What would doubling the JET program look like?

Recent news reports suggest that the LDP is planning to propose doubling the JET Program in three years and placing JET language assistants in all elementary, middle, and high schools within a decade. There are around 38,000 such schools in Japan, so that’s a LOT of ALTs!

According to internal affairs ministry statistics, in fiscal 2012 there were around 4,300 JETs in the country, so the plan is apparently to increase that by a whopping factor of nine. According to the statistics that METI keeps on language schools, there are 10,000 or so full- and part-time language teachers working for regulated schools. I believe that does not count the large number of contractors like the teachers working for ALT placement agencies or the poor devils at Gaba, university instructors, and certainly not the many student teachers or anyone operating their own eikaiwa that does not fall under METI’s purview. But even generously allowing for a teacher population of say 30,000 total (around 3 for every train station), in ten years this number will be more than doubled.

The program is designed to place youthful foreigners, generally native English speakers, in Japanese schools (and to a smaller extent, local governments) for up to five years with two explicit goals: supplement English-language education and promote international interaction at the local level. Another key benefit is that the participants often go on to take influential Japan-related jobs, be it in foreign governments, Japanese companies, or companies that do business in or with Japan. Having a stable of Japan hands around seems pretty necessary at this point, given the relatively poor state of English language ability among the Japanese population. Unlike normal employment situations, JET offers a high level of support in the form of a reasonable salary, free housing, and a network of fellow JETs and regional coordinators to help with problems.

I get the feeling that a ninefold increase in the JET Program isn’t realistic—could they even recruit that many people to come and live in Japan, or would they maybe just cannibalize the entire existing eikaiwa-for-kids market? Still, some increase in the program along these line seems like a fairly simple way for the Abe administration to make a bold move in the direction of “internationalization” that won’t run into much political resistance.

Regardless of your views on the merits of the JET Program or the Japanese education system in general, you must admit that even just doubling the size of JET would have a pretty profound impact.

For one thing, that is double the amount of people coming in each year. That means more foreign faces on the street and more non-Asian foreign exposure for the Japanese public at large.

It also means more “Japan hands,” maybe even double, and this can cut in different ways. I feel like Japan is sorely in need of talented Japanese-to-English translators, so an influx of native English talent that could eventually progress to ace-translator status is a good thing. At the same time, the increased supply in the market could put pressure on prices, and who knows maybe some whipper snapper could come after my job some day.

I think it would also revive the option of teaching English in Japan for graduates of US universities that (from my admittedly limited perspective) seems to have died down a bit in the wake of troubles in the eikaiwa market and competition from China, a bigger and perhaps more intriguing destination. I can envision a near future in which young men see the Tokyo Vice movie and become inspired to chase thrills and excitement in Japan.

And it would necessarily boost the number of international marriages and the resulting children, bringing Japan that much closer to becoming the Grey Race.

On the negative side, the JET Program might have to loosen standards to attract talent. Even if they don’t, the sheer number of additional people will likely result in an increase in the problems that occasionally befall foreigners in Japan – crime, drugs, suspicious visa activity, ill-advised YouTube rants, you name it.

JET is a net good, but not for Japanese people’s English ability 

I say bring it on, mainly to bolster Japan-related talent. Unfortunately, my support of the program is not for its value as an English teaching tool (disclosure: my application for the JET Program was in fact rejected. I am not bitter about it because I handed in a terrible application, but nevertheless I feel like I should own up about it).

I have spoken with/read about perhaps dozens of JET teachers and students over the years. The teachers by and large do not have a particularly high opinion of the job’s value in terms of English teaching, but they almost unanimously credit the program for giving them a great experience. And while the students might not master English thanks to their JET, in many cases they remember them being a friendly adult who helped make school more enjoyable.

From what I gather, the job of an ALT is generally to supplement a Japanese teacher of English by helping with pronunciation and various other tasks. Maybe I just don’t get around enough, but I cannot recall ever hearing someone even try to argue that they are an essential part of the learning process or that what they do has an appreciable benefit to the level of English ability in Japan. I don’t think that is really a problem though because of the program’s other upsides.

On the other hand, what I have heard and experienced is that ALTs can help inspire students to discover the joys and rewards of learning English or encourage them to keep going. I think the value of that should not be underestimated because it is life-changing and the ALTs deserve huge credit for it.

This is kind of an aside, but basically I do not share the government’s fascination with trying to make the entire country proficient in English because for most people that is just not necessary. The way things stand, the biggest result of the current system seems to be the long list of Japanized English loan words that are often such a headache-inducing component of the Japanese language.

To have a more realistic and beneficial impact, I would rather them focus on establishing separate programs for the kids who excel at languages and giving them a place to shine on their own (and while they’re at it they should devote resources to helping returnees re-integrate when they come back while maintaining their language skills). That would hold out the hope of producing a larger population of Japanese adults with near-native English skills.

I feel like there is negative feedback loop whereby most Japanese people are in an environment where the norm is to not be good at English and therefore most people choose the path of least resistance. Separating out the kids that have a real talent and placing them in a more encouraging environment might keep them from missing out just because they have to go along with the crowd.

All in all, JET seems like a worthy program for giving kids a glimpse at a world outside of Japan and the teachers an interesting start to their post-college lives in a way that usually ends up benefiting Japan in some way.

PS: This independent video guide to the JET Program is very well done. If you are reading this and considering doing the program yourself, it is definitely worth a look:

Japanese people can’t speak English because they live among tainted, Japan-savvy foreigners

It seems to me that a major factor behind Japan’s vaunted problems with the English language could have to do with the learning environment.

Specifically, some Japanese people are not sufficiently aware that Japanese-accented English is often incomprehensible to listeners who are not familiar with it.

I call it the Heisenberg property of language – simply being among Japanese people causes native English speakers (eikaiwa teachers, friends, coworkers, etc) to get used to how Japanese people speak, and of course alter how they speak to ensure Japanese people understand them.

This concept came to my attention in a big way at an investment conference that I recently attended for work.

The keynote speaker was a well-known American investment manager, and when it came time for the Q&A session, there was a roughly even mix of question-askers who were native English speakers, Japanese who asked their questions through the interpreter, and Japanese who opted to ask in English.

The guest speaker had trouble understanding all of the Japanese people who asked questions in English. One person in particular asked something like, “What is your view on Abenomics?” and it took about three tries before the speaker got that it was something about the new prime minister.  I understood it the first time because I could hear him say the katakana “abenomikkusu” just really fast and with an attempt at English inflection. But to the American guest speaker, the questioner must have sounded like he was mumbling “obb-nom” instead of the properly enunciated “Abe-nomics” that sounds similar to Reaganomics.

This is just one small example, but I encounter cases of this phenomenon all the time:

  • Several English-speaking Japanese people in my life have heavy accents, but I can understand them because my years in the country have gotten me used to how Japanese people tend to speak. 

  • Japanese commercials are flooded with simplified English

  • Eikaiwa teachers tend to use simplified English to make themselves understood in class. I have even known some to incorporate common Japanese phrases like “hora” to get students’ attention.

  • Lip my stocking!

And so on.

If a Japanese person spends all their time in this “Japanese-familiar” bubble, then when it comes time to go face-to-face with a less Japan-savvy foreigner, they are likely to run into trouble.

I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. For the sake of communication, speaking to make yourself understood (and listening carefully to understand) is only the most natural thing in the world. I just feel like pointing it out because Japanese people who equate speaking English with native speakers in Japan with “immersion” might be in for a rude awakening if they ever step outside that environment.

Using a smartphone as a visitor to Japan

I just landed in Narita and came to my friend’s apartment in Koenji, Tokyo last night, coming to Japan for the first time since I finished graduate school last March, and for the very first time as a tourist and not a resident.

I had been looking at the options for having at least some basic mobile phone service, as I have been able to arrange cheaply in every other country I have previously visited, but the solutions in Japan are less straightforward, or at least less obvious. (On a tangent, this article about the state of Internet access in the remote island territory of American Samoa is pretty neat.) I DID find an option that works well, but it took a little bit of poking around and some minor hoops.

For example, in Taiwan I had no trouble getting a prepaid SIM card by showing my passport, here in the US (somewhat surprisingly, with all the Patriot Act and related security in recent years) you can still buy a prepaid phone or SIM, and on my first visit to the Philippines I actually got a SIM card out of a vending machine! While it has always1 been easy for a resident foreigner to sign up for a mobile phone contract, the providers will quite understandably not offer a one or two year contract to somebody who is only legally allowed to remain in the country for 90 days.

While Japan has long had perhaps the best wireless communications infrastructure in the world, it also has some of the least flexible ways to register for service. While prepaid SIM cards for voice and/or data are the norm, or at least commonly available, in most countries, such options are far more limited in Japan, and those that do exist tend to be unavailable to temporary visitors.((Prepaid service is very widely available in the US, for both voice and data, and although still not very popular overall is gaining fast in popularity.)) Options for international data plans do exist, but even the better deals fall between pretty expensive and ruinously expensive. (The NY Times just had a post discussing some other options.)

Prepaid phone service does exist, offered  companies such as au or Softbank, but for some bizarre reason these are still structured as one year contracts, and are therefore also not available to visitors. For example, if you look at Softbank’s page explaining how to register for pre-paid service, it clearly states that one needs either proof of Japanese citizenship or visa that has over 90 days remaining. It is certainly possible for a visitor to have a friend in Japan to arrange service for them, but that is not only kind of a hassle for both parties, but also may not be an option for visitors who do not (yet?) have friends in the country.

Perhaps the most popular option for foreign tourists is Softbank’s Global Rental service, which will rent either a Japanese phone or a SIM card for use with an unlocked 3G phone. The prices for this service are not too egregious for very light use, with a bare SIM costing for ¥105/day, ¥105 per minute for outgoing calls, and ¥15 per domestic SMS. Incoming calls and texts are free, like in basically every country outside of North America. Data, however, is another matter. Although Softbank thankfully caps the data charge for a single day to ¥1500, it takes only slightly more than 1 megabyte to reach that level, which means that any smartphone that sees even minimal use will incur ¥1605/day, plus whatever you spend on phone calls or texts. I don’t know about you, but ¥48,150+ seems like a lot to pay for one month of using my smartphone on a trip to Japan.

But there is a much, much better option.

Enter B-Mobile. B-Mobile is a MVNO, or Mobile Virtual Network Operator, which means that in contrast to wireless service providers such as NTT Docomo, KDDI AU or Softbank, they do not own any infrastructure of their own but instead purchase access to a wireless network at the wholesale level from the physical network providers, in this case from Docomo, and then re-sell it to retail customers in packages that the original network provider does not offer.

As soon as I stepped off the airport bus outside Shinjuku Station I walked across the street to Bic Camera and asked the first staff member I saw in the mobile phone area where the B-Mobile products were. She had no idea what I was talking about, and after running to check told me that they didn’t have any (申し訳ございませんが、当店では取り扱っておりません), but I suspected she was wrong and asked a man in a spiffier uniform. He immediately took me over to the counter and grabbed a box from the shelf behind it. For those looking to purchase these SIM cards in a store, note that they do not seem to be on display; you have to find someone who knows where they are kept in the back. I chose the 1GB/1 month 3G/4G option, for just under ¥3500, and purchased it along with an external battery pack for my phone.

Note that it is possible to order these SIMs online, using either a credit card or by COD means Cash On Delivery, which is something that used to be possible for mail order products, but now is pretty much restricted to delivery food. Japan is actually safe enough that when I ordered a ¥100,000 digital camera from Amazon some years back they let me pay COD.">COD) The downside of this, for many foreigners, is that the page is only in Japanese, as is the activation directions. If you do not read and speak Japanese, you may need someone else to help with ordering and configuring the setup.

Before I explain the annoying caveats, I will state upfront that it works great once configured, so you know this isn’t a waste of time.

I stepped out of the store and grabbed a coffee and a seat at the Starbucks just below. Popping the SIM card into my phone, an unlocked GSM/HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus and rebooting it did not give me any immediate results, only showing the notification screen message “EMERGENCY CALLS ONLY [NTT DOCOMO]”, which I had even with my American T-Mobile SIM installed.

After looking at the packaging I realized that it needed to be activated by phone, but this presented a minor obstacle. For some reason, the activation can be done one of two ways, either by calling from a Japanese mobile phone, or by calling a help-desk and paying a ¥2,500 handling fee. I nearly considered doing the latter just to get going… but the helpdesk closes at 6pm, an hour earlier.

I then switched tactics slightly and pulled out my laptop, a recently purchased 15” Retina Macbook Pro, to try the Starbucks WiFi. I was under the impression that it was a pay service as it had been years before, and was ready to begrudgingly spend a few hundred yen to get online for an hour, but was pleased to see that they have switched to a free service at some point. I was much less happy to see, however, that in order to use the free Starbucks WiFi, you have to register for a login account, which cannot be done from the login page. Yes, that’s right. To use the free WiFi you have to register in advance while already connected to the Internet. For your reference, the address for doing this is http://starbucks.wi2.co.jp. Do yourself a favor and register right now, even if you don’t expect to be using it anytime soon. Thankfully I was sitting next to a young Japanese fellow in a standard black suit, who was kind enough to lend me his smartphone for a minute to register myself an account and get online.

After I had both my laptop and phone connected to the free WiFi, I found a Japan-resident friend on Gchat and asked her to use her mobile phone to call and register my B-Mobile SIM, providing her with the unique registration code included on a slip of cardboard. Make sure not to lose that! (Incidentally, the SIM itself is a DOCOMO card, with B-Mobile branding used only on the packaging.) I suppose I could have done that call with the phone I borrowed from my Starbucks neighbor, but with the mention of a ¥2500 surcharge for using the helpdesk, I figured it would be rude to risk some unexpected charge on the phone bill going to a total stranger, rather than a friend I can repay in the event that it happens.

After spending another half-hour or so at the Starbucks before I was able to get in touch with the friend whose apartment in Kouenji I am staying at in Tokyo there was still no indication that my SIM card had been activated, even after rebooting again. It was on some pretty solid WiFi, so I was unsurprised to maintain Internet service for a little while after leaving the Starbucks, but when I glanced at my phone to check the time while waiting for the train and noticed that it appeared to still be signed into Gchat I was rather confused.

You see, although the phone appeared to have no mobile network service, it was in fact connected, and may very well have been connected the entire half-hour I spent waiting in the cafe. Very weirdly, it has a constant notification saying “NO SERVICE: Selected network (DOCOMO) unavailable”, while also constantly showing zero bars for my mobile network connection. And this is despite having a perfectly good Internet connection, even good enough for me to make and receive Skype calls.

Presumably this is because the OS, configured as it is for a phone rather than a tablet, is puzzled by an account that has data service, but is not allowed to place or receive calls, and therefore fails to display the proper indicator. This surprised me, as the same Android OS is also running on tablets, such as the Nexus 7, that also support SIM cards and HSPA+ data connections. Presumably on a Nexus 7 or similar device the mobile network indicator properly indicated when it is connected, and doesn’t harass you about not having voice service, so I wonder if there may be a way to tweak the phone version to fix this minor bug. After all, it is a little bit annoying not knowing whether or not you are connected until you try and access the Internet and either succeed or fail.

One final note for now is that this particular card provides 1GB of data or one month of service, which ever comes first. 1GB may not sound like all that much, but Android 4.x has extremely good tools for tracking and limiting your data usage, and if you are sensible enough to streaming media or file downloads while not connected to WiFi, I would not be at all surprised to see 1GB last for an entire month.

  1. At least since the first time I was in Japan, in 2002. []

Seven things I didn’t know about the consumption tax

In the last few months I have been reading up a lot on Japanese tax law, and have come across the following interesting facts about the consumption tax:

1. The national consumption tax rate is only 4%. There is also a uniform local consumption tax defined as 25% of the national tax; the two taxes are added together to form the 5% figure that everyone pays. The local consumption tax is split evenly between the prefecture and municipality where the applicable good or service was sold.

2. Not all of that 5% goes to the government. Businesses always take the full 5% from their customers (so long as those customers are located in Japan) but only pass on a fraction of this amount to the government. They can deduct any consumption-taxable expenses—inventory, materials, machinery, fees and the like—from their consumption-taxable revenues, and pay 5% on this net amount. The idea is to charge a total of 5% tax on the final value absorbed by consumers regardless of how many middlemen were involved in getting a product/service to the consumer. Businesses generally tally up their consumption tax bills on a quarterly basis.

3. Small businesses get pretty sweet tax breaks. Businesses with annual sales of less than 50 million yen can choose to keep anywhere from 10% to 50% of the consumption taxes they charge, regardless of their actual deductible expenses. The permitted amount depends on the type of business: wholesalers keep the least while service businesses keep the most. This is a really good deal for small service businesses, since their biggest expense is usually personnel, and most personnel costs (salary, social insurance, etc.) are not subject to consumption tax. Businesses with annual sales of less than 10 million yen get an even better deal: they are completely exempt from paying consumption tax. So in quite a few cases, part of the 5% paid by the consumer is effectively absorbed by smaller suppliers and subcontractors in the value chain.

4. Consumption tax applies to imports into Japan, whether for personal or business purposes, though the rules for this are very complicated. If you are bringing valuables into Japan as an individual, the 5% tax is calculated against a “taxable value” on the item, which is usually 60% of the retail price paid overseas. This is technically separate from customs duty, but is charged as part of the same inspection process and is superseded by customs duty where customs duty applies (i.e. to alcohol, tobacco and single items valued at more than 100,000 yen). You don’t have to pay consumption tax on anything within your duty-free exemption. Here is an example of how the calculation works.

5. Consumption tax arguably creates a government subsidy for large exporters. This is because exports are not subject to consumption tax in Japan (though they may be subject to consumption tax in the importing country). So when a company like Toyota or Sony totals up their consumption taxes, they usually end up having more taxable expenditures than taxable sales, resulting in a consumption tax refund. Quite a few companies get hundreds of millions of yen a year refunded this way.

6. It’s possible for Japan residents to get a consumption tax exemption for items in excess of 10,000 yen which are to be taken overseas. This is different from the exemption for foreign tourists and comes with a bunch of qualifications, among them that the item must be a gift for someone else or to be used or consumed by the resident outside Japan, and that it must be sold at some kind of “export store” (輸出物品販売場). I might look into this further if I ever get around to buying a washlet for my parents’ house.

7. Consumption tax was introduced in 1989. Most Western European countries adopted some form of consumption tax in the early seventies, and the idea had been floated by the Japanese government as early as 1978, but nobody acted on it until the height of the bubble. The initial tax rate was 3%, all of which went to the central government. The coalition government in the early nineties proposed hiking the tax to 7% but almost immediately back-pedaled due to negative public reaction. The current 5% rate, including the local consumption tax, became effective in 1997 after the LDP returned to power.

Why raising the consumption tax is a good idea AND good politics

The following is a lightly edited version of my e-mail reply to a friend who asked about the ongoing fight over passing a hike to the consumption tax. As of this writing the bill has passed the lower house but has still not become law. See Japan Real Time for a good breakdown of recent events:

The consumption tax was definitely too low for a country with such generous welfare benefits, so raising it only makes all the sense in the world. I almost wish they had put in a delay mechanism in case the economy is still in bad shape in 2 years, but hopefully that won’t be the case.

Fiscally, I think it is a drop in the bucket, and the short term economic impact is definitely not great. That is why there is such a strong knee-jerk negative reaction among the public. They either run or know people who run small businesses that will get hurt, but more importantly it’s one of the few policies that stares average people in the face every day and is easy to understand. Everything you pay for will get more expensive.

But at the same time it’s vital to get the house in order so to speak, or else Japan really is in for a hard landing. The social programs that Japan has are great and they need to be maintained. So they need to be funded in a way that’s not too onerous, and this seems like as good a way as any to me.

I have basically come to the conclusion that inflation is unlikely in Japan over the long term because there isn’t a fundamental basis for it. People are getting older fast and are just going to spend less. And productivity gains aren’t going to be fast enough to make up for that (economics isn’t my strong suit… but isn’t it the case that inflation is at least supposed to track economic cycles?) Japan isn’t going to necessarily have another growth boom, but what it can do is enjoy a comfortable and proud status as a rich nation. That is, they should be able to if people in their prime now can actually feel some security and expect a reasonable retirement not too different from what their parents had.

In terms of the political situation, there are a lot of people saying that Ozawa “won” but I don’t really see it that way. He didn’t stop Noda from doing what he wanted to do – there has effectively been a Grand Coalition in place since Noda came to power (note how close to unanimous the jail-for-download law was, or the postal reform bill, or take your pick) and for all the blustering among the parties they are pretty much united on a lot of policy measures because they are a) consensus among the Serious People muckimucks like the finance ministry and media opinion makers, and b) the subject of gaiatsu (I believe the IMF has been dogging Japan to raise the consumption tax).

And although Ozawa technically has the power to basically an early election through defecting, he is too afraid to do it because he knows that his clique is even more exposed to getting voted out than the others because it contains so many first-termers. It seems pretty shrewd for Noda to NOT punish the defectors in that case because it prevents the election from happening and lets the de facto grand coalition continue with him running the show.

If there is an election the DPJ will lose, the LDP will win (though maybe not get an outright lower house majority), Komeito will maintain, and Hashimoto’s party might make a serious splash, though Hashimoto himself has said he won’t run. So in that context I think all the established parties, especially the DPJ, have an incentive to delay an election as long as possible. Once Hashimoto has his foot in the door of national politics life won’t be the same. Every little thing will be a fight that can’t be worked out by getting drunk together at a ryotei.

Make no mistake, though, this is a big deal. This type of potential split in the DPJ was months in the making, maybe even years because Kan might have pushed for the tax hike had there been no earthquake (remember how he for whatever reason ran on that issue in the Upper House elections?).

And there is always the need to point out that this agenda of raising the tax was pushed by the finance ministry. Politicians in general are empty shells with voting power, and they need to get pushed in a certain direction by the people who they think will help them keep or increase that power. This time it was the ministry of finance because it is a permanent bureaucracy that has a political agenda that’s informed by its mission as the steward of the Japanese government’s finances.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because if there is one thing that the DPJ coming to power has taught me is that it’s dangerous to allow people with zero expertise being responsible for governing convince themselves that they know what’s best for the country. It feels like all they are good for is posturing and fundraising. The DPJ made the critical mistake of making enemies of the bureaucrats instead of cultivating them and influencing them in the subtle, glad-handing way the LDP mastered. Or at least they could have brought in people with talent and real ideas.