The JET Program turns 20 – time to put it to sleep?

The Nikkei yesterday printed a brief article on its front page praising the JET Program, a scheme by the Japanese government that exists primarily to place native English teachers in Japanese classrooms, for almost 20 years of “truly significant benefiting Japan”. An excerpt:

Saturday, November 11, 2006

CHRONICLES: JET Program Marks Two Decades Of Benefiting Japan

This year, 5,508 young people from 44 countries, including the U.K. and U.S., are teaching foreign languages — primarily English — at schools throughout Japan.

Almost 20 years have passed since the program was created. Ceremonies to mark the anniversary are planned for the near future, so let us consider what this program has accomplished.

English language abilities among high school students have perhaps risen a little, but the truly significant fact is that about 50,000 young people from around the world who have participated in the program have returned to their home countries after getting to know Japan. Many of the JET alumni have gone on to play important roles in relations with Japan.

The forerunner to the JET program was the BET (British Exchange Teaching) program, and the record shows that the current program exists in part because of the efforts of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, then a member of the House of Representatives. Koizumi had studied in Great Britain, albeit for only a short time.

The JET Program started back when the idea that putting a foreigner in the classroom would work wonders for English education was just gaining steam. But as I have noted, the number of JET participants has declined in recent years, in part because English-teaching industry has matured since then. Nowadays, English conversation schools can be found almost everywhere in Japan, and a school that wants to hire a foreigner can hire one more quickly and easily through private placement agencies or by advertising directly to the large pool of teachers already in Japan. The Wikipedia entry for the program notes that several prefectures have opted out of the JET Program in recent years. So is it time to follow the Koizumi model of “letting the private sector do what it can” and leave the hiring of English teachers up to market forces?

Not yet, I say, and I think the Japanese government would agree with me. The Nikkei gives one very compelling reason why this program, and its $400 million annual budget, remains important: the JET Program is a veritable factory for “Japan handlers” who will go on to careers dealing with Japan in their home countries. It is well-known that the Japanese government has made a point of cultivating Western “Japan experts” since before WW2 in order to boost its international image, and the JET Program has simply proved an especially efficient example of that practice, along with other programs aimed at boosting international exchanges to Japan that began in the 1980s. By hobbling young college graduates early on with 3 years of meaningless semi-teaching, the government can steer them in the direction of a lifelong involvement with Japan, with a small percentage going on to success in various fields. Accordingly, Japanese companies and Japan-related institutions instantly recognize JET experience as synonymous with a familiarity with Japan and tolerance for the Japanese office culture, and often (but not necessarily) Japanese language skills.

And the results are clearly visible. Many if not most of the foreign staff I’ve encountered at Japanese or Japan-related organizations have been JET alumni. More importantly, a good deal of US government employees who deal with Japan (at Department of Commerce, etc) spent time in JET, as have Japan-related employees of other governments, I’m sure.

Now, it’s also true that many of the Japan watchers and others who may go on to “play important roles in relations with Japan” have spent time in the country as privately funded language teachers, exchange students, or even Diet members’ assistants (in the case of Mike Green, Washington’s Japan hand-in-chief). But the fact of the matter is foreign workers are far more likely to enjoy their time in Nowheresville, Japan, if they are able to enjoy the pampering offered by the Japanese government – in addition to a comfortable salary, housing, transportation, and other benefits come standard. Wouldn’t you be happy with the country that let you save enough to pay off your student loans while giving you a cakewalk job?

18 thoughts on “The JET Program turns 20 – time to put it to sleep?”

  1. The JET programme is definately in decline, but it will still continue to exist for the sake of extreme countryside areas and remote islands where it is simply unprofitable for private distpach companies to operate.

    As someone currently working as a non-JET ALT, I can tell you that most of these ALT dispatch companies will hire just about any foreigner off the street. A good number of the ALT’s working in my area aren’t even native English speakers, and of the native English speakers working as ALT’s here, only a few of them have any idea how to do their job. Hell, I personally know a couple foreigners who don’t even have university degrees who are working as ALT’s at the moment (they have been instructed by their company to dodge the question if asked about their education).

    The JET programme, which has a competitive selection process, tends to deliver foreigners who are more prepared to actually teach English, but if there’s a problem with the JET ALT, the local government has no third party employer to complain to about the ALT. I would guess that the school boards prefer the private companies, since it allows them to avoid direct confrontations with the ALT’s in which they would be forced to tell the ALT to come in on time every day or not be so loud in the teacher’s office. Instead, they can call up the ALT dispatch company, complain about a particular ALT, and then the ALT will find he/she was doing something wrong from their company. It also makes it possible to fire ALT’s without having to directly tell them.

    Of course, the use of ALT’s has long since evolved from the goal of “let’s have them help teach English” to “we don’t want to change our way of doing things, but at least having a foreigner around is a good experience for the kids.” In such a system, it makes sense to hire lower-paid, less-qualified assistant language teachers. One could always dream that the Japanese would stop using ALT’s and use the money to hire Japanese English Teachers who can actually speak English while reforming their English education system to something focused on actually communicating, but I wouldn’t count on that…

  2. Hmmm…

    Most of the JETs I have known have roamed around in JET packs and bitched about how they are pressured into not taking their contractually guaranteed ninkyû. Although some I have known end up in some Japan related jobs, many more just fade back into the fabric of their home country once they arrive back. I doubt its a very efficient way for Japan to spread its soft power around, especially when they have more effective options like the university scholarships at their disposal.

  3. JET is a giant bueacratic monster and the question of whether it is “worth it” or not, is more complex than it seems.
    Sending a bunch of whining 20-something college grads into the most rural parts of Japan really does nothing for English language ability, but I imagine there is an impact–if minimal–in terms of intercultural interaction, or whatever buzzword you want to use. I agree with the post about creating Japan sympathizers and I also think another big impact is the number of international marriages that the program has spawned (including my own). I wish I had a number, but if for nothing, the JET program has caused for a tiny shakeup in the immaculate, homogeneous, sacred, Japanese genepool.
    Now if they would get a little more progressive over in the Ministry of Justice, they could start bringing in immigrants to shore up their shrinking population. But that is another monster all of its own.

  4. Why is it that anyone with a connection to Japan and a positive view of some aspects of Japanese culture, society or politics is immediately a “Japan handler” or a “Japan sympathiser”. It seems to me the intellectual equivalent of labelling someone “anti-American” or “supporting the terrorists” if they don’t agree with Bush’s foreign policy or other aspects of the complex mix that sums up the U.S. as a nation. I am not an American, but I have conducted research in Washington D.C., like watching American T.V., have a penchant for hamburgers and believe that all the likely contenders for the next U.S. presidency are extremely competent. Am I an “American handler”?

  5. An interesting question on definitions. I’ll just stick to the field of Washington Japan policymaking to maybe give some perspective… To me, a “Japan handler” is someone who works at either a foreign firm or govt agency and deals with Japanese issues/clients on a regular basis. It’s a pretty innocuous position to be in. The book “Japan Handlers,” on the other hand, has a much more sinister definition: Japan-focused US policymakers who are experts at putting pressure on Japan. Then there are so-called “Japan apologists” who sympathize with Japanese positions either as employees of Japanese firms/govt agencies, paid lobbyists or “co-opted” academics. In Washington, at least, there’s a blurry line separating all these, but collectively they form a populations of “intermediaries” for dialogue between the US and Japan (and they include several JET alumni). There’s been an attempt to sort it all out called the “Morse Target” which is interesting to look at.

  6. Then there are so-called “Japan apologists” who sympathize with Japanese positions either as employees of Japanese firms/govt agencies, paid lobbyists or “co-opted” academics.

    And are registered as agents of a foreign government with the Department of Justice, like Bob Mitchel.

  7. If the Japanese government are trying to buy or “co-opt” academics, they are doing a very, very poor job. Every single article about postwar Japan in “Social Science Japan Journal”, “Journal of Japanese Studies”, “East Asian Studies”, “Journal of Asian Studies”, etc. this year is very critical of the Japanese state and the LDP. I would guess that 95% of these scholars have received Japanese government money at one point or another. I ended up getting funding to study with a Marxist history prof who would hold special lectures about why the flag and anthem are bad for Japan…. Come to think of it, if I were to put together a top twenty in my discipline (postwar history), I’m sure that there would not be a single “apologist” on it.

    There were a handful of apologists at the top of the academic pyramid in the 1980s, but I think that this phenomenon died about 15 years ago. I agree that there are some think tank hacks still kicking around, but I don’t think that they have any influence on academic writing on Japan.

  8. I think Adam got the term from this article. Australia does not need “America handler,” since we speak the same language. Yeah, the culture differs, but in ways that are far smaller than between either of our countries and Japan.

    The reason we talk about JET producing Japan Handlers is that this is specifically part of the program goals, as you can see very clearly if you read any official description of the program. Teaching English to kids in Japan is only one aspect of a program intended to also promote knowledge of and positive attitudes towards Japan in foreigners who will then spread the love around the world.

    The US does have some programs with partially similar goals, like Fulbright and other scholarships, but they are far more focused and aimed at “high level” people, in contrast to the blanket approach of JET and other similar programs that may exist in other countries.

  9. That’s not where I got the term, but it’s an interesting article explaining the way things worked back in 1994. A more updated version of MOFA’s priorities in terms of promoting Japan’s image can be found here in the ministry’s blue book. Affecting media coverage seems a higher priority than promoting foreign academics.

    And don’t forget one of America’s earlier attempts at international exchange – ultrarightist Yoshio Kodama was a CIA agent for decades!

  10. Sorry, I was talking to someone from Australia before and got mixed up. Anyway, it doesn’t change my point-only make me look stupid.

  11. MF, it should be pretty clear where I’m from from the email I sent you. Just to get back on topic its the nation with greatest proportion of JETs per capita (or at least it used to be).

  12. I just happened upon this blog while googling Abe and the JET Program. As a current JET Program ALT, I’d like to say that your assessment that JET participants have a cakewalk job is not entirely fair. I do have friends on the program that only teach a few classes per week and do little, if no, lesson planning. I, on the other hand, teach more lessons than 75% of the teachers in my department per week to over 300 students, create all lesson plans from scratch, and am treated as another staffed teacher. It’s difficult to make generalizations about the program as each prefecture, and then, more specifically, each school, chooses to deal with their ALT differently and the level of responsibility can be radically different for each ALT.
    This variance is also reflected in the fringe benefits that the JET Program purports to accord to its participants. I, for one, did not receive transportation assistance or free housing. I have JET friends that pay no rent, and I have JET friends that pay more than they did in their home country. In addition, JET housing is usually the standard housing for teachers, which tends to be subsidized but is in no way luxurious as you implied–it’s usually some of the less desirable housing around.
    By making these comments, I am attempting to dispel some of the myths that Program participants are a bunch of spoiled wastes of space who do no actual teaching. Sure, that’s true for quite a few (who tend to be the loudest, of course), but I’m trying to put in a word for those of us who care about our jobs, pay our rent, and take the damn vacation time when we should instead of bitching–in short, those of us who treat being an ALT like a job, not an entitlement.

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