Last Updated: Sept. 4th, 2010
A Note: Please keep in mind the information in this post is based on the content found in Importing Diversity: Inside Japan’s JET Program by David L. McConnell – one of the few published academic studies of the JET Program. Throughout this post, I continuously note when the data was collected (the 1980s-1990s) and that it might not be reflective of the current selection process of some or any of the Japanese embassies or consulates that conduct interviews. This entry is not meant to serve as a definitive guide to the application process or as a list of the exact criteria JET candidates should fulfill. It’s just here to provide a bit of information to people who are interested in reading more about the application process. While I find the information within this article to be a fairly accurate representation of my experiences with the JET Program, please keep in mind that both the JET Program and it’s participants are a very large and diverse group. As such, the selection process seems to vary widely between individual consulates and between different countries. I don’t wish to encourage or discourage anyone for apply to JET with this post – I simple want to present a little bit of information on a process that many find extremely daunting, long, and fairly mysterious. ~C.
When I began applying to the JET Program in the fall of 2008, I spent a lot of time online trying to find information about how the JET selection process actually works. While the official JET Programme website, the AJET website, and every website for the consulates involved in the program all contain some information on the process, none of them actually get into the specifics of how JET goes about selecting candidates. Most of the websites just tow the party line, which goes something like:
“The recruitment and selection of JET Programme participants is conducted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is based on guidelines set by the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications. (The number of participants from each country is determined according to the needs of the local governments in negotiation with the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications.)
The final decision regarding acceptance of candidates is made at the Joint Conference for International Relations where the three Ministries (Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) meet.”[i]
In other words, they don’t tell you a whole lot about how the selection process actually works and the criteria they use to accept people is somewhat unknown. After acceptance or rejection, most people just forget about the whole application process and don’t write about it anymore. But, something about its extremely opaque nature has always rubbed me the wrong way. I think that it is this opaqueness that makes the long selection process so uncomfortable for the applicants, especially for people like me who tend to micro-analyze things. So, I set out to find out more on how JET actually selects candidates.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information out there. The best study of the JET Program is undoubtedly Importing Diversity: Inside Japan’s JET Program by David L. McConnell. While discussing his methodology, McConnell accurately points out that “I found negotiating access to Ministry of Education and CLAIR officials and gaining permission to observe national-level conferences quite difficult; a general ministry policy forbids any outside research on the JET Program.”[ii] The fact that outside research is prohibited, while not at all surprising, does a good job explaining why it feels like so much of the JET Program is shrouded in secrecy. Before you start demanding more transparency, keep in mind that this is not an entirely abnormal policy for a Japanese ministry to adopt…it just makes the application process more frustrating.
The following information draws heavily on the research in David McConnell’s book. Importing Diversity is the best book I’ve ever read about the JET Program and I think that it should be required reading for anyone who participates or applies to the program. However, the biggest problem with this information is that it is outdated. It was published in 2000 (making it at least 10 years old already) AND the book examines the early years of the JET Program. JET began in 1987, which officially makes the program as old as I am. Any organization that has operated for that long is bound to have undergone some operational changes. Therefore, it’s impossible to know just how outdated McConnell’s description of the application process actually is.
I still think that the information in his book is extremely valuable to potential JET applicants. In fact, my own experience with the application process and the information in Importing Diversity are extremely similar. Still, be sure to exercise your critical reading skills with the rest of this post.
Who actually selects the candidates?
Here is the official answer: “The final decision regarding acceptance of candidates is made at the Joint Conference for International Relations where the three Ministries…and the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) meet.”[iii] Honestly, I cannot think of an answer that is more unhelpful. Here’s a better way to look at it:
The selection process is divided into two stages:
- Initial Screening – where your paper application and personal essay are read.
- Interview – where you are interviewed by a JET interview committee.
According to McConnell, the selection process (particularly in the early years of the program) was determined almost entirely by the consulate conducting the interviews. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs retains the right to overturn the decisions of the selection committee, this authority is rarely exercised.[iv] I do not know how much centralization has occurred over the years, but from what I’ve observed this process has remained largely intact. This means that the actual decisions on who gets accepted are not made at a central office in Tokyo, but at the consulates/embassy that you apply to.
Let’s look at the two stages in more detail…
Initial Screening AKA The part where they read your application:
In the first year of the program, the Japanese embassy in Washington hired the Meridian International Center (well respected for its training of international diplomats) to conduct the initial selection process.[v] I think it’s safe to assume that the JET Program still outsources the screening process to a similar organization. Organizations like Meridian basically grade each application based on a certain criteria specified by the employer. The applicants who pass this initial screening will be offered interviews.
The specific criteria used by the Meridian Institution are confidential, but we can still look at how the initial selection process operates. Basically, a numerical score is assigned to each applicant based on factors like academic performance, letters of reference, and the personal essay. There is also ‘anecdotal evidence’ that Japanese language ability and the prestige of the applicant’s college are factors considered. Given Japan’s love for brand names, it is unsurprising that JET would find applicants from Harvard more attractive than community college graduates.[vi]
JET doesn’t post statistics online about how many applications they receive, how many interviews they grant, or how many applicants get shortlisted. In Importing Diversity, McConnell says that approximately two-thirds of the Americans who apply make it through the initial screening and granted interviews.[vii] He includes a statistic: in 1992, 300 applicants requested a Boston interview and 218 interviews were granted (~72%). Out of those, 95 were selected to participate in the program. (291) What does this tell us?
- Approximately 72% of the applicants received interviews.
- Of the applicants interviewed, approximately 42% were accepted into the program.
- Of the total applicants, approximately 31% were chosen for the program.
However, that was in 1992. I applied in 2008-2009. At my pre-departure orientation at the Boston consulate, I was told that less than ¼ of the applicants who applied through the Boston consulate were accepted into the program.
The website for the Japanese consulate in Chicago offers more up-to-date information. For the 2002 JET Program, 320 out of 500 applicants were granted interviews. Of those, 185 were shortlisted and 80 were placed as alternates. This means that:
- 64% of applicants were granted interviews.
- Of those interviewed, ~58% were shortlisted and 25% were placed as alternates.
- Of all who applied, 37% were shortlisted and 16% were placed as alternates. [viii]
If you compare the statistics from 1992 with those from 2002, you will see that the number of candidates accepted into the program has declined over the years. While that comparison does not take into account any regional differences between Chicago and Boston or the total number of new JETs hired in each year, it does show that the JET Program has become increasingly competitive. The JET Program has been shrinking over the past few years, largely due to the enormous expense associated with hiring JETs. JETs receive a competitive salary that is slightly higher than the salaries of first year Japanese teachers. This is in part due to the fact that JETs are removed from the seniority-based wage system that characterizes most government and company jobs. JETs also have part of their health care and insurance paid by their contracting organizations and many live in subsidized government housing, just like a normal public servant in Japan. Many schools and local boards of education find it is cheaper to employ ALTs from private English-teaching companies on a part-time basis rather than hire a fulltime JET ALT. Because of this and the large amount of JETs who choose to recontract, the JET Program has become very competitive.
Interview Process AKA the part where they ask you questions:
In Importing Diversity, David McConnell makes it very clear that the selection process if primarily determined by the consulate conducting the interviews. This means that your interview will be the most important part of your application process. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the ability to overturn the decisions of the selection committee, this rarely happens. Therefore, the selection process for the interviews is determined almost entirely by your interviewers. This means that if you make it to the interview stage, your acceptance into JET will be based almost entirely on the impression you make on your interviewers. No pressure.
McConnell served on the selection committee at the Boston Consulate in 1992, 17 years before I applied through the same consulate. (Just thought I’d point out the possibility that this information might be outdated. Exercise those critical reading skills!)
According to McConnell, the composition of the interview committees is determined solely by the consulate conducting the interview. Typically, committees contain three of four local people from academia or Japan-related programs. Often, a JET alumnus serves on the interview committee. Only one Japanese representative is on each committee. According to the information on the Consulate-General of Japan in Toronoto webpage, “Interviews are conducted by panels of individuals with expertise in education, business, culture, international diplomacy and the JET Programme. All panelists assess JET candidates according to strict guidelines that help to ensure consistency in the quality of JET Programme participants.”[ix] On a side note, in 1992 interviewers received $400.00 per day while working on a selection committee.[x]
At the beginning of the interview period, the interview committees are brought to the consulate for introductions and a refresher course on scoring procedures and criteria. A list of sample questions is handed out as well as summaries of past cases where interview committees endorsed applicants who later encountered serious difficulties in Japan. Over the next few days, the interview committees conduct approximately twenty interviews per day, each lasting roughly 20 minutes. Score sheets are divided into three categories: definitely recommended, recommended with reservations, and not recommended.[xi]
If the applicant makes it to the interview stage, personal qualities become the dominant criteria for selection. Interviewers are told to look for applicants that are “outgoing, well-mannered and have a sunny disposition. A nervous temperament is not desirable.”[xii]
Each applicant receives are score out of a possible 120 points. The points are awarded from six different categories:
- Personality – 40 points: Consider flexibility, strength of personality, ability to adapt to foreign cultures, etc.
- Ability – 20 points: Consider self-expression, creativity, general knowledge, etc.
- Motivation – 25 points: Consider desire to participate in the JET Program, sense of purpose, interest in Japan.
- English Ability – 10 points: Clear pronunciation, proper word use, etc.
- Japanese Ability – 5 points: Evaluate conversation and reading ability
- Overall Impression – 20 points: Please recommend those applicants who seem sociable, stable and can adjust well to new situations. (In other words, this is another personality score.)
Recently Jason (of MyArgonauts and JapanJuku.com) posted a comment on this post that you all might find interesting:
After years of blogging and vlogging about JET, I got my first behind-the-scenes access to the application process this past February when I was invited, as a JET Alum, to participate in the interviews for 2010-2011 candidates.
Even tho I was an ALT for 5 years, I ended up interviewing CIR candidates and it was a really interesting experience. I did find out a few things that I can’t really discuss (there’s that whole secretive thing), but one thing I found interesting is that your paper application is graded on a point scale, with each section being assigned some number of points from zero to the maximum for that section.
The two sections getting you the most possible points toward getting that interview? Your SoP (essay) and your two letters of recommendation. So if you’re a future applicant – work on those two aspects completely.
Another thing I found interesting – we assessed all 6 people we saw that day on their own merits, but you inevitably end up comparing interviewee #2 versus interviewee #5, etc. He was better than she, or she was more genki than him, etc. So many factors can influence if you make it in or not, even the group you end up interviewing with that day.
And I know the numbers coming out the LA consulate last year and this year indicate an acceptance rate of about 1 in 6. So yeah, it’s competitive. But some of that falls to the shitty economy back home which makes ALTs stay in Japan longer, meaning less slots for newbies.
I think all the stuff about wanting whites over ethnicities, Americans over others, younger people over more mature applicants is hogwash. Those choices might be born out by stats of who actually gets in, but my guess is because tons more whites apply than blacks or Asians, tons more people in their 20s then in their 30s, etc.
Is the selection process fair?
Is any selection process fair? What are the characteristics of a ‘fair’ selection process? McConnell points out that as a whole JET application process has been well received in the United States by academics. However, there are several complaints that often pop up when people talk about the selection process –
- JET prefers applicants from the United States of America.
- JET has a tendency to emphasize youth and personality in the selection of participants
- Good Japanese language ability will hurt you in the selection process
- JET prefers Caucasians over other ethnicities (African American, Asian American, etc.)
Let’s look at these criticisms one by one:
1) JET prefers applicants from the United States of America - JET covers its own butt here by explicitly stating that “The number of participants from each country is determined according to the needs of the local governments in negotiation with the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications.” Each local board of education has the ability to express preferences for what kind of ALT they receive. I don’t know what these preferences are specifically or how closely CLAIR tries to fulfill them, but they are undoubtedly things like nationality, age, gender, etc. If an overwhelming majority of the contracting organizations request ALTs from America, then JET must hire more candidates from America.
In any case, the preference for applicants from the United States is immediately obvious. According to the official JET Program website for the United States, as of July 2009, there are 4,063 ALTs in the JET Program. Of that, 2,428 are from America (~60%). There are 4,436 people participating in JET (ALTs, CIRs, etc) and of them 2,537 are American (~62%).[xiii] During the first year of the program, 70% of participants were from the United States of America.[xiv]
Japan has an extremely close relationship with the United States, despite the current disagreement over Futenma. There is a larger pool of applicants from America and most Japanese schools prefer American English. The entire JET Program was designed as an attempt to soothe US criticism that Japan was an insular, closed society that did not welcome internationalization. During the height of the trade-wars between America and Japan, JET was presented by Prime Minister Nakasone to President Ronald Reagan as a ‘gift.’ To deny the close relationship between the US and Japan is to deny 65 years of postwar history. McConnell was quite right when he quotes a Ministry of Home Affairs official as saying, “The first thing you should know about the background of the JET Program is that Japan likes the United States.”[xv]
However, it is now 2010 and the JET Program has been running for quite some time. From everything I have observed, it seems that JET accepts a fairly equal number of applicants from each participating country in terms of the number of applications they receive from each country. Like any program, JET is interested in selecting the applicants they consider best suited and prepared for the job – regardless of their country of origin. I highly doubt that JET would not hire a well-qualified applicant from Australia or the UK in favor of an under-qualified US applicant.
2) JET has a tendency to emphasize youth and personality in the selection of participants – McConnell quotes one professor from the University of Washington as saying, “All they do is choose people who are cute and cheery instead of those with teaching experience or sustained interest in Japan.”[xvi] The author himself says, “What struck me about the way the interviews were set up was not only the preoccupation with social fit and social type but also the relatively short time we were given to make difficult assessments about character – integrity, adaptability, openness to learning, genuine interest in children.”[xvii] Looking around Tokyo Orientation last year, it is clear that the preference for young college graduates has not changed over the years.
McConnell also relates two stories from his experience on a JET selection committee in 1992:
“There were also a few interesting cross-cultural moments. A Japanese member of our group gave a particularly low score to an interviewee who furrowed her brow as she spoke, arguing that this mannerism would be viewed negatively in Japan. In another case, a woman was rejected because of a very noticeable facial scar that Japanese members of the consulate found problematic.”[xviii]
I am quite aware that my own acceptance into the program merely reinforces the image that JET prefers youth, personality, and (perhaps) attractiveness when they hire candidates. However, while the entire JET Program seems to emphasize youth over teaching or ESL experience, I do not think that it is due to shallow prejudice. It is because the primary goal of JET participants is not to revolutionize foreign language teaching in Japan. A look at JET’s original mission statement from 1986 clearly reveals this:
“The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program seeks to promote mutual understanding between Japan and other countries including the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and N.Z. and foster international perspectives in Japan by promoting international exchange at local levels as well as intensifying foreign language education in Japan.”
Clearly, teaching is not at the top of the list of priorities there. I believe that in my application and in the previous posts I have written about the application process, I overemphasized the importance of the teaching component of the JET Program. My biggest difficulty with life as an ALT is that I spend too much time trying to be an effective teacher and not enough time hanging out with the local community and ‘fostering international perspectives.’ In other words, I’m too serious.
3) Good Japanese language ability will hurt you in the selection process – It’s really impossible to judge the accuracy of this claim. I have met JETs who speak fluent Japanese and JETs who speak absolutely none. Personally, I have never seen anything that would suggest that JET would not hire a qualified candidate because their Japanese was TOO good.
McConnell has a different perspective on this. According to him, he discovered quite by accident that “too much fluency in Japanese could actually work against one’s chances of being accepted.”[xix] Apparently, he was on the selection committee for a similar program (The Ohio-Saitama English Teaching Program) and their top candidate – who had a strong academic record, good personal statement, fantastic recommendations and extraordinary language skill – submitted a similar application to the JET Program but was rejected in the initial screening by the Meridian International Center. The author states, “ALT applicants with outstanding Japanese ability are seen as working against two major purposes of the program: the teaching of English and the introduction of Japanese language and culture to a new generation of foreign youth.”[xx] This statement points out that one of the goals of the JET Program is to improve the international perception of Japan by exposing young college graduates to different aspects of Japanese society and culture than they would encounter within their home countries.
4) JET prefers Caucasians over other ethnicities (African American, Asian American, etc.) – I have also never seen anything that would suggest that JET gives special preference to Caucasian applicants over other ethnicities. JET does not post statistics about the race or ethnicity of participants, so there is no easy way to find an answer to this question. McConnell only briefly examines this question in Importing Diversity. According to the 1987-1988 JET Participant Directory, roughly 1.5% of participants were of African descent and 5% were of Japanese descent.[xxi] This could have been due to the proportion of applications that the JET Program received that year and not due to racial bias.
In 2009, after receiving notifications of our acceptance/rejection, a friend of mine and I were sitting in the office of our Japanese History professor. While I had been shortlisted for the program, my friend had not been accepted. The professor said, “You can easily get a job at a private English teaching company, just bleach your hair blond.” The professor was clearly joking, but this comment does demonstrate the general stereotype that Japanese people love blond hair. This really isn’t the case; all hair that isn’t one of the three standard Japanese shades looks sufficiently foreign, not just blond. Every August, when Tokyo is flooded with the new batch of JET recruits, the hotel hosting the orientation does not look like it is hosting a neo-Nazi convention. The array of JET participants look just the way you’d expect them to look – like a healthy and diverse mix of young, bright-eyed professionals eager to start their jobs.
In 2010, Shane Krumeich of CLAIR posted a response to this blog entry addressing these points about the fairness of the JET selection process. They offer a much more up-to-date perspective than Importing Diversity and I’ve included them here (and the original post is still below in the comment section):
1. We do not prefer Americans. From the numbers I’ve seen, we take a relatively equal percentage of the overall applicants from each participating country (for English ALTs), so the greater numbers in Americans reflect the number of applicants.
2. We don’t prefer people without Japanese. This may actually have been the case in the past however, so I don’t think it is a dubious claim. In recent years we have reversed this and now we prefer people with some knowledge of Japanese, as they have an easier time adapting to life here. Japanese skills won’t get you shortlisted necessarily, but they are definitely preferred.
3. We do not prefer younger people directly from university, although there is the in principle age cap as it is a “youth exchange programme”. That said, there are far more youths, but this again reflects the applicants. Much of our recruiting is done at universities and university job fairs. However, if given the choice, local governments in Japan prefer people with some working experience and the interviewing embassies/consulates know this.
4. We certainly don’t prefer once ethnicity over another, although I wouldn’t doubt that 20 years ago those conversations reported in Importing Diversity were actually happening at CLAIR. The JET Programme has done a lot of good over the years though, and CLAIR is now, naturally, one of the most, if not the most, internationalized institutions run of the Japanese government. If even a hint of such a notion were ever to rise, believe me one of the former JETs at CLAIR like me would unleash terror on the person that entertained the idea. It would be comical, I assure you.
Motivations for participating in the JET Program in the late 1990s:
McConnell conducted extensive interviews with JET participants on their motivations for entering the program. Here are his findings:
- 25% drew some connection between Japan’s economic rise, their participation in the JET Program, and a future payoff.
- 20% had some personal or family connection that motivated their interest in the JET Program.
- 15% expressed an academic interest in Japan.
- 13% had a deep interest in teaching or ESL.
- 13% said that their motivation to travel to Japan was ‘simply a desire to see a different part of the world.’
- 9% mentioned their fascination with traditional Japanese culture.[xxii]
Of the JETs selected in the first few years of the program:
- 93% were single.
- 56.5% were female.
- The average age was 25.
- 85% said they could speak no Japanese whatsoever or had trouble with daily conversation.
- 93.8% came to Japan with a bachelor’s degree.
- 6.1% came with a master’s degree.
- 12% had come kind of TEFL certification.[xxiii]
I hope that this post has helped clarify the selection process a bit. However, the best way to ensure your acceptance into the program is not to micro-analyze JET’s selection criteria. JET is an extremely large and complex program and a wide variety of factors influence the selection of candidates from year to year. Considerations that have nothing to do with your personal qualifications – like the needs to contracting organizations and the number of recontracting JETs – can either increase or decrease your chances of being selected.
The best advice I can give you is – make sure you research the JET Program before applying. After participating in JET for a year, I strongly believe that this program is not for everyone. Researching the program thoroughly and developing a clear understanding of the purpose and the goals of the JET Program will help you judge whether or not you are a good fit. As stated by the Toronto Consulate-General website, “A poor interview can easily affect your candidacy, and lack of research can adversely affect your ability to respond well. In some cases, your goals, skills and aptitudes may have been assessed as unsuitable for participation on the JET Programme, at this time. If you are not selected this year but would like to apply again in the future, we strongly recommend that you research the JET Programme, Japan and working in Japan, and evaluate your own reasons for wishing to participate.”[xxiv]
Many people discover that they are much happier working outside of the JET Program. There is no shortage of opportunities to live and work in Japan, if you are willing to put the work into discovering them. Good luck!
If anyone has more information on the JET Program selection process or has served on an interview committee, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the process!
For an overview of David McConnell’s take on the JET Program, please read his paper for the Winter 2002 Harvard Asia Quarterly: http://www.asiaquarterly.com/content/view/114/40/
Works Cited or Referenced
McConnell, David L. Importing Diversity: Inside Japan’s JET Program. University of California Press, 2000,
The Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching (AJET), The JET Programme FAQ, http://ajet.net/modules/articles/article.php?id=2
Consulate-General of Japan in Chicago, JET website, http://www.chicago.us.emb-japan.go.jp/JIC/jetfaq.html
Consulate-General of Japan in Toronto, The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, http://www.toronto.ca.emb-japan.go.jp/english/culture-education/jet-program/faq-selection.html
The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program: The Official JET Program Website for U.S. Citizens, http://www.us.emb-japan.go.jp/JET/table1.htm
[i] The Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching (AJET), The JET Programme FAQ, http://ajet.net/modules/articles/article.php?id=2
[ii] McConnell, David L. Importing Diversity: Inside Japan’s JET Program. University of California Press, 2000, 26.
[iii] The Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching (AJET), The JET Programme FAQ, http://ajet.net/modules/articles/article.php?id=2
[iv] McConnell, 54.
[v] McConnell, 54.
[vi] McConnell, 54.
[vii] McConnell, 55.
[viii] Chicago Consulate-General of Japan, JET website, http://www.chicago.us.emb-japan.go.jp/JIC/jetfaq.html
[ix] Consulate-General of Japan in Toronto, The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. http://www.toronto.ca.emb-japan.go.jp/english/culture-education/jet-program/faq-selection.html
[x] McConnell, 54.
[xi] McConnell, 55.
[xii] McConnell, 56.
[xiii] The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program: The Official JET Program Website for U.S. Citizens, http://www.us.emb-japan.go.jp/JET/table1.htm
[xiv] McConnell, 50.
[xv] McConnell, 50.
[xvi] McConnell, 56.
[xvii] McConnell, 56.
[xviii] McConnell, 291.
[xix] McConnell, 54.
[xx] McConnell, 55.
[xxi] McConnell, 60.
[xxii] McConnell, 60-61.
[xxiii] McConnell, 57 and 60.
[xxiv] Consulate-General of Japan in Toronto, The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. http://www.toronto.ca.emb-japan.go.jp/english/culture-education/jet-program/faq-selection.html