Thursday, April 1, 2010

Life in Japan as an AET

In recent years the role of AET, or Assistant English Teacher, has become a highly coveted job. While there are many programs geared towards teaching English in non-English-speaking countries, probably none are so famous as JIT - the Japan Interchange Teaching Programmme. And it's no wonder. It's a pretty romantic thought - flying over to the land of the rising sun, spending your mornings staring blissfully at Mr. Fuji (visible from anywhere in Japan), trading manga with students while dodging kancho attacks. As a current resident of Japan and AET, I felt it my duty to share my experience with you, and hopefully provide some useful advice to those considering applying to JIT.

Getting in

Getting in can be tough. Almost everyone who applies to JIT has studied Japanese for at least a few years and has read all of the Naruto manga (it's important preparation for encountering ninja once you get here). I didn't have much manga experience, but I did write a pretty impressive personal statement about the Tokugawa Shogunate and it's impact on the present-day samurai class, and then I aced the interview by wooing the panel with my knowledge of sushi. A little insider's tip: bring Japanese beer (Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin) to the interview and share a kanpai (cheers) with the panelists when they're finished asking you questions. The kanpai is very important part of Japanese culture, and they will appreciate your knowledge and sensitivity.

Getting in, in summary:
  • Speak the language.
  • Naruto.
  • Ninja / Samurai.
  • Sushi.
  • Drink.

The flight

For many AET's, the first flight to Japan is the longest they've ever taken. Anticipation of this trip can be both exciting and anxiety-inducing. Fear not - I am going to tell you how not only to weather the flight, but to enjoy it. There's a common misconception that drinking on long flights is a bad idea because it dehydrates you. Wrong. Dehydration is your friend up there. With about 100 passengers per bathroom, spare yourself the waiting in line. Besides, drunk people don't notice or care about being dehydrated (until the next morning), so have at those little bottles of rum. Stay away from the beer, though. Remember - potency, not volume.

The flight, in summary:
  • Drink.
  • Quality over quantity.

Settling in

When you first arrive, you will probably be feeling a bit lonely, and this is natural. But trust me on this - don't make Japanese friends right away. You're in Japan - there are Japanese people everywhere. You'll have plenty of time and opportunities. For now, just stay aloof and play hard to get. Be that cool foreigner who always answers monosyllabically. You're better off finding the one or two other foreigners who live in your area (and good luck - there's about 1 foreigner per 50 square miles on average) and clinging to them like an otaku to his gunpla (if you're unfamiliar with those words, you haven't been accepted by JIT - try again next year). Only by spending time with other foreigners will you be able preserve your cultural identity and ward of culture shock. That, and alcohol.

Also, remember - you're in Japan now. No more of that Western food bullshit. You're here now, so do it right. Get a rice cooker and use it at least 3 times a day. Rice is your new bread. But Japanese people don't eat bread, so nevermind that expression. And McDonald's? McDonald's is for Americans living in America, or Japanese people living in Japan. You don't need to pollute your body with that crap. Go eat some ramen instead.

You may be worrying about stuff like furnishing your apartment, paying your bills, getting paid...well, don't. Japan is a super high-tech society. That means that like the United Federation of Planets, the Japanese have evolved beyond the need for money. It's great until you decide to go home with no money. And no, you can't stay - they will kick you out.

Settling in, in summary:
  • Cling to foreigner friends like that dude to his, wife.
  • Drink.
  • If it's not written with hiragana, don't eat it.
  • What the hell is a yen?


What work? You speak English, right? So speak English at some kids, then pop a tab with your fellow English teachers.

Work, in summary:
  • Talk.
  • Drink.


I could have included this under work, but I didn't want to confuse you. Drinking in Japan is obligatory, especially at company parties. I knew a guy who gave a pitcher of beer the stink eye at a work party (actually I think he was trying to stifle a burp) and was transferred to Hokkaido the next week. No amount of head-slamming floor bows could save him. If you really don't want to drink, tell them you're allergic to alcohol and pray that they leave it at that. If they don't...well, I hear the ice in Hokkaido is lovely this time of year.

Get a Japanese boyfriend/girlfriend. The best places to go to find a suitable partner are usually located in vibrant urban locations, like Tokyo's Roppongi. You should look for bars and clubs where lots of foreigners hang out - that means the Japanese patrons you'll meet there are very open-minded and cosmopolitan. Maid cafes are also good spots for guys to meet cute Japanese girls. You may be paying her, but trust me - she really wants to talk to you.

Devour the media. You're in Japan, the birthplace of the greatest cartoons in the world. Ever. Many AETs study Japanese at work so that they can go home and read manga or watch anime. Or read manga while watching anime. Take advantage of the gift you've been given.

Compartmentalize your life. Remember how you made those foreign friends? Well, chances are eventually you will also start hanging out with Japanese. When this happens, do not cross the steams! I mean, when you're hanging out with your Japanese friends, doing your foreigner thing, the last thing you need is another Non-Japanese coming in and stealing your mojo! If you do happen to accidentally wind up in the situation where there's another foreigner around, give him the eye. If he speaks to you in English, speak Japanese back. If he uses Japanese, use English. Soon he'll know what's up. If all else fails you can just stab him and leave him in a gutter. Since there's no crime in Japan, Japanese police never have to deal with homicides. Chances are you'll get off scot-free.

Play, in summary:
  • Drink.
  • Foreigner bars, maid cafes.
  • Naruto.
  • There can only be one.

Well, I think that about covers it. We each have to find our own path, and if you do come to Japan on the JIT Programmme, I'm sure your experience will be very different from mine. Just remember, as an AET you are not only a teacher, but you are an ambassador for your country. So if you meet one of your countrymen who is also here through JIT, that guy is a fucking impostor and needs to be sent packing. This is your Japan.


  1. LOL, very funny :). I like the "What the hell is a yen?"

  2. Good to read the lowdown on what it's really like :) I've been considering the JET programme for years, but still undecided!

  3. It's been pretty competitive the last couple years due to the recession, but I'd definitely recommend it if you're the type who does well in unfamiliar settings and likes people.

  4. hilarious stuff. A few years before I apply but I'll keep this bookmarked for future reference.

  5. I love it! "There can be only one!"

    -I'm applying for "JIT" this next fall... Good to have these basics down!

  6. Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. And good luck to both of you whenever you apply!