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Are You Living a JET Program Horror Story? Breaking Contract and Leaving Japan

When to Call it Quits

The Japanese countryside can be difficult to adjust to.
The Japanese countryside can be difficult to adjust to.

The decision to quit partway through your JET contract can be a difficult one to make. Most JET participants complete their contracts without any major problems, aside from the usual difficulties of adapting to life in Japan. There are horror stories out there, however, and some ALTS and CIRs find themselves in difficult situations.

For many JET Program participants, quitting and possibly leaving Japan can be difficult for several reasons.

The first being the high costs involved in breaking contract; those who resign have to pay for their plane ticket home, may have to reimburse costs for JET orientations, and may incur penalties related to other expenses (such as cell phone contracts).

JET's system of random placements makes things even harder: few ALTs or CIRs get their placement requests, and many are placed in rural areas where it can be difficult for foreigners to find work. Job hunting and finding an apartment in Japan can be a hassle due to traveling to interviews, moving costs, and housing deposits, the latter of which can be up to several thousand USD.

For others, quitting is hard because they put up with bad work situations in order to be able to live in Japan. JETs often sign up because of a love of Japan, culture, and travel. It's easy for some to justify power harassment in their Japanese workplace if it means being able to take vacations in Asia; there's also the fact that JET salary and benefits are quite generous compared to other jobs in Japan.

Others may not want to leave their support network of Japanese friends and other foreigners right away. Finding work elsewhere in Japan is not only financially difficult, but also emotionally hard, as JET participants leave old friendships behind.

Some Good Reasons To Quit

As a former JET participant, I'm writing this article to help those thinking about quitting to make their decision to either not renew their contract, or outright break it in more serious circumstances.

Much of this is common sense advice, and of course, only you can know your own situation and how to handle it best. Still, given the random placements and the fact that many ALTs apply for JET, and want to stay in Japan, out of a love of the country and culture, this can sometimes make the decision to leave a bit harder than we'd like.

1. You Are Facing Power Harassment at Work

The term "power harassment" is a bit of Japanese English that many expats in Japan are familiar with, and the Japanese government defines it as one of the six following actions:

  • physical assault,
  • verbal and mental harassment,
  • isolation and ostracization,
  • excessive or unnecessary work demands,
  • insufficient work demands (i.e. taking away work and responsibility), or
  • invasions of privacy.

The above are not just cultural misunderstandings: they are illegal and should not be tolerated, no matter how much you love living in Japan otherwise.

Most JETs will not be in such serious situations involving power harassment. Again, as with your personal life and with the job itself, your relationships with your coworkers aren't always going to go smoothly, especially with such radical differences in thinking.

However, there are still some real JET horror stories out there, and aspects of Japanese workplace culture that make harassment difficult to fight, especially from the point of view of a Westerner.

You've no doubt heard that Japan values social harmony in both work and private relationships. This means there's a lot of emphasis on handling things diplomatically, avoiding conflict, letting things go, and saving face. Your Japanese coworkers will also value the ability to gaman, or put up with difficult situations without complaining.

For the JET facing harassment in their Japanese schools or government offices, this means that serious issues such as physical or sexual assault will be chalked up to "misunderstandings" in order to help the aggressor save face and to maintain social harmony in the office.

It means that you might be told to try to handle things yourself and smooth things over—even to understand the aggressor's feelings. Pushing certain matters too far, or taking too much of a stand for yourself, will in many situations lead your Japanese coworkers to see you as problematic as the person giving you trouble. Complicating matters is the system of lifetime employment in Japan: it is notoriously hard for civil servants to be fired.

Again, this is not to paint Japan as such a horrible place—most people live and work here with no major problems. But if things get serious, you should value your dignity and safety above any job, no matter how good it is.

My advice regarding serious matters in your JET placement is to first see what your coworkers can do. If they do not take appropriate action, then quit as soon as you are able. In very serious and illegal incidents, if you do not feel your coworkers will help you, go to the police and be prepared to hand in your resignation.

2. The Job or Placement is Affecting Your Mental Health

Many JETs work in isolated rural placements, far from major cities in Japan.
Many JETs work in isolated rural placements, far from major cities in Japan.

Living in rural Japan is not easy, and the cities are no picnic either. Most Japanese people are friendly, if a little distant towards foreigners, but the differences in culture and thinking can still take their toll on you at times.

This is even truer in the countryside, where English speakers and younger people are rare. It can be hard to find Japanese friends who treat you as more than a guest, or who can truly empathize with your situation despite their best intentions.Other foreigners in your area can be a great source of support, but some find themselves in areas where they do not get along with nearby ALTs and CIRs (as was my case, most of my JET friends were elsewhere in my placement in the countryside).

Make use of your support network as much as you can. Find good friends, such as English-speaking Japanese who have been abroad before; they will be much more understanding, and can help explain cultural differences better than someone who's never been overseas. Get involved with JETs and other foreigners as much as you can—long-term foreign residents and lifer ALTs can be a great source of support and advice. AJET events can be an excellent way to make local foreign friends.

However if you're in a situation where you either can't find the support you need, or are struggling despite having it, do not be afraid to call quit JET. You may think that it's worth putting up with the bad, so you can experience what Japan has to offer. Maybe you hate your placement but love traveling on weekends, or enjoy the salary and perks of being on JET.

No placement will be perfect of course, and life in Japan will always have some difficulties. But neither the pay nor the potential experiences you can have is worth the toll a bad situation can take on your happiness and well-being.

3. You Aren't Satisfied With the Job

In less serious cases, dissatisfaction with work is a clear reason for not renewing your contract, if not necessarily quitting partway through. ALTs participating in the JET Program do not get to choose their work placement. On your application, you can state your requests, but these are treated as mere suggestions, and many applicants do not get placed where they want.

Many schools and Boards of Education can also have wildly different expectations for their foreign teachers. You could be placed in a position where you are an assistant with no responsibility, or you could be teaching in schools that expect you to run everything by yourself.

Most ALTs do not sign on to the JET Program with hopes of becoming career teachers—and this is fine as long as you are responsible and take the job seriously. And of course, no one expects their job to go smoothly all of the time, or to be completely satisfying—that is just the nature of random placements.

However, if you are in a position you find yourself actively disliking, or that is not suited for you at all—for example, let's say you're a qualified teacher yet are expected to have no responsibilities in the classroom—then this is a very clear reason to, at the very least, not renew your contract.

The Good and the Bad

I enjoyed my time on the JET Program as have many others. It can be a difficult, but rewarding and enriching experience like no other. I learned a lot about myself and saw a side of Japan I never would have otherwise, and am glad for the experience despite having had a few issues.

But the experiences I had, as amazing as they were, would not have been worth putting up with bad situations in my workplace or outside of it. Enjoy and appreciate your time on JET, but also realize that your dignity, health, and well-being are worth more than any job.

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