Don’t blame JET for Japan’s poor English: responses

A selection of readers’ views on “Don’t blame JET for Japan’s poor English” (Just Be Cause, Sept. 7) by Debito Arudou:

System crushes will of teachers

Sound and fury over English language instruction has popped up across these pages many, many times. There once was a time when I was optimistic that perhaps a groundswell of support might finally build, and a systematic overhaul of an educational process that is, at best, schizoid might begin. That time is no more.After several years teaching in the trenches of city, suburban and rural elementary schools and junior high schools, I have become convinced that things here, for the foreseeable future, are not going to change.

The JET program is flawed, burdened by too many chefs for its soup. the ALT program is an unmitigated disaster, an industry created for the purpose of avoiding dealing with workers, and avoiding as much responsibility concerning them as possible.

The lack of true coordination between curricula, goals or objectives at the elementary, junior high and senior high levels encourages a wildly diverse mishmash that is addressed rarely, if at all (see the current elementary text being promoted for an eye-opening example).

A number of the teachers here are quite capable, foreign and domestic. They are unfortunately more often than not shackled by a system that has no idea what it really wants, nor any idea of how to get there.

What depresses me most about all this? I enjoy teaching English. I love seeing the light of understanding in someone’s face. I love trying to make something work, and trying to figure out what did and didn’t so as to make it better. This employment environment slowly, surely crushes that out of even its best teachers. If you treat a people as dogs, don’t be surprised when they leave a mess on your carpet.

Willie Taylor

Waiting for a positive column

I’ve read a few of Debito Arudou’s columns and visited his website a couple of times. I find his attitude toward the Japanese disturbing. Once again, he uses a discussion of the JET program to vent more of the same old spleen.

Arudou claims that all the “exchange” in Japan Exchange and Teaching means to the officials in charge of the program and the native teachers with whom the JET participants work is “seat youths next to each other and watch them stare.” This is nothing but cynicism.

Regardless of the actual situation, the writer is accusing the program administrators of incompetence or downright laziness. In doing so, he is ignoring a basic rule of civil discourse: criticize, don’t demonize.

Whatever difficulties the system is experiencing, it is thoughtless to imply that its administrators don’t both mean well and try their hardest. I mean “thoughtless” in the literal sense: Arudou has given no thought at all to the difficulties under which the people he criticizes might be working. I find no evidence in his article that he has bothered to ask anyone in the JET administration what steps they are taking to improve the program.

In the next paragraph, the author criticizes the vagueness of the program’s mandate, and the claim by JET officials that “every situation is different.” Well, every situation is different. I don’t find this claim, or its implications, in the least objectionable. Perhaps one (Japanese) English teacher wants the JET participant to give the students informal conversation practice while another asks her JET participant to give cultural presentations: It’s all good. In fact, given Arudou’s frequent criticisms of Japanese bureaucrats’ supposed rigidity and lack of empathy, I would have expected him to praise the flexibility and room for innovation built into the JET program.

In subsequent paragraphs, Arudou trots old cliches like the English teacher that teaches only grammar, “the tendency here towards rote-learning perfectionism” and “Japan’s crappy social science,” which is “blatantly fueled by stereotypes.”

I don’t want to say that there is no truth to any of these accusations, but Arudou’s tendentious way of bringing them up in column after column, as if he is preparing brief after brief against the nefarious Japanese people, makes me question whether he likes his adopted country and its citizens at all.

I don’t care what horror stories and anecdotes Mr. Arudou can cite in defense of his opinions; the simple fact is that one needs to have a sense of charity when characterizing the views or behavior of people one is criticizing. Is there a problem? Fine: tell it like it is.

My complaint about Mr. Arudou’s writing is that he seems eager to condemn the people — teachers, bureaucrats, politicians, the Japanese in general — as either incompetent or downright ill-intentioned. Whatever the situation, no even-tempered, well-meaning critic should allow himself to accuse a whole class of people of being stupid, incompetent or evil, yet this is the apparent premise of all of Mr. Arudou’s writing.

Mr. Arudou is a strong and colorful writer. It would be wonderful to read a piece by him praising some aspect of life in his adopted country. The article I am hoping for would contain no criticism, no lukewarm compliments that underline the supposed backwardness of his adopted fellow citizens — nothing but the simple joy of living in one of the world’s safest and most beautiful countries.

Peter Parisi
Columbus, Georgia

Taking more than we gave

I was an AET in Japan from 1988 to 1990. (We were known as AETs then, not ALTs.) I can assure you that most of the AETs in my area at the time were here to make money, party and get something from Japan. Teaching or giving anything in return was secondary.

Personally, I came here to learn Japanese, believing it would advance my career back home. The program was therefore fantastically beneficial for the foreign individuals, very few of whom were qualified to teach, but significantly less so for the Japanese students and teachers. Many of my acquaintances left Japan with millions of yen in savings and a functional ability in Japanese. One friend earned a black belt in karate during his stay. Some left with a wife!

I strongly agree with the suggestion by Trevor Wiens (“Readers offer their thoughts on jettisoning JET,” Have Your Say, Sept. 7) that money wasted on providing a paid cultural holiday for foreigners be allocated to programs for training Japanese teachers. For instance, Japanese university students in education departments intending to become English teachers could and should spend at least one academic year studying in an English-speaking country. Japanese English teachers currently employed should be given opportunities to improve their communicative skills as well as their knowledge of and interest in foreign countries by being sent abroad during summer holidays.

Money wasted on the JET program could easily support these programs. If any foreigners are brought to Japan they should be trained and experienced teachers with more to give than to take away when they leave.

Name withheld

Lazy stereotypes of JETs, ALTs

I have read many articles recently about the opinions people hold regarding the JET program and ALTs in general, and have been disappointed at how the majority seem to be resentful, bitter or dismissive of the system.

Most of the biggest critics have never worked as (or with) an ALT, and seem to be basing their opinions on common stereotypes — in other words that ALTs are lazy, overpaid and uneducated foreigners doing an easy job.

I work as an ALT, and whilst my job title is defined as “assistant language teacher,” my role involves so much more than that.

I am not a “human tape recorder” and I do not sit back whilst the Japanese teachers do all the work. Every week I prepare bespoke lessons for all the grades of my junior high school, including alternative plans for different classes within the same grade, and I teach the whole 50 minutes of the lesson. I do share the classroom with a Japanese teacher, but their main purpose is to translate difficult phrases or sentences into Japanese where needed.

When I am not teaching, I do not sit in the teachers’ room and surf the Internet or twiddle my thumbs. I check and grade the writing tasks that I set my students and provide personal training for events, such as speech contests, or just help out when a student wants to spend more time conversing out of class. In the absence of these activities, I go out and meet my students to build rapport with them. I do not demand any extra pay or privileges from doing all this additional work, as it is a pleasure to help out my students — after all, I am responsible for the future of their English education.

I have read lots of complaints from people (mostly fellow foreigners) who hate the ALT system because “a high level of education is not a requirement,” and therefore people doing the job are “not qualified to teach English.” This is complete rubbish. To put it simply and directly, the schools would kick you out in seconds if it turned out you couldn’t do the job you were employed for. The Japanese teachers I work with ask me to help with grammatical and spelling queries nearly every day, both during and between lessons, and it would be utterly farcical if I could not resolve their problems with efficient accuracy.

There is also the common misconception that junior high school students “hate learning English” and find it boring or frustrating. Again, this is false. Of course there are some students who do not favor the subject, but that’s no different to Western students hating mathematics. The majority of my students wear a bright smile on their face during my lessons and get a real kick out of being able to learn and understand a language that will be so useful to them as they grow older. I even have students regularly approach me in the hallways, asking me to translate Japanese phrases into English so that they can expand their vocabulary.

Finally, I would like to tackle the complaint that ALTs are on an “extended holiday” during their time in Japan. This is a simple argument to counter. An ALT (in general) is granted the entirety of August as a holiday; this comes to 31 days’ holiday plus national holidays, but with no additional personal days off. Put some thought into it, and you will realize that most office jobs in Western countries grant between 25 and 30 holidays a year, plus bank holidays — there is no difference aside from the fact ALTs get it all in one lump and Western companies allow employees to decide.

The main purpose of this response is simply to show that there is another side to the argument, as there has been far too much saturation recently on the negative side of the ALT system in the press recently. I merely wish to show that you cannot generalize about the behavior and circumstances of assistant language teachers. As with every other area of life, to assess a situation properly a balanced argument needs to be presented, and I hope my words are the first step towards that.

Leonard Rupse
Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Pref.

Bias toward white Anglo-Saxons

Although I respect Mr. Arudou for his political activism, I am a bit disappointed he did not mention that the JET program brings over mainly white people from Anglo-Saxon countries. The whole purpose of the JET program is dangerously biased towards this community, and this is what we should be criticizing, not whether it helps or not to build practical English usage among the younger generation.

If the JET program wants to build real international bridges and cultural awareness, they should stop providing a free lunch to young, white graduates and start bringing in graduates from overseas regardless of their ethnicity, race, religion or country of origin. Mr. Arudou failed to mention this obvious flaw in the program, probably due to an unconscious effort to defend his own ethnicity.

Juan Jose Vegas Olmos
Totsuka, Kanagawa Pref.

Slander of JET participants

Surely Jon Dobson’s comments on the JET program (Have Your Say, Sept. 7) were made in jest? To categorize all JETs as he has (“absolutely no training for the position,” “chosen based on character and looks” and “educated, but rarely in English”) on the basis of his contact with “several” JETs could hardly be considered sound or serious. His views are anecdotal rather than statistically meaningful and reveal significant ignorance on his part of the program’s goals and achievements.

As a successful former JET, I resent being categorized in this way by Mr. Dobson. My time on JET produced a legacy of satisfied teachers, happy students and an increase in interest among those I taught in both English and internationalization, not to mention that it led me into a diplomatic career where this experience (together with my three tertiary qualifications, all studied for in English) was considered a great asset to the foreign service and contributed to the continued building of friendship and understanding between Japan and my home country.

For me, not having a specific TEFL (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) qualification has proved no barrier to successful and highly evaluated stints not only as a JET, but as a university teacher of English and international relations, and as a diplomat.

Mr. Dobson’s narrowmindedness about what constitutes being “qualified” for the JET position, as well as his gross generalizations regarding this valuable program’s participants, will hopefully be taken by readers for what it is: slander of the mostly capable, hardworking and professional participants in the program by someone who is clearly bitter and looking for someone to blame. Long live the JET program!

Catherine Wallace

Unique, insightful perspective

I wanted to say how much I deeply appreciated this article. I was not a JET teacher, but worked with a private eikaiwa (conversation school) for a year and have struggled since then to articulate the deep and abiding sense of frustration the experience left me with. This piece very concisely targets some of the core issues with the rent-a-gaijin phenomenon most notably touted by JET and by the private companies who have stepped in during recent years.

I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Arudou in Iwate and appreciate the unique and insightful perspective he brings to living as a foreigner in Japan.

Salem Evans
San Francisco

‘Every situation is different’ banned

This year at the Tokyo orientation for incoming JETs, orientation assistants were told not to use the phrase “every situation is different.”

“ESID” is now banned JET lingo, as CLAIR (the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations) finally recognized that it was nothing more than a copout — an easy way to answer difficult questions that new and even veteran JETs have about their living and work environments. It was an answer that provided no answers.

This year, we were asked to instead explain in more helpful and encouraging terms why the JET experience is different from person to person. Banning the phrase was a step in the right direction.

Arudou stated in his article that for JETs, “it’s unclear what they should be doing in class” thanks to ESID. Fortunately, from now on CLAIR is educating new JETs on how to make the best of any and every situation, from day one of their contracts, by giving helpful advice on being a teacher and cultural ambassador no matter what their workplace is like.

To use “every situation is different” without actually saying “every situation is different,” I’d like to briefly mention that not every JET is a human tape recorder. My “assistant” title is a joke and I think many of my friends feel the same way. In my area, at the high school and elementary school levels at least, we assistant language teachers are in charge of the classroom when we teach. The junior-high teachers tend to be underused, but elementary and high school is a place to develop as a professional teacher and interact with students in a meaningful way.

To that end, however, I am exactly what Arudou said many JETs become: My in-class persona is the relaxed, fun-loving and silly foreign teacher. I believe my purpose is getting students excited about learning English by providing an escape from those Latin-esque classes. It is true that most JETs will not turn kids that are trained in hating English into fluent speakers. Yet the number of students taking English as an elective at my school has increased from five to over 30 during my two years here. If that is not a victory for the JET program, I don’t know what is.

JJ Cappa
Wadayama, Hyogo Pref.

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