Clifton Strickler never thought of coming to Japan until he met his boss at the University of Texas while engaged in an undergraduate work-study. His boss lived in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, teaching English with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program.
For Strickler, the JET program sounded like a golden opportunity for adventure. But his experience as a JET teacher went beyond that and cultivated a commitment to Japan — he went to Harvard Law School after completing his JET stint and accepted a Tokyo posting with his law firm, Latham & Watkins LLP.
“I had great nostalgia for Japan, and I wanted to relive the memory,” said Strickler, a native of Corpus Christi, Texas, who never lived outside of the U.S. before becoming a JET.
Seeing the program as a powerful tool to boost Japanese students’ English proficiency, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to double the number of JET teachers in three years and send them to all public schools, from elementary to high school, in 10 years. Former JET ranks have hailed the decision, as the administration preceding Abe’s sought to cut the program because it was regarded as costly and unnecessary.
Since Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party rode to power in December by ousting the Democratic Party of Japan, he has made enhanced English education a key goal.
Some quarters have also been urging that the government capitalize more on the soft-power aspect of the JET alumni at a time when Japan is seeking to better globalize its businesses and people. There is no official tracking or job referral system pertaining to former JETs, even though they could serve as strong proponents of Japan.
“The JET program is a gold mine for public diplomacy and an opportunity for the government to reach out to the foreign public,” said Emily Metzgar, an assistant professor in the Ernie Pyle School of Journalism at Indiana University and a JET teacher from 1993 to 1995 in Shimane Prefecture.
The JET program started in 1987 as a concerted effort by local-level authorities, the internal affairs ministry and the education ministry to enhance mutual understanding between Japanese and foreign nationals. Its primary role is to internationalize regional communities by helping improve English education and promote international exchanges.
Teachers are often assigned to rural areas where there are few English speakers in the community, which allows them to become immersed in the Japanese language and culture.
As of 2012, more than 55,000 people from 62 countries had participated in the program, with about half of them coming from the United States.
Alumni include journalists, congressional candidates, diplomats working on Japan-U.S. relations and prominent scholars, such as Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Green also dealt with Japanese matters while at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2005 under President George. W. Bush.
Critics say the past participants are becoming even more valuable now as early alumni are reaching executive positions with the power to set policies, including those pertaining to Japan. This is why many former JET participants were shocked by the DPJ administration’s move to pare back the program.
Steven Horowitz, who was a JET in Aichi Prefecture from 1992 to 1994, likened his former colleagues to a global expat community of around 60,000 people in terms of their shared affection for Japan. “I think it is going to pay . . . dividends for years and years to come,” he said.
To consolidate the alumni network, Horowitz runs JETwit.com, a website that accumulates information about alumni and Japan-related jobs.
According to Metzgar of Indiana University, who surveyed about 500 American former JETs, alumni serve as cultural ambassadors in their communities. She found that 68 percent of the respondents follow news about Japan, but 45 percent are displeased with the coverage of Japan by the U.S. media. In addition, 65 percent of alumni felt it is important to respond to misrepresentations of Japan in the media.
“Alumni think they represent Japan. They also try to make sure the discussion is fair and accurate, but not promoting propaganda for Japan,” said Metzgar. “There is a nuanced understanding of Japan that average Americans do not have.”
Even though there is no official number on how many former JET teachers engage in Japan-related work, Metzgar found some 30 percent of the 500 respondents to her survey have some connection to Japan in areas where language skills and familiarity with the culture are required.
Latham is one of the companies that benefits from having former JET teachers. Its Tokyo office has 25 workers, five of whom are former JETs, including Joubin Ghojehvand of the U.K.
“Having former JET teachers helps globalize the actual workforce,” said Ghojehvand, who spent two years from 2002 in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, as a JET and returned to Japan even though it meant giving up his career as a lawyer in the U.K. He said the presence of former JETs helps Japanese staff get used to working with foreigners.
For a global law firm like Latham, it is crucial to have non-Japanese lawyers who understand both the Japanese and non-Japanese way of doing business, as it is often difficult to overcome differences in protocols when foreign clients deal with their Japanese counterparts.
“Especially with American attorneys, it is hard to bridge the gap with the Japanese clients, unless they are versed with the American culture,” said Dan Senger, an associate lawyer from California who was a JET in Mie Prefecture. “A lot of times Japanese people are not direct and it takes a bit longer time to sort things out because there is not necessarily one person who can make a decision.”
Like many former JETs, Latham workers hope the program continues to cultivate a deeper understanding of Japan among foreigners.
“I think the JET program is a very good way of promoting Japan. It shows that Japan is opening to cross-cultural exchanges,” said U.K.-native Chirag Batavia, a supervisor at Office Technology who was a JET from 2003 to 2005 in Kagawa Prefecture.