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.

LDP presidential candidate Hayashi: “Let’s play kabuki”

This morning’s NHK Sunday political show contained a disturbing reimportation of the term political kabuki.

The candidates for LDP president were debating their stances on US base relocation, and one, Yoshimasa Hayashi, made the comment (if memory serves) that if Japan cannot deliver progress in negotiations then the bilateral talks would be nothing but political theater.

Specifically, he said they would turn into “let’s play kabuki” (レッツプレイカブキ) apparently referring to the tendency for the US media to refer to kabuki theater in this sense.

Ugh. My least favorite media cliche is now being adopted by the highest levels of Japan’s political establishment.

***

I don’t even really like this show that much because it tends to be nothing but unsurprising political bromides, and whatever value they have is directed at the politicos in Nagatacho, not a general audience. I always end up watching though because it comes right after one of my favorite shows 小さな旅 (“Little Adventures” is how I prefer to translate it). It’s a fun travel show but I especially like it for its amazing theme music, written by Yuji Ohno of Lupin III fame. Here it is thanks to the magic of YouTube:

Some impressions after getting a herniated disc in Tokyo

So the last week and a half has been pretty harrowing. The morning after an official company function I woke up with excruciating pain running down my left leg, like something was stabbing me from my thighs down to my toes. It was persistent, constant, and intense. With the help of Mrs. Adamu I was able to just barely walk out to the street, call a taxi, and get to the orthopedist.

Because I had recently been on a long bike ride with my full weight on the seat for about 4 hours, I was sure I broke my tailbone. Turns out that was not the case—the doctor said I had a herniated disc! The prescription: a bunch of drugs, plus a regimen of stretches and an order to lose some weight.

By the time I reached the clinic, most of the initial pain was gone, reduced to mostly an aching in my Achilles area. Since then it has tended to be worst in the morning, easing off gradually from there. The pain has dulled a bit each day, and now I feel much much better.  According to the doctor, I am one of the lucky cases whose hernia will likely be eradicated by my white blood cells. Otherwise I could need vascular injections or even major surgery. Here’s hoping that won’t be necessary.

Since this happened in Japan, the experience is perfectly germane for MFT. So here are some observations:

  • The doctors were not the horror story I hear about – My doctors (I started with a young doctor and then switched to the clinic director) were patient, listened to my bad Japanese (and explained things to me and my wife very clearly in Japanese without making a big deal of it), and gave advice that seems to have worked perfectly.

  • Japanese painkillers are weak, on purpose – The pain drugs they gave me didn’t seem to do much. For those first four days I just basically ached without relief. This is by design, apparently. The clinic director explained that in Japan the consensus is that painkillers should not be over-prescribed to avoid their side-effects, specifically stomach irritation. This experience plus some other doctor visits have confirmed this tendency. It’s enough to tempt me to trot out that line about Japan having an “endurance” (gaman) culture. My mom was not happy to hear this and told me to take extra Advil if necessary, but for the most part I stuck to the doctor’s advice and toughed it out.

  • Japanese hospitals can be crowded – After hearing that the clinic did not open until 8:30, we waited until around then to show up. Big mistake. By the time we arrived, the waiting area was already packed with patients, mostly elderly (understandable in an orthopedist). Thankfully the pain had become more manageable by then, because we ended up having to wait hours and hours to see someone. Which brings me to my next point…

  • The iPhone rules (and so does the iPad) – On that first day, I used an iPhone app to call the taxi, e-mailed and called coworkers to let them know my situation, looked up possible diagnoses while I waited, and generally killed time. Then over the next few days when I was basically stuck on the couch, I used the iPad (and TV to a lesser extent) to entertain myself with My Chinese Bride, YouTube, and Twitter. A laptop would not have worked in my case because I needed to remain in one position to stay comfortable.

  • Commuting with a disability is NOT easy – After four days out of commission I was ready to try commuting to work, initially with a crutch for support. My office was very understanding of my situation and nice enough to let me come in late all last week to avoid rush hour, which was a godsend. I have a new appreciation for anyone out there riding public transportation with any kind of physical disability in Japan. The society is not built for them, and the infrastructure built to help them is generally not respected. Healthy people storm the elevators, meaning that slow people like myself always have to wait for the elevator to make a second trip.
    And that brings me to the train situation. As anyone following my Twitter feed will know, finding seats on the train has been probably the most frustrating part of this experience. Even with a crutch, it is a crapshoot as to whether anyone will offer you a seat. I counted four kind souls in total, which according to one of my Twitter followers is a pretty good batting average. Due to the pain, eventually I stopped waiting and just straight up asking people as soon as I got on. Usually people complied readily, but I could see how the disabled could feel worn down by having to grovel to strangers just to get from point A to point B.
    Eventually, I stopped needing the crutch but brought it around with me anyway to avoid confusion when asking for a seat. And speaking of seats…

  • The “priority seat” system is stupid and should be abolished – As visitors/residents of Japan know, almost all Japanese trains set aside a section of seats as “priority” meaning that the elderly, physically disabled, and pregnant women should be given priority to sit there. But this doesn’t work and is a misguided idea to begin with. For one thing, when the seats are full of healthy people and a disabled person comes on, you have the problem I described above.
    But the worst part about these is that it corrals the people who need the seats into one section of the train. For whatever reason, the train companies decided that the physically disabled etc. don’t deserve to sit anywhere else on the train. Why not just make all seats “priority”? In my experience, I never knew which section of the train would have priority seats, and in many cases they weren’t near where I got on. So instead of limping over to the priority area, I would just go ahead and ask someone in the regular seats to get up. According to Wikipedia, Hankyu and a few other railways have figured this out. And last but certainly not least…

  • Having a caring and understanding wife is the best – Mrs. Adamu has been my lifesaver through all of this. She accompanied me to the hospital and took care of me when I couldn’t get around freely. That was awesome.

So thankfully I seem to be getting better and might not have to worry about this stuff for much longer. But I have definitely gained a newfound appreciation for a lot of things, not least the medical system and the people who have to ride the trains with a disability.

I am interested to hear your Japan medical stories in the comments. Is my case the norm or more of an outlier?

Passport blues

I have procrastinated for months in getting a new passport, even after my old one expired at the end of June, because the cover came off and it therefore counts as too damaged for a postal renewal. So, I finally found my birth certificate and biked over from my nice new (as of just over a week ago) residence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn down to the very lovely main Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park, where the most convenient all-day-long passport application center is located.

Upon arrival, I realize I forgot my printout of the application form at home, but no matter; I can easily fill it out again. After all, it would be silly to go all the way back home for my neatly printed printout of the filled-out-online PDF version of the form. And so I fill out all the forms again, whereupon the agent checks my documentation, She is at first suspicious that my birth certificate is merely a photocopy, and therefore invalid, but I show her—no ma’am, you can see that there is a faint, but genuine raised seal upon the surface—and she acquiesces.

But then a curveball. I am told that because my state ID ((Non-driver’s license state ID. Yes, that is something I never did at all.)) is less than 6 months old, the State Department does not have the updated records and it is therefore not a complete and valid form of identification, necessitating an alternate and more comprehensive approach to the application process. My options are laid out: I need to either go home and find the expired ID card or make an affidavit application.

What is an affidavit passport application you ask? I have heard of affidavit voting, you may think. All you have to do is fill out one extra form attesting that you are not a lying scoundrel, and they will put your vote in the pile that they will look at if they get bored. Surely an affidavit passport application is no more of a burden? In fact, it is.For you see, it is not the applicant who completes the affidavit, but the witness attesting to the applicant’s identity. That is, I would need to bring a relative or long-standing acquaintance with me to the application office, this person would need to present his or her identification, and sign an affidavit swearing to be a relative or long-standing acquaintance of mine, whereupon my application would be accepted.

Having no desire to subject another individual to such a dreary procedure, I cycle back home, stopping only shop at the Duane Reade for sundries I have been delinquent in purchasing, and being a frantic search for the expired card. Having just moved over a week ago I expected the search to be fruitless, but luckily I discovered the card in a matter of minutes, on a table, unexpectedly laying underneath a hat.

And so, the story ends with far more annoyance than drama, yet another example of the seemingly endless procedures to which all we citizens are subjected by the splendiferously tentacled bureaucratic state, and an anecdote which I hope will prove to be of some small amount of education to the reader.