Wednesday, January 13, 2010

JET Programme interview tips

Or, "B-B-B-B-B-Benny and the JETs".

I got an email from a friend-of-a-friend today who has his JET interview coming up and wants some pointers. It got me thinking that since it's interview season (mine was in late January), it might be nice to give some advice not just to that guy, but to any other stressed-out applicants who stumble across this blog.

Thus, this post is a little different to my other ones, as signified by the boringly functional title. If you are one of my friends back home, this may not be very interesting, so please feel free to stop reading now. I thought about starting a separate blog for this kind of thing, but I'm not sure whether I'll keep it up and there's nothing more embarrassing than an abortive blog.

So, interviews. What should you expect? Well, the first thing to say is that obviously it depends greatly on which embassy or consulate you interview in. For the record, I came through Edinburgh. If you get accepted to the JET Programme, you're going to hear the phrase "every situation is different" (ESID) a lot. It's like a mantra in these circles. At times it's a feeble cop-out used by responsibility-shirking scoundrels, but usually it really is true. The second thing to say is that I don't have any inside knowledge about the selection process, so I'm only sharing my experiences as a punter.

First of all, dress smartly. For men, we're talking full-on suits here. I can't emphasise this enough; Japan is a nation obsessed with ceremony and protocol and by dressing insufficiently formally you're shooting yourself in the foot right from the get-go. I don't have piercings, but if you do should should probably remove them. I've heard wildly conflicting reports about the acceptability of beards, but I kept my goatee (very neatly trimmed, of course) for the interview, and have retained it all the time I've been here, with no problems.

Having some insomniac tendencies, I slept extremely poorly the night before my interview, which wasn't ideal. When I arrived at the consulate I was met by a former JET. The first thing he did was to give me a five-minute written English test. I consider myself pretty strong in the English department, but this was quite tricky, with the spelling section in particular causing problems for my tiredness- and anxiety-addled brain. But I wouldn't worry too much, as I really can't imagine that it's a central part of the selection process. Maybe it's like a tie-breaker. I wouldn't even rule out the possibility that it's just a psychological trick to try to rattle you.

Next I was sat down on a sofa in front of a looping DVD about the programme. The former JET floated around near me. Now, I stress that this is just speculation, but a friend of mine who had been through the process before reckoned that this was actually part of the test, i.e. that the former JET was a 'good cop' assessing your personality in a more relaxed setting. I think she may be right. So I decided to give the DVD little attention, and instead focus my efforts on chatting to the guy. He was a friendly sort, and I had lots of questions to ask him about his experiences, so the conversation flowed well.

Then I got called into the interview room. My panel was just two people, a slightly surly-looking Japanese man and a smiley but intense British woman. I would say the atmosphere was fair-to-intimidating. For one thing, they were behind a desk and I was sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, which is a textbook way to make someone feel exposed and defensive. I have heard other JETs say their interview had a hostile atmosphere reminiscent of a war crimes tribunal. I've also heard stories of deliberate ploys to unsettle you, for example them saying something like, "Why did you request placement in Hiroshima?" when you in fact you didn't, to see how you will handle a misunderstanding. So, bear in mind that they may well try to mess with you, just to see if you lose your composure. If things seem to be going wrong then it might all be part of their plan.

My aforementioned (female) JET veteran friend was asked "What would you do if a male teacher asked you what your bra size was?" and I was asked "Imagine you had a snowboarding trip planned for the weekend, then on friday, your headmaster asked you to come in on saturday to help clean the school. What would you do?" At the time I thought that these were both examples of the deliberate playing of silly buggers to try and get a rise out of the interviewee, but now that I'm here, both of those scenarios actually seem fairly plausible. In any case, expect some question along the lines of your cultural norms being violated and how you would handle it. My advice to you is to be spinelessly compliant in your answer. I said "I would cancel the snowboard trip; I understand that flexibility is a very important requirement in a JET." I think this was the right answer. If there's one thing the Japanese don't like, it's a free-thinking maverick.

Seriously though, flexibility is key. You could be teaching three-year-olds on monday and 17-year olds on tuesday. You could be living in a metropolis like Osaka (as a rule, virtually no JETs are placed in Tokyo), or on some tiny godforsaken island off the coast of Hokkaido. If you don't think you can handle being thrown into experiences outside of your comfort zone, this probably isn't the job for you; just read this blog for examples of some of the odd situations I've found myself in. So, play up you flexibility, but try not to sound like you just don't care about anything.

You may well be asked to improvise a lesson. As it happens I wasn't, but I know plenty of people who were. So for instance you might be asked to talk for a couple of minutes about yourself, your country, Christmas, etc. to an imaginary 12-year-old Japanese audience. I was about to say that this is an unreasonable thing to ask you to do, because no-one would ever expect you to freestyle a lesson with zero notice, but sadly that's not true. Anyway, they obviously can't expect it to be well structured or thought out, so all I would say is keep the language very simple, speak more slowly than you think is sensible, use lots of gestures (maybe even use imaginary props), and above all be genki: big smiles, expressive voice, animated movements.

What else? Obviously you'll be asked some variant of "Why do you want to be a JET?" so have an answer ready for that. They will probably test your knowledge of Japan; I was asked for three places excluding snowboard resorts that I wanted to visit in Japan. You can try to bone up for this kind of thing on Wikipedia, but it's easy to stress yourself out trying to cram names of Japanese places, musicians, actors, politicians, etc. into your head. Hopefully if you're applying you already have some interest in the country, so try to steer the conversation around to whatever your specific flavour of Japanophilia is. If, like me, you're coming from a slightly otaku direction, then I think it's perfectly acceptable to talk about your love of anime, manga, games, cosplay, or whatever, since these are all legitimate facets of Japanese popular culture (well, maybe not cosplay). Just try not to sound like a socially retarded nerd when you do it; play up the social aspects of these hobbies, and talk about how you can use them to connect with your prospective students.

You should also expect to be asked about your own country. In my preparations, I actually tried to remember the names of members of the cabinet, which looking back was fairly insane. Think about what colourful traditions your town/region/country has that would be interesting to foreigners. Scotland is blessed with quite a lot of these, so I milked them for all they were worth, prompting the Japanese guy to ask me for three interesting British places outside of Scotland. I rattled off Buckingham Palace and Stonehenge immediately, then dried up horribly on the third, meekly suggesting "Blackpool?" after an agonising protracted silence.

I also got quizzed about my insomnia. As you will already know from the application form, JET are very jumpy about anything that even slightly resembles a mental illness. While this does seem like a somewhat outrageous invasion of privacy, I can kind of understand why they do it - moving to a foreign culture where you know no-one and are illiterate is quite a challenge to one's mental stability, and the last thing they want is embarrassing and inconvenient suicides to deal with.

The final thing to note about the interview is that it's short. I couldn't have spent much more than ten minutes in the interview proper, which at the time I took as a bad sign. But I am living proof that it's not - I was accepted initially, not upgraded from the reserve list.

So if you have an interview, ganbatte kudasai! I can exclusively confirm I shall be re-contracting for another year, so that's one less vacancy, sorry.


  1. Thank you for the time you put into this :)

  2. Thanks a lot for defo gave some things to consider which I had not even contemplated. Grammar test..eeeek!

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