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Ex-students don’t want JET grounded

Eric Johnston and Kanako Nakamura ask 'children of JET' whether the program deserves to be on the chopping block

by Eric Johnston and Kanako Nakamura

Since 1987, the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program has brought young Westerners — often straight out of college — to Japan to teach English at high schools. But now, Japan’s massive public debt and the need to cut costs have put JET in the spotlight.

In May, the program came up for review by the Government Revitalization Unit, the jigyoshiwake budget review panel, which recommended JET’s necessity be reviewed. Since then, local governments and school boards, Japanese and foreign academics, and current and former JET teachers have all been passionately arguing for or against cutting the program. Briefly, here are some of the main arguments:

The case for JET

The JET program is one of — perhaps the only — project carried out by the Japanese government during the bubble-economy years of the late 1980s and early 1990s to promote kokusaika (internationalization) that actually had some success.

Since its inception, over 50,000 young foreigners have come to Japan to teach English and share their cultures with young Japanese who would otherwise not likely have been able to speak directly with a foreign teacher. These young people have also benefited local education by improving the abilities of Japanese teachers of English.

Upon return to their home countries, they act as unofficial goodwill ambassadors for Japan, and their experience as a JET is looked upon favorably by employers such as the U.S. State Department. For a relatively small investment on the part of taxpayers, the JET program has created huge returns, welcoming generations of non-Japanese who have, and will, go on to promote better relations between Japan and their own country and expose Japanese to the outside world in unprecedented ways.

The case against

The JET program is a relic of the go-go days of the bubble-economy years, when any half-baked idea could get government funding if it had the word “kokusaika” attached to it. Since its inception, over 50,000 young foreigners with few, if any, teaching credentials have come to Japan and partied for a year at taxpayer expense. They have usually enjoyed their stay, but their effectiveness in improving the English language ability of their students was never quantitatively measured and, given Japanese students’ performances on international English tests, is questionable at best.

Because most JET teachers are from North America, Europe or Australasia, the program promotes an “Anglo-Saxon” view of the world that disregards the importance of other cultures.

A JET’s presence in the classroom with Japanese teachers can actually be disruptive to classroom discipline, while the need for their colleagues to assist them with personal matters due to the language barrier places extra burdens on school staff.

Upon return to their countries, they land the same jobs others who were in Japan get, and it’s naive to think most JETs will be goodwill ambassadors.

At a time of fiscal austerity and when thousands of native English-speakers — many with teaching qualifications, Japanese language ability and a much better understanding of Japanese culture — can be hired as contract workers from private firms depending on local needs and at lower cost, why should Japanese taxpayers continue to subsidize the JET program?

The ex-students’ view

The debate over whether to keep the program with some changes or scrap it entirely begins with a very basic question: What is its purpose?

Japanese bureaucrats and former JET teachers who support it often cite the program as a shining example of how official government policy can be successful in promoting “citizen diplomacy” and creating a cadre of “Japan hands” in other countries while exposing Japanese to the outside world. But a glance at the speeches often given at the official cocktail parties to honor JET reveals that less is usually said about how effective the classroom instruction has been, while the voices of former students who studied under JET teachers are too often absent from both the official rhetoric touting the intangible benefits of JET as well as the dry, detailed academic studies of English-language instruction in Japan.

Those who studied under JET teachers in school say they generally enjoyed their classes, but they were divided on whether or not their English abilities actually improved. All, however, indicated they wanted the JET program to continue, but a few said that they wished the JET teachers could use Japanese in the classroom because it would it easier for the students to understand and create, in the words of one student, a more relaxed atmosphere.

Miho Nakamura, 23, who studied under a JET teacher in Osaka between 2004 and 2005, said that her school had two English classes. In the first class, the JET teacher acted as an assistant to the Japanese teacher of English, and usually read aloud from the English text at the Japanese teacher’s request, in order to show the students how the words were properly pronounced. Students were not allowed to tape the lesson for future practice, and the instruction was largely done by the Japanese teacher in Japanese.

But there was also an optional class with only the JET teacher.

“In the optional class, the students really liked English. About half of them understood what the JET teacher was saying, and the half that understood helped the other half during and after class. During the class, Japanese was not allowed,” Nakamura explained.

The optional class met twice a week for 45 minutes, while the regular English class with the Japanese teacher was four times a week.

One of the criticisms that Japanese and foreign academics level at the JET program is that it places young, unqualified people in a classroom setting. But as far as Nakamura is concerned, this was precisely why she and her friends enjoyed being taught by a JET.

“The age difference between the JET teacher and the students wasn’t that great. She felt like an older sister to us,” Nakamura said. “There were also opportunities to talk to her outside the classroom. She did things like help us with our English songs during school festivals. We could converse with her informally, and we couldn’t really do that with our Japanese teachers.”

Kyoko Ohtani, 22, also from the Kansai region, was taught by a JET teacher in junior high school. She too had a positive view of the program.

“Sometimes the JET teacher led the class with the Japanese English teacher,” Ohtani said. But she added that she didn’t have as many chances to converse with her teacher as Nakamura did, as there were no opportunities to talk with the teacher outside the classroom.

Kobe-based Hiroaki Sawa, 22, who had a JET teacher while in high school in Hokkaido, said the language barrier meant conversations outside the class were limited.

“My JET teacher was from America and a big ice hockey fan. I like hockey, and I wanted to talk to him more about the National Hockey League. But neither of us could understand each other, so we never got the chance,” he said.

Nakamura and Ohtani said there was no noticeable tension in the classroom between their Japanese teachers of English and the JET teachers, while Sawa said his JET teacher worked hard to help Japanese teachers with their English. But Yumi Hayakawa, now 24, who had a JET teacher when she was back in high school in Kyoto, said it sometimes seemed to her and her friends that the JET teacher and Japanese English teacher didn’t get along.

“Once, in class, the JET teacher corrected the Japanese teacher’s grammar, and she seemed surprised. After that, it felt like she was a bit cold toward the JET teacher. It definitely made me more nervous to speak in English when they were both in the room,” said Hayakawa.

And that leads to the question of whether or not the JET program actually improved the English ability of its students.

Nakamura said having a JET teacher definitely helped with her English because it boosted her confidence to speak English, and that her friends said their listening skills — if not necessarily their speaking skills — had improved. Ohtani, however, said she didn’t feel her English improved because she had a JET teacher. Hayakawa and Sawa said they were unsure, but that if they didn’t improve, it was more likely because they didn’t try hard enough.

Government figures show that, as of 2007, the vast majority of JET teachers — 58 percent — came from the United States, while 11 percent were Canadian, 9 percent British, 6 percent Australian and four percent from New Zealand, with the remainder hailing from South Africa, Ireland and Singapore. This has led to charges in certain quarters that students receive a biased view of the world based largely on American/British values, and there are calls to allow in JET teachers from India and English-speaking African countries, or from Asian nations with high levels of English fluency.

While some former students say they wouldn’t mind having a teacher from a non-Western country, others are more cautious.

“In junior high, Japanese students learn American English. It could be more difficult to bring in somebody who speaks Singapore English or Indian English,” said Nakamura.

Despite their differences, all the ex-students interviewed expressed support for the JET program, saying that they were glad to have had the opportunity to learn English from a native speaker while in junior high or high school.

“I can’t afford to take English lessons at a private school or go abroad to learn English. So it would be a shame if students who wanted to learn how to properly speak English didn’t have the benefit of a native-speaker teacher while still in school,” said Sawa.

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