JET stands for “Japan Exchange and Teaching,” and the program is managed through the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR). The program seeks to increase awareness of other cultures by bringing foreigners from all over the world to interact with students in Japan. Generally speaking, applicants are recent graduates from college, though there have been exceptions as well.
CLAIR is a national government department that contracts JET applicants out to various boards of education. As a JET, then, you would report to your board of education (BOE), whether that is a city BOE or a prefectural BOE.
There are three kinds of JET positions, of which the most common is the Assistant Language Teacher (ALT). Others are the Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) and the Sports Exchange Advisor (SEA). While we're going to focus on the ALT position here, you can read the official descriptions of the others here.
Generally speaking, prefectural ALTs are placed in high schools, as prefectural governments supervise the high school curriculum. City ALTs are placed in junior high and elementary schools. However, this is not a hard rule, as some cities manage high schools, while some prefectures have junior high schools, so you may find yourself in an exceptional situation as well.
Life in Schools as an ALT
As an ALT, your job is to support and be a part of your school. Japanese law states that an unlicensed person must be accompanied by a licensed teacher in the classroom, so you won’t be scheduled to be alone in the classroom with students.
As an assistant to the Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) or Homeroom Teacher (HRT), you may need to come up with ideas to teach the material, or you could simply give correct pronunciation (the famed “tape recorder” experience). One thing that's recommended, regardless of your role in the classroom, is to involve yourself in your school and its community. Successful ALTs generally do more than team-teaching. They usually join any number of extracurricular activities with the students, as well as attend extra events such as sports day or club tournaments.
As an ALT, I had a wonderful life at my schools. I joined the kendo club and the marching band, and even though I only participated in those two, all the other clubs wanted me to join them, even if only for one day. During the day, I would seek out my partner teachers and ask if there was anything I could do to help them, even if it was as simple as printing and preparing documents for their classes. I also shared in my students’ triumphs at kendo tournaments and cheered on other students as they ran marathons (the Japanese term for long-distance running). And when they graduated, I was as proud of them as the other teachers.
Advantages of JET
Since JET is sponsored through the national government, it offers some great benefits. Usually the housing is subsidized, meaning that your rent will be split between you and your contracting board of education. The boards of education also agree to pay for your airfare, and in some cases even your return flight. Also, JET offers one of the highest levels of paid holidays in this field.
These advantages also contribute to having such a wonderful life with JET. Because the housing was subsidized, I was able to set aside money every month and then use the paid holidays to travel all over Japan. Some JETs used their surplus for international trips as well.