Aug 22

JET Mental Health: Success Stories From Alumni

JET Counselor: Roy Huggins (Hokkaido, Sapporo, 2007-10) is a counselor and therapist in both Portland, OR USA (Portland Counseling & Therapy) and Japan (All Japan Counseling) via the magic of Internet chat. He specializes in helping JETs in Japan, international folks and intercultural couples.

JET Mental HealthHow do you keep upbeat when your boss doesn’t speak English, your significant other is sixteen time zones away, the sweet little kids you work with keep diving at your backside and it takes an hour of driving to find the nearest person who understands all this? It’s a tough puzzle, and one that many JETs struggle with even now. Based on my conversations with JET alumni at the USA national conference last month, JET alumni both urban and rural can empathize even years after returning home.

Culture shock is a constant for nearly every JET. Beyond that, there’s discrimination (or the appearance of it), isolation, and other vicissitudes of international living. Most of us seem to have a good time anyways, though, or at least remember it all as a good experience.

At the USA national conference I got the chance to talk with the sempai about what worked for them. Going with the assumption that people who were motivated to volunteer for their local JET alumni chapter probably found ways to succeed on JET and value their Japan experiences, I asked everyone I could to tell me what they did to deal with culture shock, discrimination and anything else that came up during their time.

I expected a lot of what I think of as “good luck stories” — stories about great JTEs who took the bewildered ALT under their wings and smiling kids that made a teacher feel happy and proud every day. In actuality, I didn’t get a lot of that. Most stories revolved around keeping social and keeping busy. Many alumni cited the clubs they joined as invaluable social supports. Others talked about working hard to keep up social connections with fellow JETs, even way out in the inaka. The energy was amazing as people excitedly told me their experiences, thoughts and opinions — this is clearly a charged topic for JET alumni.

One alum told me about keeping a daily experience journal. He had a rural placement, and was somewhat isolated. Shortly after arriving, he started a practice of writing down nightly his best and worst experiences of the day. Before too long, the bad experiences started to repeat. After a few months, they became almost bland and stopped affecting him so strongly. He was able to make more mental room for the good stuff. That sounds like a great example of using journaling to manage anxiety.

Another JET alum talked to me about keeping a relentlessly positive attitude and running on the assumption that everyone wants to connect with other people. It seemed to me the strategy of someone with thick skin, but I was mistaken. He talked about rejection hitting hard, and needing the occasional day or two to rest and recoup his positivity. In the end it worked out — he built a strong network of social support through his effort.

There’s a lot of professional literature about dealing with adjustment for expats, some of it specific to Japan. The JET experience, however, is something we all shared.

If you have stories about how you made your experience a good one, I’d love to hear them. Comment on this post if you’re comfortable with making it public or email me at


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