After being on the JET Program only three months, your supervisor hands you some paperwork. It’s already time to decide whether or not you want to stay in Japan another year. You don’t have to turn in the paperwork until February, but you’re asked to start thinking about it now. Five months in advance.
All this to say, JETs have a recontracting decision to make each year. For some, this decision is easy. For others, it can be daunting. Ideas and emotions shouldn’t be ignored, but explored. Hopefully this article will help you do just that.
What is JET Program Recontracting?
The JET Program can last a total of five years, but no one is guaranteed or locked in for that amount of time. This allows the JET participant and the school a way out if either party feels the relationship needs to end.
This is why every year JET Program participants have to "recontract," or decide to stay an extra year. The Contracting Organization first offers the JET participant a chance to recontract, and the JET agrees or declines.
In general, all JETs are asked to recontract twice for a total of three years, if the Contracting Organization has no reason to let them go. Beyond year three, JETs have to be "invited" to recontract two more times for a total of five years. Third year JETs are almost always "invited" to stay for years four and five, but there are exceptions.
Bottom line: unless you’re really out of line, your school will most likely try to keep you around for the five year maximum. It’s easier for them to renew your contract than to train a brand new ALT.
But just because recontracting is easy for your school doesn’t mean it’s easy for you.
What Makes This Decision Difficult?
The decision isn’t always difficult. You’ll probably start JET with a vague idea of how long you want to stay. But a lot of things can complicate the JET Program recontracting decision:
You can’t go back on your decision. Once you submit your reappointment papers, it’s final. If you’re the least bit conflicted, handing in the paperwork becomes an ordeal.
You don’t get much time to experience Japan the first time around. Most JETs arrive in late summer and reappointment papers come in October/November. That’s only three months or so. For your first JET Program reappointment decision, there’s not much time to get a handle on your Japanese life.
Culture shock. Even if you’re deciding to recontract a second or third time, you’re weighing options during the winter months when culture shock is most likely to set in. It’s tough to be lucid when you’re cold, sick, and tired (nabe can help though).
The nature of the JET Program. The JET Program is more an experience than a career path. There are no opportunities for advancement in the traditional sense and it ends for even the greatest, most dedicated ALT.
Once you submit your reappointment papers, it’s final. If you’re the least bit conflicted, handing in the paperwork becomes an ordeal.
If you want to teach English in Japan or other countries long term, it may still be worth your while to leave before the five-year mark. Even if you want to teach English in Japan long term, JET is only a temporary solution. Change of pace, a chance for better placement, and career building are all valid reasons for leaving.
If you’re not planning to live in Japan long term, the decision becomes more complex. Staying on JET means continuing a career you won’t pursue in your home country. But leaving means leaving. JET gives you a rare opportunity to experience and learn things you’ll likely never learn and experience again. Return home and those opportunities could be gone for good.
So the pivotal question becomes, "Have you had enough JET?" And how do you begin to answer a question like that?
Define Your Goals
Before anything else, figure out what you want. You came to Japan for a reason, but you’ll also have a life post-JET. So make two lists: "JET Goals" and "Life Goals."
One of the big draws of joining JET is to "experience Japan." But that means something different for each person. Ask yourself what this means to you.
After becoming comfortable, it’s easy to stop experiencing and start living. This isn’t bad at all. In fact, it’s one of the benefits of JET. But that very awesome living can sometimes make you forget you wanted to sled down Mt. Fuji on your back. Or pass the JLPT N2. That’s why it’s important to figure out what goals you have that can only be accomplished in Japan. Here are some common reasons people want to stay:
Achieve Japanese Proficiency. If you want to study and practice Japanese, there’s no better place than Japan. You can continue in your home country, but immersion is easier and in fact forced on you.
Teaching Experience. If you want to become a teacher in your home country or elsewhere, there are a lot of skills you can refine as an ALT. Depending on your situation, you may even be able to develop curriculum and after school programs. Great for your teaching resume.
International Job Experience. You technically have this as soon as you start your job on JET, but you’ll want to elaborate on your resume and in interviews. The longer you stay (and the more proactive you are), the greater your ability to work in a team and be flexible.
Experience Japan to the Fullest. Sometimes you just want to go around again. This isn’t the strongest reason, but it is valid. The first year or two brings a lot of trial and error. After getting your footing, it’s nice to stick around to enjoy life in Japan with fewer hiccups. Even if you won’t be a teacher forever, it’s nice to leave Japan feeling like you got the hang of the job (not to mention day-to-day life).
Make Japanese Friends. In Japan, they’re just called "friends." Acquaintances can become lifelong comrades given an extra year to develop.
Figuring Stuff Out. Make no mistake. I don’t mean "taking time to figure stuff out" and not actually doing it. I mean, you don’t have goals to be proactive toward, so you are proactively finding goals. Though you may not want to be an ESL teacher, examining your reactions in this very different environment can reveal things about you. Use these things to figure out who you are and what you want to accomplish.
Developing Skills. These are things that can be done from anywhere. Like writing a novel or learning computer programming. The JET life usually offers a lot (too much?) down time. If you’re self-motivated, you can use this time to learn or do something. After a year, you may find yourself twice as marketable.
Life goals are your ultimate dreams, or steps toward them. These are not necessarily "leave Japan" goals. They are simply another facet of what you want out of life. Defining them will help you weigh the decision. Here are examples of life goals you might be considering:
Life goals are your ultimate dreams, or steps toward them.
Grad School/Continued Education. Do your goals require you to have more degrees? If you want to be a brain surgeon, you may feel the need to get started on that MD.
Career Advancement. Do you know what you want to be when you grow up? Will you be able to build your resume for that position on JET?
Community Does a community of your professional peers exist in your town on JET? If you want to be an actor or artist, is there an art community who will fuel your development of tastes and skills?
Family. Do you want to get married? Have kids? Join a commune of like-minded people? Whatever your idea of family, how can you join/start one? Can you do it in Japan?
Making Something. Do you want to make a film? Write a novel? Sculpt a rockman? Can you make what you want to make in Japan?
Questions Only You Can Answer
With JET and Life Goals in mind, it’s time to ask yourself some questions. I don’t mean read through them once. Print these questions out and physically write or type your answers. You don’t have to be decisive. You can ramble. Get those thoughts down on paper (or Google Docs). Let them sit and then reread your answers.
How content am I with the ALT job? How is my job satisfaction?
How content am I with life outside of work? What do I think about my personal life?
If work is good and outside of work is bad, or vice versa: does the good situation outweigh the bad? Am I happy enough at work that dealing with life is easier? Am I happy enough outside of work that dealing with work is easier?
Am I being proactive? Is there something I can do to improve situations I’m dissatisfied with? If so, is it worth it to try and change them?
Do I feel I am contributing something to my school? To my community? Do I feel useful?
Am I being positively challenged and gaining new skills and experiences? Is there anything in Japan that challenges me? How can I best challenge myself?
Are my expectations about reappointment realistic? How will my life change if I stay? What are my plans if I return home?
What do I think of my current living situation?
What do I like about living in Japan? What would I miss about Japan if I left?
What frustrates me about life in Japan or Japanese culture? What do I miss about home?
How will a given reappointment decision support my JET goals and life goals?
JET Goals: What are the statuses of my JET Goals? Are they still relevant? Can I accomplish them with one more year on JET?
Life Goals: Can I accomplish my life goals with one more year on JET?
Would I definitely recontract if nothing changes? Would I definitely recontract if something did? What change would that be?
How much support do I have at work and in my personal life?
Am I procrastinating or avoiding anything by staying on JET? Would I be running away from something by leaving JET?
Am I gaining skills or experience on JET that are relevant to my future career?
Answering questions about yourself can be a telling process. But sometimes answering questions lead to more questions. Or the answers lead you to conclusions that overwhelm you. That’s when you need to take it a step further.
Pros and Cons List
It’s simple but it works.
It’s simple but it works. You’ll likely have your pros and cons fresh in your head after answering the above questions. Putting them on paper gives you a solid visual of the number of pros and cons you have.
Of course, not all pros and cons are equal. "I could get more Japanese practice" is more important than "I miss cheese." To go a step further, rank your pros and cons from 1 to 10. This then gives you a quantifiable visual. You won’t want to base your entire decision on numbers, but it’s a helpful tool.
Flip a Coin
This advice came from Tofugu writer Verity. She was part of the AJET Peer Support Group and helped JETs with all kinds of issues, including decisions to recontract.
I’d never heard this technique before, but it sounds like a great way to bring your true feelings about something to the surface:
The things we [AJET PSG] always used to suggest for making the choice was writing it down on paper, flipping a coin, and examining your reaction. For example, if it's heads you stay, tails you go. You flip a coin and it comes up heads and you feel bad, then that's a pretty good sign you should go.
Write a Letter to Your Future Reappointing Self
This advice was given to me by the JET Coordinator who sent me to Japan. She recommended writing a letter to my future self before departing, and every time recontracting time came around. It’s a great tool to help compare your thinking to that of six months in the past.
The letter needs to only state the facts. Write how you feel about staying in Japan for an extra year at that point. Write down what goals you have for life in Japan and after. Write about where you expect to be and what you expect to accomplish.
When you open the letter and read it six months later, you’ll get great perspective on the situation. The perspective may be mildly interesting but unhelpful, or it could shift your decision entirely.
Think About Your Day from Beginning to End
At the end of a given day, sit down and think of the day from beginning to end. Write down everything that happened. Record how you feel about it. Do this for a week or a month. When you’re finished, go back and read everything you wrote during the period. This can help you get a better grasp on how you feel in general, rather than a given moment when you’re putting pen to an important document.
Go Through Each Month of Each Year You've Been on JET
Remember what you accomplished. Remember what you didn’t. Remember who you saw, what you saw, and why.
This can be less helpful if you’re in your first year. Sit down and list out the months of each year you’ve been on JET. Look through your Google Calendar or day planner and write down what you did that month. Try to remember your mood at those times. Remember what you accomplished. Remember what you didn’t. Remember who you saw, what you saw, and why.
This can be tedious, but it’s important. You’re making your reappointment decision in the bleak winter months. It’s important to look at the entirety of your JET experience and not only your current frozen state. This exercise helps you take a broader and more candid view at your life on JET.
How Other JETs Decided
One of the best (maybe the best) thing to do in deciding whether to stay or go is talk to your fellow JETs. Talk with them one-on-one. Form a group.
Call the AJET Peer Support Group and talk to a few JETs who don’t know you and can give you unbiased advice.
If possible, reach out to the JETAA chapter nearest your home and see if you can swap emails with JET alumni. Hearing reasons for leaving from those who have already left is some of the most valuable input you can receive. That’s where I reached out to a few JET Alum and got their reasons deciding not to recontract.
- Verity (Tofugu author, former JET in Hokkaido)
For me it was a fairly easy decision. I had always planned on doing three years unless I had a good reason to do more. Also I had some pretty big life stuff to do that I couldn't do in Japan (moving to be with my fiancé who I met on JET). So I didn't have much hesitation about leaving when I did. My big choice was actually whether I should break contract or not after my accident. When I was at home in the UK for treatment it would have been very easy to just stay home and not go back for the last six months. But I decided to go back and see the thing through and to help my students who were aiming for university. My placement wasn't the best (I'd venture to say it was one of the worst in Japan in terms of working conditions) and I almost packed it in after one year, but I'm glad I stayed, even with all the craziness that happened. In my opinion, one year is too short. The second year is usually the best. After that I think the best way to decide is to weigh up whether you've got reasons to stay or reasons to go.
- Matt K (former JET in Kochi)
I had to really start thinking about what I wanted for myself. I loved my time in Japan, but I felt like I would always regret not giving myself a chance to go back to the US and see what I could accomplish there. When you're in Japan, the work options aren't plentiful, especially if you're not fluent in Japanese. Even if I had been, I still wanted to go back to US to see what was there for me. The decision wasn't easy, but it was the right one to make.
- Kelsey (former JET in Hyogo)
I loved my job as an ALT in Japan. It was extremely difficult to say goodbye to my students. I cried a lot when I gave my farewell speech at the closing ceremony. But I had to leave. It’s my dream to be a high school chemistry teacher. I wanted to go to graduate school and get into a chemistry classroom as soon as possible. I started to feel like I was treading water in Japan, just postponing what I needed to do to have my dream job. I knew exactly what I needed to do, but I couldn’t do it until I left Japan.
It’s also helpful to read the musings of JETs from around the web. And there are a lot of them.
Making Your Decision
Hopefully these strategies, questions, and perspectives help you make this pivotal life decision. Keep thinking and talking to people you trust. No matter how intense the pull, eventually you’ll find yourself knowing exactly which direction to choose.
I’ll leave you with some words from Verity, whose insight on this topic is top notch in my book:
Overall I think the choice requires a lot of honesty with oneself. For a while I regretted staying for the third year, but then I thought, you never know what would have happened if you'd made a different choice. It's not worth wasting energy on worrying about that. Focusing on the present and living with your choice is the only way to find peace.
I might not have been in the bus accident, but I also probably wouldn't have started writing for Tofugu. It's not like one choice is the absolute right one and the other is absolutely wrong. It's a case of weighing up the benefits of each, and as I say, being honest with yourself about what you want.