JET alumni advocates for Japan

Program lauded for continuing to bear cultural fruit, friendships


Staff Writer

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, 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.

  • Guest

    congratulation to all these young men who have managed to achieve so much at such young age which is surely the result of their own hard work and commitment to reach their goal bearing in mind that Jet organisation worked well with them all as a team . wishing Jet organisation and all the participant all the best .

  • Ron NJ

    Anyone who thinks the JET program isn’t a joke is kidding themselves. Quite frankly, all it is is a tool to make Japanese people feel better about themselves compared to foreigners, kind of like some twisted version of a zoo: you can poke and make fun of and laugh at the the animal while you’re there, there are always trainers and handlers on hand to keep the animal in line, and then after hours the animal isn’t your problem. They get fresh, young animals that don’t have any exposure to park goers, and then when they get bored of it or the animal gets too old or is involved in some disturbance or causes a problem, they can just send it back to wherever it came from and get a new one. The animal should be grateful for having been given food and shelter – not like it could ever understand the world of its captors, anyway.

    • Nobunaga73

      OK, time to go home…

    • getironic

      Where does that leave someone who doesn’t believe their identity is formed by the opinions that others hold about them?

      Beliefs like yours are just a self-fulfilling prophecy.
      Best to keep it simple and to what you know.
      The rest of the cards will fall where they will.

    • Toolonggone

      It’s like Ecstasy. Only those who have close ties with the Japanese government and very small number of the JET recipients can feel happy about themselves. And money falls on to their wallets so that they can afford to “get the pills” and make them feel high about the elation of cultural diplomacy. As Emily Metzgar explains, “The JET program is a gold mine for public diplomacy and an opportunity for the government to reach out to the foreign public.” She’s talking about the benefit of diplomatic relationships and foreign affairs– not about the benefits of public education in Japanese school system. The dumbest idea is that the MEXT and government officials truly believe that JET program would help Japanese students improve their English. It has little or no effect on improving English language education to schools whatsoever. I call the program “TFJ (Teach For Japan),” a kissing cousin of a notorious pro-reform education organization TFA(“Teach For America.”)

    • Steve Novosel

      Ron, I think you need a break from Japan. That much cynicism just isn’t healthy.

    • masakanazawa

      thank you for sharing your ideas because what you are saying is true. i am not a jet but i do work at a private school and i get little or no respect as the only non-japanese. it does make japanese feel better about themselves because because this is their chance to avoid responsibility that their educational system is a complete failure. non-japanese who support jet are being apologists to a cause that does not respect people from overseas.

    • Eliot Honda

      While Ron NJ’s comments are quite rude, they do hold some water for many JETs, but at the same time, “every situation is different.” One thing I strongly disagree with is the generalization that all JETs are just animals on display, and that the JET Program is a joke. There have been several cases in which JETs have moved into positions in which they help strengthen ties between their county and Japan. Some cases in which these JETs had no interest in a career in international exchange. While not every experience is great, (some even being horrendous) there is always something positive that can be pulled from every experience. It’s on the person going through the experience to figure out what that is. (Though it’s hard to see it when you’re going through it.) While JET by no means is a good English teaching program (and it wasn’t intended to be one,) us “animals in the zoo” do tend to open the eyes, minds and sometimes hearts of the ones we come in contact with. This program is not perfect, but it acts as a stepping stone for international growth both within Japan and the world. I was lucky enough to be placed in the sister city of my hometown of Honolulu. During my time on the program I was able to help with sister city exchange programs, events, and activities, and now that I’ve returned home to Honolulu I’m now more involved than ever. Without JET I would have never had the opportunity to do this, I would not have even known about this sister city relationship had it not been for JET. I’m sorry you’ve had such a bad experience, but I do truly believe, with all my heart that this program has done a lot of good for both Japan and those that have participated in it.

    • 思德

      I’ve been an ALT here for about 6 months now. Not sure how long you’ve been at it man, but that reads like culture shock pure and simple. I went through it last year when I was in Taiwan and thought when I came to Japan it’d be easier, but I was wrong… the culture shock in Japan is seriously intense, like nothing else I’ve ever dealt with.

      So… all I can say is, do your best to get out of that cycle of negative thinking, because all it will do is pin you to the bottom. I personally have not felt that I have had a net positive experience regarding my job specifically, but there are definitely moments where you connect with kids and they realize you are a person and not just an interesting thing. Savor those moments all you can. Even if one kid out of 30 gets it, that is a good thing.

  • Moonraker

    So, does a more “nuanced understanding of Japan”, as the JET program is alleged to provide, lead inexorably to “advocates for Japan”, as the title says? I can’t necessarily see it. If advocates for Japan are needed then perhaps all-expenses-paid trips to Japan for foreigners care of the Japanese taxpayer for about 10 days max, with crash courses in “understanding Japan”, would be best. And cheaper.

  • Ben Snyder

    I would like to remind everyone of the facts behind the “Doubling the JET program within three years” statement, as this gets bandied around quite a bit. This arose earlier this year as part of a number of ideas thrown out for consideration as part of the LDP’s Education Reform Panel. While reaching many headlines, increasing number of JET participants to 10,000 would have been unprecedented, as it peaked at just over 6,000 back around 2002, and has declined to pre-1995 levels ever since, hovering around 4,000. By the time the panel submitted a final proposal to Abe, all mention of program increases had quietly vanished. NOTHING has been decided, and the Prime Minister never so much as received, let alone endorsed any such revisions, so I would caution the writer against framing it as such. For the record, with last month’s most recent intake, the total number of programme participants currently stands at 4,360, representing a net increase of 30 people.

  • keratomileusis

    me thinks ron is referring to the effectiveness of the jet program in increasing english proficiency. until conversation and writing are tested, NOTHING will change. to wit, companies want employees to take the toeic and toefl tests, but just the reading and listening sections, thank you. if they required the speaking and writing sections it would send shock waves through the entire system. don’t hold your breath about abe providing funds or support. he’s too busy building an ice wall to contain horrendous mistakes made and being made in the fukushima disaster when more sensible and cheaper, internationally endorsed solutions exist. i doubt japan is high on anyone’s list of destinations, though the jet program provides an attractive alternative to debt ridden american college graduates with no prospects of gainful employment; if only they knew about the program. notice that the article merely stresses the benefit to past participants. sorry, but caring about japan is just out of the sphere of consciousness of most people, especially where there are attractive smart phone aps and other goods and services to acquire. empowering jet participants a more active role in engish education (such as grading students) would be a step in the right direction, and wouldn’t cost a ¥ more! lawyers? great, just what the world needs, more lawyers!

  • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

    As a JET that just started his third year, I’m not surprised by the derision some people direct toward the program. Having read the blog of a JET years before I became one myself, I was well aware of what kind of situation I’d be getting myself into. After studying abroad in Japan for a year, I felt like I hadn’t got my fill of the country despite the frustrating times I experienced then and still do now.

    I’ve gone back home two times since I started working here, and the prolonged effect of being in Japan for so long became very evident on my second visit. Not being able to regularly see your family and friends definitely takes it’s toll, and I am seriously considering quitting after this third year despite the fact that it’s still hard to find a decent job back home and I can’t get a low-paying job because I’m overqualified. But there are some moments that I’m here that feel truly marvelous. I’ve managed to see almost the entire country now, and it really was an enjoyable experience.

    That being said, the comparison of it to a zoo isn’t farfetched at all. In all honesty, I tolerate the ignorance of those around me because I pity them and know they’ll get theirs in the future when Japan’s demographic time bomb inevitably explodes. I don’t expect them to learn anything though. If anything, they’ll only grow to resent foreigners even more since blaming them is a popular trend. And even in the extremely unlikely event that they start letting more foreigners in, the results will be disastrous since the Japanese are in no way prepared for such an influx and there aren’t nearly enough jobs here for both Japanese and foreigners alike anyway.

    Those Japanese that have studied abroad and had their eyes opened will likely flee the country when things become difficult(the most well off among them already flew the coop after 3/11). Some of them may even have to deal with the challenge of going to a foreign country and adapting to it’s ways for the first time. The sheer irony of such a situation is absolutely sidesplitting. The worsening situation in Fukushima only convinces me further that people will leave. At that point I’ll have already left Japan and will be working towards a real job with the help of the 3-year pension I receive.

    I must say though I harbor no contempt for my students. Unlike many of the adults here, they act their age and treat me like I’m actually a human being. Probably because they haven’t been lobotomized by the educational system yet. I truly feel sorry for them as they are surrounded by an increasing population of elderly that care more about themselves than the future of the nation. If there’s anyone more undeserving of the hard times that lie ahead, it’s the young people.

    People like me are probably one of the reasons why the JET program is hated. I came to Japan not to help them really, but rather to further my own goals. But I do not care since as far I’m concerned there’s nothing wrong with actually getting something out of it as opposed to simply being used. Make no mistake, any sane person would realize that JET is not useful at all for teaching English. It continues to exist as a convenient way of getting foreigners to help stimulate the economy and then send them on their way so they don’t permanently settle here. And as Ron mentioned, it’s also there to make Japan feel better about itself despite it’s horrible insularity.

    I stay here now because things are getting worse. Japan is a
    very special place to me, and I want to enjoy it as much as possible
    because i will probably never get this chance again. When I do finally leave, it will be a mixture of joy and regret, as I will have gotten so much out of Japan but won’t be able to return the favor because it didn’t let me. I’ll feel satisfied knowing that I did the best with what I had, and hopefully a few of my students will change for the better because they knew me. I’ll also miss the few adults that actually viewed me as an equal.

  • JS

    I have known many former JETsters who decided to stay in Japan and work for Japanese or foreign companies in Japan, after finishing their stints with the JET program. This is logical since they are often fluent in Japanese, so Japanese companies are more inclined to hire these foreigners. Most of them hail from countries such as the US, Canada and the UK. They have all been nice people and I have developed friendships with many of them.

    However, I find this setup where someone goes from the JET program to working as a professional at a Japanese company to be highly problematic. The reason is that over time Japanese companies start thinking of these employees as somehow being experts at the Western way of doing business (i.e., experts at Western business practices). However, in reality these foreign employees often have no real work experience in their home countries. They also often have no advanced degrees from their home countries, or may have gone home just briefly to earn an advanved degree after their JET stint, before returning to Japan to start their professional careers here.

    In spite of this lack of professional experience and educational background in their own respective Western countries, the Japanese companies rely on these employees as their window (in a sense, their eyes and ears) to the outside world. To meet the expectations of their Japanese employers and co-workers, I have noticed that these foreign employees take on the role as actors and pretend to be the Western experts they are expected to be, since this image is projected on them. Unfortunately, their Japanese employers and colleagues have often not had any other real experience working with other Westerners, so they fall for this act. This emboldens these foreign workers, who over time continue to step up this act to higher levels.

    The losers in all of this are the Japanese companies, since they are under the false illusion that they are creating a competitive workforce, bringing in Western ideas, Western business practices and diversity by recruiting these JET alumni. In reality, none of this is true, since these employees lack the depth and breadth of professional experience outside Japan. In my experience. They certainly are not bringing Western best practices in business to their Japanese employers, since most of the times they came to Japan before getting any real professional experience in their home countries.

    They may be an easier cultural fit for many Japanese companies to stomach and the easiest route (since they often have act more Japanese than their Japanese coworkers in their mode of communication and interactions, in order to be accepted). However, this does nothing to improve Japanese companies’ competitiveness or globalization efforts.