Grounding the JET


Originally published on on October 2010

Illustration by Shane Busato

Since it was founded in 1987, the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme has brought over 50,000 young foreigners to live and work in this country. The vast majority of JET participants teach English in public schools, with a smaller number coordinating international events at local city halls. Lately, the program has received a lot of media exposure because the government was considering cutbacks that threaten its existence. Although JET was spared from the chopping block, it was ruled that further study is needed to determine whether the program is still necessary.

It’s not. With no concrete results on how well this 23-year-old experiment is working, the program’s annual cost of ¥45 billion represents a huge amount of money that would be better used elsewhere. To survive an economically battered Japan, JET needs to change… or fall to the government axe.

Full disclosure: I was a JET. And like many other bright-eyed young college grads that constitute the bulk of participants, I enjoyed my time as an assistant language teacher (ALT) in rural Japanese schools. But I knew I was overpaid, underused and had little effect on my students’ English skills.

Being underused in the classroom is a common complaint among JETs (the overpaid part, not so much). We referred to ourselves as “human tape recorders”—many of us weren’t allowed to do much more than read out of a textbook. If the Japanese teacher we were paired with was energetic and committed, we were able to make useful contributions. If not, the ALT would simply sit in the staff room with a lonely cup of tea.

No one has ever proven that providing native speakers to Japanese schools is of any help to students. And if you judge by TOIEC scores, JET is failing miserably: Japanese takers of the test consistently score near the bottom in Asia. Certainly, the money spent on the program could be better used elsewhere, as in funding study abroad opportunities.

Defenders of JET acknowledge these problems. Yet for them, the program is necessary for reasons that extend beyond the classroom. English instruction, they say, isn’t the point of JET (even if 90 percent of participants teach it on a daily basis). No, the main goal is to bring diversity to Japan.

On that front, the program has certainly had some success. Many JETs have married locals, which is helping Japan change, however slowly, into a more multicultural society. JET has also helped reduce the “otherness” of foreigners living in Japan. Children from remote parts of the country are exposed to non-Japanese on a regular basis and no longer point and gawk at them quite so much.

But this works both ways. Most JETs aren’t truly integrated into Japanese society. Though participants are allowed to stay for up to five years, many end up leaving after two. The program promotes a shallow form of diversity that reinforces the stereotype of the clueless foreigner who must be patiently taught about Japanese language and culture.

Another troubling aspect of JET is the noticeably large bias toward white Westerners. In the age of a rising China and a modernizing India, the government should be devoting resources to teaching Japanese students about non-Western cultures. JET may now include participants from 36 nations, yet half of recruits still come from America. Is this really what internationalization should look like?

For the JET program to survive, it has to do better than sending token foreigners to little rice paddy-studded hamlets. Drastic change is needed. Cash-starved boards of education around the country are already moving towards a system in which ALTs are hired through shady private companies called dispatches. In reality, if government cuts don’t kill JET, these dispatch companies most likely will.

The best way to save JET might be to eliminate its most visible element—the ALT. In the future, the program could invite talented foreigners to participate in a variety of projects, some school-based, some not. Former JETs have gone on to make wonderful contributions as writers, filmmakers and diplomats. Why ask them to spend the majority of their time teaching English? Why not allow JETs to work in museums, hospitals, shops, theaters and other places, provided they have the language skills to survive or the readiness to learn? A lot of these businesses would have use for bilingual liaisons, English-speaking or otherwise. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea for Japanese employees—other than English teachers—to learn how to work alongside foreigners.