Teach English in Japan

Be the "Western Culture Authority"  and the teacher

By Susan Miles

Susan Miles with her students in Chiba, Japan.
Susan Miles and her students in Japan.

A month ago I was hard at work in the IT department of a major Australian bank, attending to the countless emails, reports, meetings and teleconferences that my job as a Business Liaison Manager demanded.

I was a typical middle management type, in my navy blue suit, sensible court shoes, workpad in one hand, styrofoam cup of "Skinny Decaf Cappuccino" in the other.

Today I am wearing the same blue suit, but I’ve swapped the workpad for a stick of chalk, the cappuccino for a glass of iced tea and the court shoes have been replaced with a pair of running shoes.

The meetings and teleconferences have disappeared from my calendar. Instead, my daily activities are determined by a classroom schedule and the computer programmers and analysts whom I shared my working day have been replaced with hundreds of excitable Japanese teenagers. So what caused this radical shift in my working life? I simply joined the Japanese Teaching and Exchange (JET) Program.

Share their Cultures

The JET program was the brainchild of the current Japanese Prime Minister and introduced by the Japanese government in 1987. It was felt that there were too few opportunities for Japanese nationals, particularly children, to engage with and learn about other country’s and cultures. To remedy this situation, a program to bring overseas college graduates into Japanese schools to teach English (and other languages), share their own culture and in turn learn more about Japanese culture from the students and teachers.

My official title as a "JET" participant is "ALT" or "Assistant Language Teacher". I am employed by a local prefecture (equivalent of a county) and assigned to various Junior High Schools in my area to assist the Japanese English Teachers with their classes.

This "assistance" is many and varied. I may run a "greeting game" at the beginning of the class, demonstrate English pronunciation of various words and phrases, conduct conversational exercises with the students or assist/check their written work. As an "assistant" I am not solely responsible for a class, but can find myself preparing and then implementing a teaching plan with the help of my Japanese English teachers.

"Flag Waver" to speak English

I am the official "flag waver" for the English language, coaxing and encouraging the students to practice their spoken English at every opportunity. This could be a passing greeting in the hall, a chat in the playground at recess or a culinary discussion over our noodles during lunchtime.

I am also the resident "Australian and Western culture" expert for my school. I give presentations on Australian history and general knowledge, my own life in Australia and that of my family’s. As I have traveled quite extensively I also find myself comparing and contrasting various cultures with Japan for the benefit of both the students and the teachers. The idea that there is diversity and differences between western countries is often a revelation to my pupils and the teachers alike.

My school’s social studies teacher now has a firm grasp of the nuisances of Australian politics, its similarities and differences to the American and British democratic processes. I have also enlightened him to the fragile and sports-focused relationship we share with our closest neighbors, New Zealand.

I am also the recipient of countless questions and inquiries. As my students range in age from 12-14, I have been stunned by the sophistication of their questions. From my opinion on Iraq, to my forecast for the American economy and my thoughts on the recent meetings between the Japanese and South Korean leaders.

Interspersed with these weighty ponderings are also such classics as "Do I like sushi!", "How tall am I" and "What do I like best about Japan". To date, my favorite question for sheer gumption has been "What sort of men do I like". Choosing a safe and suitably vague response I simply said "Tall". The student poising this question was more than happy with this response, being the tallest male student in the class!

I have also been enlightened to nuisances of my culture and language that I was unaware until I became an English teacher. When trying to teach students the art of giving an audible greeting, I discovered that no matter how loud they say "Good morning" the sound is lost when they couple it with a traditional Japanese bow.

More than Just Words

I have learned that my own language is not just words, but hand gestures and facial expressions that are not used in Japanese conversations. To see shy downcast-eyed teenagers come to life with newly taught handshakes, gestures and eye contact as they practice their conversational English has been one of my most joyous experiences to date.

Amongst all these strangeness and newness, I have also felt surprisingly at home. I have witnessed situations and comments that are as common place in an Australian IT department as a staff room in a Japanese Junior High School. My young male colleagues wear their nicest clothes to work on a Friday in preparation for a big night on the town, a summons to an extra meeting is adhered to with a grumbling resentment and a hug transcends all language barriers when you fall and cut your hand.

Even new habits and practices have been quickly absorbed into my own behavior. I am thinking of starting the ritual of standing and bowing at the beginning of each team meeting when I return to my IT job, a ritual that occurs at the beginning of every class and staff meeting in my school. I know I will miss the politeness of waiting for all to be served their lunch before starting to eat.

The last time I was in a high school was 16 years ago. My nighttime dreams since this time have often cast me back to the classroom to revisit this stage of my life. Courtesy of the JET program my dreams have become my reality, and its not half bad!

Susan Miles is an Australian IT professional who is still living in Japan teaching English.

How to Do It

Candidate Requirements:

Age: 21 to 40 years of age

Mandatory Criteria:

Minimum of an undergraduate degree (in any discipline).

Desirable qualifications:

Teaching experience of any kind (ie: teacher, coach, tutor), some Japanese language ability (or at least a desire to learn), an interest in Japan and Japanese culture.


In addition to completing the various forms, you will need to provide verified copies of your diploma, and ranscript, signed references from each of your nominated referees plus a 2-page essay. This needs to cover what talents, skills, and experiences you can bring to the program and the goals and objectives you plan to achieve during your time as a participant.


Candidates who are selected for an interview must demonstrate how they would deal with a specific JET situation based on previous experiences.

Contract Period:

Minimum of 12 months, with the option to renew for a further two.

Further Information :

CLAIR Office, Coordinators,
JET Program, 666 5th Ave., 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10103-0072;
212-246 5542,
212-246 5617; www.jlgc.org.
JET website

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