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:

13 thoughts on “What would doubling the JET program look like?”

  1. Yeah I must agree that the JET Program is not known for its ability to provide schools with quality ALTs. I would really hope that the Japanese government first tries to fix what’s broken with JET (perhaps the lack of teacher training?) before they try to double anything.

  2. How much flexibility do JET teachers have in how they do the job? Are they allowed to experiment with different methods of teaching if they think they might work better?

  3. “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.”

    Well put. JET is such a crapshoot in terms of location, school environment, flexibility of your superiors at city hall, etc. that it has been hard for me to recommend it in any specific way; that being said, my testimonial of the three years I spent on it is full of positives.

  4. Michael:
    From what I hear there is very little flexibility, and I think that rubs some teachers the wrong way. See this for an example

    I think it would be better if there were clearer communication about their role. If they aren’t going to be “teachers” in the real sense they should call them “helpers” or something instead of putting teacher in the title.

  5. “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?”

    The job market for new graduates in North America is apocalyptic, particularly in the Social Sciences and Humanities – areas that are most likely to produce JETs. I could easily be shepherding off 10 times more JETs than I have been if they would have them. If there was a recruitment push with the bottom line after tax salary there in big red letters, everything that I’ve seen teaching at a university in North America and helping with JET orientation for my local Japanese consulate tells me that 10x is doable.

    “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”


    Plus they could give JETs time off during the school year and get them to do intensive speaking-only camps during breaks.

    “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 have also heard this many times from Japanese who went on to speak English well.

  6. My understanding is that it depends on which school/board of education/class you’ve been assigned to ALT. As Peter says, it’s a crapshoot. I know people who interviewed JET candidates back home in Canada, and it seems that one of the things they look for is people who can handle different situations since “every JET experience/placement is different.”

  7. The content of the ALT job does seem to vary a lot. I’ve spoken to / heard from people who were relegated to menial tasks like acting as a pronunciation guide monkey to people that were planning curricula and teaching entire lessons by themselves, and assigning grades.

    Both extremes are probably in the minority, and I think that whether the program is being expanded or not, it would be well-served to a) encourage more actual teaching, b) provide more teacher training, and c) offer an eventual path to earning a real Japanese teaching license for the small number of excellent teachers that would like to make it a career and stay in Japan indefinitely.

    Most foreign language teachers I’ve seen in public schools in the US seem to be native speakers of the language, and of foreign origin, so I think there should be way for the rare Japanese-fluent foreign teacher wanting to stay in Japan, but who was not a graduate of a Japanese university, to earn certification by taking classes on the side. Making it possible for native speakers of English (and other foreign languages) to become fully professional teachers in primary education as well as colleges and universities – where they are already common – would probably do more to improve foreign language education over the long term than hiring a whole bunch more untrained short-termers.

  8. I’d go a little further and make English an elective after a few years basic instruction, and add Chinese and Korean to the curriculum.

  9. If you’ll forgive me rehashing an old metaphor, trying to improve Japanese students’ English by hiring more ALTs is like trying to build huge muscles by buying an exercise bike. If you use it properly (and that’s a big if) it’ll be broadly beneficial, but it’s never going to do exactly what you wanted it for.


    As regards the total numbers, I’d be wary of the definition of what being ‘placed’ in a school really means. The only school I’ve ever known that’s had a single ALT in residence five days a week was a top level academic senior high with a specialist international course. ‘International’ of course meaning ‘English’, and the school’s reputation was such that its catchment area was basically an entire prefecture. Every other ALT I’ve know has visited at least 2 or 3 schools, and when it comes to elementary level it’s not unusual for that to be in double figures. “An ALT in every school” could very well mean “An ALT will visit every school once every month or so”.

    Even then, a lot are massively underutilised and not yet world-weary enough to indulge in the look-busy make-work that would smooth things over with their Japanese colleagues. A lot of the ideas on this thread are perfectly reasonable suggestions for improvement, but people have been making similar suggestions for the last decade or more and nothing’s come of it. Now it looks like they’re just going to throw more money and numbers at it instead. I really wish it were otherwise but I can’t see this ending well, I’m afraid…

  10. I agree. The JET program as a concept is good, but in practice it seems poorly executed. A result of political agenda — ticking boxes — but no real concern for internationalisation. This current problem is not number of JETs but their employment. You are right in suggesting JETs should only work with the best students: why not make the scheme a reward program — an examination or course that students will actually want to put on their CV? As it is, JETs have no impact on a student’s studies, and are a low priority in school life. Also, in terms of education, isn’t Juku where it all takes place? Are JETs even being sent to the right buildings?? A lot could be done to improve the system. If I were to increase the program, I would focus on infrastructure and admin and training, not hiring teachers. This is unlikely to happen however, since it equates to admission of a fault…

  11. To Roy’s last comment: in my experience most foreign language teachers in the US are Americans who are not native speakers of the language they teach. I took Spanish, French and German with non-native teachers. This was even the case when I took Japanese in college: all of the full-time profs were Americans who learned the language as adults, while the only native Japanese speaker on the teaching staff was a young lady just out of Kansai Gaidai visiting on a 2-year contract or something like that. I think that if you go to those European countries that are known for being very good at foreign languages (the Nordic countries, Switzerland, maybe Germany and the Netherlands) their language teachers are mostly locals too.

    For learning pronunciation and colloquial usage you are probably better off watching movies and TV (which is how most Europeans apparently do it) than by having native speakers around solely for that purpose—especially if you can’t ask that native speaker a simple question in your own native language.

  12. I worked as a JET for four years from 2004-2008 and then as
    a prefectural ALT Administrator while doing twice weekly visits to
    special needs schools from 2008-2012, which gave me a glimpse
    behind the scenes. I did have mostly positive experiences as a JET.
    I want to thank Adamu for pointing out the flaws of JET in a way
    that wasn’t dripping with vitriol as so many posts I’ve seen. This
    post basically serves as a description of how ALTs were divided in
    the prefecture I worked. JET is not a perfect program, but many of
    its flaws come on the end the local schoolboards and city
    governments where JETs are actually employed. Kamo’s picture of
    ALTs as an exercise bike is perfect. ALTs might be able to help
    with an increase in English ability, but first the lead teachers
    need to be trained in how to utilize an ALT. Part of my former job
    was to give a yearly seminar on team teaching for fledgling
    Japanese Teachers of English (JTE). Majority of these recent
    graduates and newly licensed teachers never received any
    instruction in how to team teach or how to work with an ALT. this
    is after ALTs had been active in Japan in some form or another for
    almost 30 years and widespread for at least 15. With such a
    prevalence of ALTs it is hard to believe there was so little
    training in how to work with them, and I always shake my head when
    the blame of little or no increase in English ability is placed on
    the ALT. The number of ALTs, JET or otherwise, differs by
    prefecture so it is hard to make a blanket statement as to how
    common they are in schools. My former prefecture, which had a large
    number of ALTs both JET and direct hires, averaged an ALT in school
    3 days a week at Junior High, with the ALT joining each class for
    at least 1 lesson a week. The size of the school would change this
    frequency of course. Senior high was a little trickier with the
    level of school playing a factor, but it was roughly the same as at
    JHS. Elementary school is/was changing due to the new curriculum,
    but it used to be that when an JHS ALT was not at their base school
    they would be at one of the corresponding elementary schools. That
    is probably enough of a ramble but I did want to offer one
    correction to Adamu about “free housing.” JET itself does not offer
    free housing. That is left up to the contracting organization. Most
    placements now do not offer free housing and those that do tend to
    be more isolated areas. Subsidized or cheaper dormitory housing is
    also sometimes available but not a rule. For most of the people I
    knew on JET subsidies were limited to the contracting organizations
    paying key money or re-leasing fees, which is still generous. Still
    a growing number of JETs are responsible for the full cost of their
    housing. If you are looking for another perk to point out JET
    guarantees between 12-20 vacation days a year with the final number
    decided on by the contract organization.

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