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Monday, April 21, 2014

Beginner JETs - Bring Money

I must apologize.

I made a mistake in assuming that things on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme were the same now as they were when it first began back in 1987. 

It's not. And not for the better, either.

I arrived in Japan in 1990, as part of the second-tier of fresh-faced foreigners looking to impart the awesomeness that is internationalization upon the rosy-cheeked youth of Japan. I stayed for three years, and I think I did a pretty decent job of telling them all about the world outside of Japan.

Back then, Board of Educations (BOE)/Cities participating on the JET Programme wanted to make an excellent impression. They knew you were coming to Japan from a foreign country... no friends... alien work environment... and as such, they paid a wage greater than what they paid their own teachers (oh yes, indeed), set you up in housing... essentially took care of you... protected you... made sure you lived to tell the world about how cool Japan was/is.

That was the plan - at least back then.

My mistake, it seems, is telling you fresh-faced young adults of 2014 that things are going to be rosy for you upon setting foot in your well-to-do clothing in what I know will be a hot and humid day in Japan.

Yes... you may or may not have a wonderful rife in Japan.

First... in a pair of blogs I wrote first for women and then men going to Japan on JET, I meekly suggested you bring about ¥50,000, which is about Cdn/US $500. That's a fair chunk of change. But... I was wrong.

I suggested you bring that amount because although you will be set up in your new city, town, village or hamlet with a subsidized apartment (or if lucky, a house), furnishings and food--that since pay day is a month away and you have a week or three off until school starts for you, that you might want to have some reserve cash for some sightseeing or sampling local cuisine... whatever.

For many of you, this is the case.

Still... for many others, you are going to need a butt load more money to survive that first month. Somewhere in the neighborhood of  ¥250,000 ($2,500)... and this is the actual amount recommended by JET.

Apparently not every place that accepts a JET participant (you) is as thoughtful as others are.

1) Housing: You may have to pay your rent up front. Key money, could also be requested, which is a pseudo-legal 'gift' of money you give to your landlord, consisting of anywhere from two to six months of actual rent... and please note that since it is a 'gift', it doesn't actually count as rent paid. Really.
Truthfully, initial rent and key monies if 'requested' or 'suggested', it's my opinion that this type of standard Japanese rental behavior should be undertaken by your Board of Education.It is not. Not always. YOU may have to pay it.
2) Furnishings: I had a massive three-bedroom family apartment with two balconies, L-D-K (Living room, dining and kitchen), a western style toilet and a shower. I also had a washer/dryer... and a clothes line on a balcony... though with the huge spiders always frequenting my northern view, I ended up purchasing a spider-armed laundry hanger for inside and kept my clothes to dry in the room I never went into. I had a nice, wood dining room table with a pair of chairs, a couch, a kotatsu (heater/coffer table), carpeting in every room except the bedroom which was done in standard tatami mats. I eventually ditched the futon for a Queen-sized bed and furnishings. I had book cases, a standard Japanese unilingual TV on a TV stand, an alarm clock, another long coffee table. I had a dish cabinet for all the dishes and glasses that were provided. I had all the cooking implements and eating utensils I would need, I had a stove (but no oven), sink, fridge (it's small - think hotel bar fridge--in Japan you go shopping every day or two), but I had a convention microwave oven that I could use to bake or nuke or warm my sake rice wine in the winter. I had kitchen cupboard space. I had a writing desk and chair - a large wooden table - by the western balcony. In my third bedroom, I had a huge clothes drawer - six drawers... a huge liquor cabinet (empty - for the first few weeks), and a sliding set of doors to hide my closet where I could hang my fancy clothes and coats. The weirdest thing for me was the gas water heater that I had to turn to get hot water for doing the dishes or for a shower.
I had every single creature comfort of home basically, except that I was in Japan.
Back in 1990-1993, although I had more and perhaps better quality stuff than some other AETs in Tochigi-ken... in fact better than most people on JET in Japan... I know that damn near everyone who arrived in Japan got the basics of living furnishings. You had a fridge, stove, bathroom, some sort of tub or shower, cooking utensils, bed/futon and bedding... whatever... stuff that would enable one to survive.
BUT... in reading various blogs and books by former JETs, I have found that some had to purchase a water heater... or a futon... or bedding... a TV... forks and knives... stuff that was once freely given to the humble guest to the country is now not.
Personally, I think it's because there are new towns and cities becoming involved in JET and rather than being told what they had to do for JET participants, they are offered suggestions. They are supposed to provide lodgings for participants, but in their mind that means that they have FOUND lodgings, but it is up to the participant (you) to cover all costs such as initial rent or key monies.
It sucks. I know and you know that JET just might be your first ever job... and that money is tight... and how the hell will you survive. I don't know. Apparently the official JET handbook recommends you take with you some ¥250,000. That's $2,500!
That's nuts... but it has become the grim reality in JET.
With my cash in hand converted to Yen, and my empty credit card, I suppose I had that and more... I just didn't need that much.
3) Transportation: Depending on your situation, you may need to utilize a train to get where you are going, and are expected to pay for such transportation out of your own pocket.

I was lucky enough to be able to receive rides (in a car) from various school teachers or could ride my bicycle to the closer schools.
My Ohtawara-shi (in Tochigi-ken) Board of Education had a bike for me to use... but it was made for a very small person... and while I'm not huge, I'm bigger than the average Japanese. So... upon noticing that my red girls bicycle was unseemly for a larger than average male foreigner, they had one of the hundreds of bicycle repair shops in my small city of 50,000 people construct a bicycle for me from various machines... and lo... I had an 18-speed bicycle (with a basket and a bell - a necessity, trust me) that was freshly painted metallic blue... plus I received a bicycle chain and lock.
Apparently some people nowadays do NOT even get a bike, let alone have one made for them.

It's not discussed - not ever, but at least when I was in Japan, the BOE was supposed to set aside around  ¥100,000 ($1,000) every year to be spent on the AET assistant English teacher) any way they saw fit. It was supposed to be on things they absolutely required to make their stay in Japan more enjoyable.  

Things I did not pay for:

1) Tatami mats. I had to pay for new tatami mats after I wrecked mine. I didn't dry my futon out enough and the dampness caused mold and mildew and mushrooms to grow under it. I paid for the new mats... well... actually... I was supposed to have paid for it, but my bosses said 'never mind' and covered it for me... that came out of the stipend the Board of Education had allotted to spend on me. I included this just to show you that my BOE was pretty damn nice.
2) JET-sponsored events: For major conferences and such, the BOE would allow you to pay for your travel to an event, could actually purchase the travel tickets for you, or might forward money to you to ensure you got were you were going. Your hotel was paid for by them... even the food at the events was covered. Phone calls from the hotel, drinks and foods outside the conference, dance clubs... that was on you... but really, the entire JET conference was covered.
3) Bicycle. This was how I got around town... they paid for a bicycle to be built for me. I thought the basket on the front was gay... but I quickly learned how practical it was to have.
4) Air-Conditioning. After nearly killing myself by using a kerosene heater with the doors and windows closed - it was effing freezing! Why stay warm by letting in the cold... my bosses realized it would not look good on them if I was to die while under their care. They spent some of my set-aside money on a AC/Heating unit, as well as the installation of it... that enabled me to stop shivering or sweating.
5) Bedding. Ooh yeah... that tatami mat accident... I also ruined my futon... so apparently the city got someone to donate a queen-sized bed for me, but the BOE did pay for all the new queen-sized sheets. All my girlfriends and partners for the evening were very thrilled with never having to endure tatami mat burns on their knees or backside as long as they were with me.
6) Key Money. We were told right from the get go before we left for Japan to NOT pay any key money. That option may not exist anymore, as some of you may have to pay it. It is a gift of money to the landlord.
7) Advance Rent. Some places want you to pay rent six months in advance. I pity you.
8) Basic Furniture. See above.
9) Initial stocking of the Fridge. It's a small fridge, but I had milk, and orange juice and bread... and hell, they took me shopping to buy what I wanted... but I did pay for that. That's more than fair. 
10) Hanko - for all official signings... my first hanko was paid for by the BOE.
11) Banking. The BOE took me to the Ashikaga Ginko (Ashikaga Bank) in downtown Ohtawara, set up an account for me for my direct deposit paycheck... and got me a bank card... just like I had/have back in Toronto. I could take money out from the bank machines anytime I needed it up to ¥50,000 ($500) on any given day... but not on national holidays. Everything would be closed. Be warned. This was a bank card - NOT a debit card. I'm sure you can get one of those now, though.
12) Airfare. This was paid for by the BOE for me to come to Japan... and for me to leave Japan when my contract was up.

Things I paid for:

1) television cable and telephone, local and long-distance.
2) daily English newspaper
3) apartment rent - though it was also partially paid for by my board of education... I paid the equivalent of $327 a month for my huge place. The full monthly price must have been over $1,000 a month. Keep in mind that if I was in Tokyo, a place like mine would have been over $3500 a month. Come on... I had two balconies. But then again... I was in a city whose name translates into Big-Rice Field-Field (Oh-ta-wara).
4) food and drinks and toiletries
5) clothing
6) bilingual television and bilingual VCR.
7) stereo system with shortwave... I never picked up anything except women and a heavy bar tab.
8) personal sight-seeing trips
9) booze and nights-on-the-town (see item #7)
10) school lunches. I was apparently offered the opportunity to eat lunch with the students at my schools, but, like the students, I had to pay into it. I have no idea what the cost was - probably something like  ¥3,000 ($30) a month... so no big deal. I also paid into my Friday office day lunches, which I gladly did, because he had decent bento lunches.
11) Business cards (meishi)... a Japanese tradition of self-introduction. I created my own when I got back to Canada and, of course, use them regularly as a writer when I go out to interview people for my work magazine. Back then, it cost about ¥4,500 ($45) for 500 cards... and I ran through them twice in three years. Everyone wants something from you, and a meishi is pretty personal to the average Japanese person.
12) Hanko: This is a ink stamp set that has your name (written backwards in katakana) that you use to 'sign' official documents. It's all stupid to me... forge a signature? All you need to do is create a hanko with the appropriate letters on it... ink it and stamp it. Legally binding. Give me a signature any day. Still... I eventually had a hanko maker create a new hanko for me for ¥45,000... a beautiful stone one with a carving of a komaiinu (lion dog) on top, with a one-inch (25mm) x one-inch base stamp of my name - first and last - in kanji I found to best describe myself phonetically. Yes... I paid $450 for it. I'm unsure if the bosses were impressed that I loved Japanese culture so much or if I was stupid or if they were paying me too damn much money and if so, why weren't they getting any omiyage (see below) after my vacation trips around Japan.
13) Bicycle repair. Yeah... My bicycle... I got a flat, I had it fixed. It cost ¥250 ($2.50). No big whoop. You look after things that are being loaned to you - even the tatami mats.
14) Collectibles: I collect sports cards here in Canada, so when Japan issued its first ever set of baseball cards in 1992 and 1993, I was all over it. The same for the inaugural set of J-League soccer cards. By the way... I have a Suzuki Ichiro rookie card... a real rookie card from Japan when he was with the Orix Blue Wave. I also bought a lot of original Japanese ukiyo-e art prints from 1867 and earlier. And a couple of netsuke carvings, one made of ivory and one of whale bone. I also bought coins and stamps as I collect those, too. I probably spent several thousands of dollars on the art. More even.
15) Mail. Yeah... I mailed a lot of letters in the days before the Internet. I'm sure most of you will be using e-mail, though.
16) Shipment of Items Back Home: I came with a lot of stuff, including a set of keyboards and a clarinet and I left with two keyboards, a clarinet, samurai swords, ninja stars... well... you get the idea... I accumulated a lot of stuff in three years... as such, aside from a small sampling of clothing I packed for my flight home, I shipped everything else back home via ship... I paid for a guy to come over and pack everything and ship it out for me. It was arranged by my BOE, but I paid for it. It arrived about 45 days later. I'm still unpacking it today, 21 years later.
17) Taxes... yes, I paid some city taxes.. fine. No big whoop. I even paid the NHK television station tax... but after the first year, they went to the BOE and collected it from them. It sucks because I never watched the NHK shows except for sumo wrestling and baseball games because every program was in Japanese. But whatever... It was ¥3,000 ($30).
18) Personal Travel... I paid for my train tickets, bus tickets, subway ticket for all personal travel in and around Japan. Food and hotels, too.
19) Office and School Parties. Known as enkai (party), these get-togethers are a way for people to let down their hair and bond with each other. Do NOT skip out on these. Ever. You will be requested to contribute some amount to the party... truthfully... I never had to pay for a school party, but I did contribute to the twice a year BOE parties. Lots of fun. I paid around  ¥8,000 ($80) each time, but I suspect that was because I was a hebbi durinkah (heavy drinker) and drank more than my fair share of booze. I also ate a hell of a lot beforehand to soak up the booze. 

Things I should have paid for:
1) thank-you gifts to the people who gave me rides in to the schools. Never even thought about it until just now... like I assumed my profound thanks were enough.
2) omiyage (presents) every time I went on vacation for my office co-workers... a Japanese tradition, and I didn't do it (enough).
3) New Year's cards... I received, but never sent out. I never knew what year it was half the time anyways.

That's pretty much it.

Nowadays, you will also probably pay for an Internet connection... and through this, you can watch television on your laptop or phone or whatever the hell you do with it. I still don't have a cell phone or smart phone. I'm one of seven people in Canada who lack one. I don't feel left out.

So... your experience will differ from mine... I'm telling you what I paid for and what I didn't pay for... I really hope you don't have to pay for such basics as key money or rent advances or furniture, or like some... for a water heater or a bicycle. That's just ridiculous.

I assume that the BOE's still have monies in their coffers to pay for a lot of AET necessities... but Japan... well, not every BOE is as generous as some... I was treated very well by my Ohtawara Board of Education office. My buddies were, too. We all had a great time, and few if any complained miserably about the cheapness of their BOE. Some did after seeing how Matthew and I were set up, but they weren't hard done by.

I obviously spent more money than I earned on the JET Programme... mostly because I earned extra money from teaching an English language class once a week for the Ohtawara International Friendship Society... my BOE didn't mind. As well, in my third year I taught lots of English conversation classes and somehow saved $8,000 in a six month span... and that's after I spent around $1,500 shipping my goodies home by shipping container and paying the taxes on it.

I hope you have a great experience in Japan... but be forewarned that it will differ from everyone else's.

Cheers,
Andrew Joseph

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