously it’s great if all three levels go by with ease for you, but don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t sure about the highest level of question. The test might have changed in the years after mine anyway so don’t sweat it. I certainly spent quite a lot of time trying to puzzle out the details of the grammar test, which meant I ended up almost running out of time on it. I still don’t know how many I got right or wrong and honestly I don’t think it was too important so long as I demonstrated a stable grasp of how a sentence is formed in English with use of apostrophes, commas, tenses and other common units of grammar. It did faze me that the test hadn’t been as simple as I thought it’d be, but in hindsight I ought not to have let it be such a big deal, because I really don’t think it is.
After the grammar test myself and my counterpart candidate were sat down in front of a promotional video for the JET programme. It was actually a video, that is a VHS cassette video. The materials I had read online had warned me that this would happen and that I should ignore the video entirely and instead question our former JET guides. Our guides actually pre-empted this move. It seemed they didn’t expect us to pay attention to the video at all and sat with us and chatted for its duration. What do I suggest you use this time for? I suggest you use this time to chat. I recall that at the time I was still very tense and I was running everything I said through “I am a great employment prospect” filters so all the questions I asked and the answers I gave came out as either a bit simpering or simply rang as a bit of a lie (or at least it feels that way in hindsight). If it is at all possible, do try to relax at this point and just talk with the guides genuinely about your interests in Japan and whatever else the conversation takes you to. I think this’ll probably accomplish the double task of putting you more at ease and leaving a genuine and favourable impression on the JET guides if indeed, they are examining you as a covert part of the interview.
Our guides gave us a final brief after the Q&A session with the VHS. We wouldn’t be interviewed together, we’d go in one at a time (seems obvious, but hey) and I’d be going first. I was told where to wait (this spot by the signpost with the instructions), and where I should wait afterwards (by the other sign with instructions) and where I was allowed to go (nowhere) and what I should do unsupervised (nothing). I just tried to breathe slowly and not sweat through my suit. And I tried to keep a genuine smile on my face. It probably came off as a slightly hysterical look, but hey, I tried. I think it’s probably better to try to smile a bit than be totally grim-faced the whole time. Anyway, they were running a bit late so I had to wait in silence in my spot for about five minutes before the previous interviewee came out and I was invited into the interview room.
My interviewers were two. One very tall Brit with a big but imposing smile and one very small Japanese with big and imposing spectacles. I shook their hands and bowed and suchlike. Tall said “oh, bowing to me, yes very good” or words to that effect. I can’t tell if he was in earnest or was tired of people bowing and wished they’d just shake hands normally. Small introduced himself in very fast Japanese. Honestly, I had no idea what he said. Maybe it was nerves or maybe I’m just not as good at listening to Japanese language as I thought, but I hoped I might be able to at least recognise a douzo yoroshiku or an irashai or at least some kind of greeting or introduction phrase with which I’m familiar. Maybe he was speaking Kansai dialect? Well, either way, I got none of what he said and bailed out of my own prepared yoroshiku onegaishimasu Japanese language introduction. So that didn’t go exactly to plan. I’d say it’s probably best to just introduce yourself normally in your own language and according to your own customs or whatever you’re comfortable with. If you’re comfortable with a bow and a yoroshiku then go for it. But it probably ain’t to your advantage to try to force it if you’re not at ease with it enough to do it naturally.
Right, now I’m gonna list as many of the questions that I was asked as I can remember. This is the spot you want if you’re looking for really quick in and out interview help. INTERVIEW QUESTIONS HERE!
[Tall] Why JET?
[Tall] Why Japan?
[Small] What specifically about Japan?
[Tall] I see on your application form you went on a cricket tour to the West Indies in school. Can you tell me about your experience there and any cultural impasses you had to negotiate?
[Tall] What’s the difference between Great Britain, the UK and the British Isles?
[Tall] Can you tell me the difference between the House of Lords and the House of Commons?
[Tall] Name me a famous Welsh person.
[Tall] If you could show a classroom of Japanese schoolchildren one thing from the UK what would it be?
[Tall] How would you use or incorporate that into a lesson?
[Tall] Let’s hear your voice, I want you to imagine you’re in an assembly hall introducing yourself to the school. Please go to the back of the room and give an introduction. I want you to be really energetic and project your voice.
[Tall] Is there anything you feel you desperately need to say before we let you go, that you’d feel cheated if you weren’t allowed to say?
Yes, he really did ask some of those questions with, as well as I can remember, that exact wording. Yes, he did specifically ask me to be energetic. Yes, he did ask me to name a famous Welsh person.
As you can see, Tall rather ran the show. In fact, Small only chipped in at one point, and I think it was when I was giving answers that they didn’t really want to hear (or rather, I wasn’t giving an answer that they did).
So, my answers. When asked “why JET” I began to talk about JET’s project in the context of international cooperation and a global society and then quickly changed tack to talk about immersing myself in Japanese society at the grassroots level of education to promote intercultural understanding and spreading Japanese cultural heritage while also acting as an ambassador for the UK etc. etc. That seemed to go down ok. Though I get the feeling it was quite long-winded for the stock answer they expected.
I think the mistake I made here was focusing on JET’s project of international cooperation and not on Japan. Which is why they prompted me with “why Japan” and then more insistently, “what specifically”. I rushed out a stream of an answer about my interest in martial arts and how I felt there was a reflection in the the martial arts I studied of Japanese culture or some such. I think I also mentioned something about language and my interest in that. Honestly that bit’s kindof a blur, probably because it hurts me to recall how bad I was at that point. I think I stayed just on the safe side of panic. But I was pretty close I reckon. What I think I ought to have done at that point was, instead of thinking in the “employee to employer” mindset again, was actually taken the opportunity to talk candidly about my interests in Japanese martial arts, language, anime, manga, etc. etc. etc. instead of being afraid of expounding on those subjects in case I came across as someone who just thought of Japan in terms of the above. Ultimately I missed that chance and I think barely scraped a passable effort at that bit of the interview. In hindsight of course, there’s nothing at all wrong with liking Japan for its animation, its music, its martial arts exports, or its food, or its language. They’re all genuine cultural artefacts and I ought to have spoken about why I think so. I think I was rather afraid of being accused of being culturally insensitive and even more afraid of having a fat “weeb” label stuck on my application there and then, so I missed out. I’d say, if nowhere else, this is the point that you should speak about your interests in any element of Japanese culture, because that’s exactly what they’re looking for, genuine interest. Obviously, they also want some kind of cultural sensitivity and it’s hard to strike a balance between coming across as just a rabid fan of this movie or that band and someone with a wider cultural interest, but I think that showing vehement interest at all is better than the kindof shrivelling that I did.
Anyway. He asked me about my cricket tour to Barbados and St. Lucia in school. That, I did not at all expect, since it had been a bit of padding in my application form and hadn’t featured in my statement at all. I answered competently enough I think. I said many of the teams we played against had never encountered a cricketing Chinese before and made quite a big deal out of it (which is true, they did). I forget what I said about how I dealt with that situation. If I were asked again now how to deal with that, I’d ask back if it were really something to be “dealt with”, but that’s another discussion entirely. I think that bit went fine. The lesson to be learnt there is to remember what you wrote in your application as well as what you wrote in your statement. Apparently they do pick on the fine details.
The three questions about Britain… I expected the one about a famous person because it was documented on someone else’s blog, but not the other two. In fact I’d prepared to be questioned on the geography and politics of Japan (I had a prepared answer about the function of the DIET and I was ready to talk about Fukushima and I had prepped to speak on the Senkaku islands dispute). As a result I floundered on those two questions. Of course, later, being calmer I recalled the answers annoyingly well. But I flubbed them in the interview room, so I consider that that probably counted against me. From the various accounts out there, I’ve heard that some people are questioned on their own countries and some on Japan and there doesn’t seem to be a way of determining which you’re going to get. Prep for both.
I was prepared for a famous British person, but not a famous Welsh person. By some miracle I pulled Joe Calzaghe out of my memory and talked about how he represents a kind of fighting spirit which the Welsh are proud of or something like that. Tall made a joke about how the last guy interviewed was Welsh and he’d like me for saying that. Maybe that means it went down well? Again, reports suggest that some are asked for famous people from their own countries, some are asked for famous people from Japan. It’s a good idea to prep for both.
Now the teaching-based questions. I was prepared for talking about famous things in the UK and things I’d show to a class. I talked about pictures I had of myself near famous landmarks from popular movies and TV. Apparently Harry Potter and Sherlock are both pretty big in Japan and I played on that somewhat. I did less well on how I’d use such things in a lesson. I said something about how I’d draw up a map and use the landmarks to help teach directions. X is North of Y, etc. etc. I figure that was a pass. Just about. But it still shredded my nerves. Now, JET specifically says that they do not ask for any teaching experience from applicants. According to reports actual teaching in JET has very little in common with primary or intermediate level teaching in the UK. But they’ll still happily grill you on it in interview. So be ready for that too.
For the last two bits I spoke from my diaphragm, and I said I hoped I’d be considered for the position and I was grateful for the opportunity to take part in JET owtte. He did ask for genki and I’m not sure I gave it to him, but I did my best to project my voice properly. And I had no idea really what I was meant to say to “is there anything you need to say otherwise you’d feel cheated if you left without saying it”. Why couldn’t he just have said “do you have any questions?” ¬¬
So, that was my interview. I went outside and was escorted out by my former JET guide. It was pretty surreal moving back onto the street and wandering up to the tube station and changing out of my suit and resuming normal life. If anything, I think I learnt that I’m really not that cut out for teaching youngsters. At least not in the style JET wanted me to. I don’t have the genki for it (where genki constitutes a general countenance of energy, enthusiasm, and a sort of childish playfulness and excitement. The word can also be used just in the sense of wellness where the question genki desu ka? corresponds to “Are you well?”, not “are you slightly hyperactively enthusiastic about life?”).
Still, despite generally feeling a bit bad about it I couldn’t bring myself to be too nervous or too regretful. I never looked back and thought “I could have done more” or “I wished I had X”. Of course one can always do more and there are plenty of things that would have helped me out if I had the foresight to do them, but in the circumstances, I genuinely felt that I had dedicated every resource I had to that project and whatever happened well, whatever, in short. When I said to Tall and Small that I was glad and grateful for the opportunity, I did genuinely mean it, despite having lost most of my composure at that point and I’d say the same thing now, even with all the cringing hindsight affords.
And the result of that long tale is that I’m currently on the reserve list for this year’s crop of JET ALTs, which means that if a space opens up before December then I’m still in with a chance of getting the job. Fingers crossed then. xD
Anyway, I hope that, if you are a prospective JET that this has been a useful (if long and rambling) account for you. If not, then I hope it has been an enjoyable read or an entertaining story and I hope I haven’t said anything which misrepresents anyone in the JET programme or Japanese embassy or anyone involved in the process I described above. If I have that was not my intent at all. If I have misrepresented myself through a show of my own ignorance or suchlike then well. It’s probably not a misrepresentation then is it? I hope my mistakes will be learnt from and help someone else in any case. And if anyone has any advice for my regarding anything mentioned in this blog post or blogging itself or anything else in general then please, I’m all ears. Go nuts.
Alright. That’s me for now.
Til next time,