Interview with JET Programme Coordinator for International Relations: Leianne Chen

Every year young people come from around the world to work in Japan as a part of the JET program. The JET Programme, an initiative by the Japanese government, aims to promote grass-roots international exchange between Japan and other nations. As apart of the programme, there are three key roles; the Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) and Sports Exchange Advisor (SEA) positions.

While a vast amount of information can be found online about the ALT role (around 90% of participants are ALTs); the CIR position is comparatively less well known. Moreover, a CIR’s job can vary wildly as it can depend on the area you are sent to, and also the work needed there. It can range from translation to organizing events or assisting in local schools.

For this reason, I was looking forward to having a chat with Leianne Chen, a former JET Programme participant who has recently returned to Melbourne. Leianne spent just over two years working as a CIR in the rural town of Iiyama city in Nagano prefecture. Her story and experiences as a CIR are fascinating and highly beneficial for anyone interested in the JET programme.

View of Iiyama and Shinanodaira area from Mt. Takaochi

What kind of work did you do as a CIR?

For my position in Iiyama city, my work was very varied. For a CIR, it says in the description that you will do things like translating, interpreting, and events. During my time there I was able to do a bit of everything. Most of the time, I would be in the office translating documents. If the tourism department wanted to make a new English brochure, then they would send it to me and ask me to translate it. If there was going to be a new event or city event, for example, the snow festival, then I would also do translations for pamphlets and things like that.

I think every CIR has their own style. Some people are more creative and want to do a lot of events. For me, I focused more on the translation side of things. I also occasionally did presentations for locals. That only happens about once or twice a year, because for Iiyama city we have a lot of ALT teachers, so I didn’t have to go and visit schools. But I have had CIR friends who visit schools almost every day. It really depends on where you’re based. Also, I had a monthly column in the city magazine where I wrote a short column in Japanese introducing Australian and Chinese culture, which was pretty fun.

Fairy Bread making at Hiroikawa Festival with fellow Iiyama City JETs

What kind of qualifications did you have before entering the CIR position? What level of Japanese was required for the role?

I didn’t have any particular qualifications before entering the JET program, as it was my first professional job after finishing university. However, in order to participate in the JET program, you need to have a bachelor’s degree. For the CIR role, because you will be working in a city hall or a local international organization, you definitely need a certain level of Japanese. The preferred level for the role is JLPTN2 or above. It isn’t a prerequisite, so if you can somehow prove that you have this level of fluency then you’ll be okay. Before I went to Japan I got my JLPTN1 certificate, which helped me a lot during my time working there.

You also speak Chinese. Do you think that being able to speak multiple languages was beneficial for doing the CIR position?

It really depends on where you are placed. When I applied I was representing Australia, so I was mainly working with Japanese and English. Being able to speak Chinese was more of a bonus. Iiyama city has a sister city relationship with a city in China. So since I can speak Chinese I was able to help with relationships between the two. I also did a little bit of translating from Japanese and English and Chinese. You don’t need to be able to speak another language (besides Japanese and English). However, it can open up more opportunities for things you can do on JET.

The CIR role aims to facilitate international exchange within Japan. In what ways were you able to engage with the local community?

In terms of work, it was mainly through major city events, such as the snow festival and the yearly autumn festival at the community centre. For the autumn festival, the CIR has a pretty big meeting room that they can use and do anything they want with it. I did an introduction to Australian animals and a little craft corner for kids. I also did a few Christmas events and an Easter event as well. So with those events, you can talk to the little kids and also their parents.

I also did an English and cultural workshop for the local doll museum. They wanted to be able to be better at serving foreign customers, because in that area they get a lot of Australians and foreigners who come in for the snow season. Through that, I was also able to work with the staff there and share a bit about Australian and Chinese culture.

Outside of work, there are a lot of local communities. For example, the shotengai (groups of small retailers found in local towns and cities in Japan) would do a big snow-sculpturing event every year. They usually invite the CIR to help, and also the ALTs. So through local events like these and talking to locals, you can expand your network, reach out to more people and get to know the locals more.

English and cultural workshop at Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art

Did you experience any challenges adjusting to your work and living in Japan?

For me personally, because I’m Chinese-Australian, when I was in Japan people often thought I was Japanese. So that made the whole international exchange a little bit more difficult as people just assumed I wasn’t a foreigner. At my first autumn festival, I had a room full of Australian information and there were customers that came into the room and sort of questioned why we were doing an Australian themed room. So that was hard, but then I also learned to speak up and introduce myself first. After that, every time I met someone new I would make sure to explain, “I’m actually Australian.” I think sometimes that helped with connecting with locals because I could be a more familiar face or seem less intimidating, so there were pros and cons to that.

What was the best part of your job and life in Japan?

I really enjoyed writing the monthly column for the city magazine. It was a really nice way to introduce my own culture to everyone. I also enjoyed being able to live in Japan. Now that I’m back it feels like it was unreal, that it was a dream. Also, a lot of people when they apply for the JET program hope to be placed in somewhere like Tokyo or a big city, but being placed in somewhere more rural was actually very different and really nice. I think a lot of people have the image of Japan being a big city. But for my placement, it was really nice to be surrounded by local and original scenery. It is also quite rewarding when you are given a translation project to work on and later get to see your translations used in real life and actually being able to help people.

Despite COVID, would you still recommend applying for the JET Programme?

I suppose it is kind of scary to travel in this pandemic situation, but putting that aside, it’s definitely worth applying for the JET program if you are interested in Japan or if you want to try out working and living in Japan. It really depends on where you’re placed but if you’re interested in interpreting, translating, event planning, or anything cultural exchange related I think it’s definitely worth applying. You just have to keep in mind that you might not always get where you want to go, but I think the element of surprise is also nice. The JET program is a really good experience, especially for people who just graduated and don’t know what to do next.

What would you tell someone thinking of applying for the CIR position?

If you’re thinking of applying for the CIR position, it’s definitely good to brush up on your Japanese because you will definitely use it. Before you apply, it’s good to be able to volunteer at local Japanese events or in local communities. For example, the Japanese festival in Melbourne and that sort of thing is quite good. It’s a nice way to familiarize yourself with working with Japanese people and people of different cultural backgrounds when you’re volunteering at events like those. Definitely apply if you’re looking at applying. It’s a really good experience.

Group photo with the Honmachi Shotengai committee members

Thank you Leianne for taking the time to do this interview. It was lovely to have this opportunity to speak to you. The team at Asia Options wish you all the best with your future endeavours.

The application deadline for the 2021 JET Programme is Friday the 11th of December 2020. For information about how to apply, check out the Embassy of Japan in Australia website.

Interested in reading more about the JET Programme and working in Japan? Have a look at the following articles:

The JET Program: Your Ticket to Living and Working in Japan

Teaching English in Japan: Your Guide

3 Ways To Unlock Career Success In Japan

From Kamaishi to Tokyo with Emily Hallams

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Yasmin McGarva

Yasmin is in her final year of a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne, majoring in Japanese and Media and Communications. She has undertaken a semester exchange at Hokkaido University and volunteered with ISA Australia as a group leader teaching English in schools throughout Japan. With a deep interest in cultural exchange, Yasmin aspires to work connecting Australia with Japan and the Indo-Pacific region.

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