They’re coming. The 2,000 young foreign workers making up the 31st wave of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) have received their acceptance letters and are preparing for their arrival in July and August.

Since its modest start in 1987, JET has grown into one of the world’s largest international exchange programs. Nearly 65,000 people from 65 countries have worked in Japan for up to five years under the project.

Participants perform one of three roles. Assistant language teachers (ALTs) work in schools, team-teaching with a licensed teacher. Coordinators for international relations (CIRs) have Japanese language proficiency and work in local government offices to assist with grass-root international activities. A handful of sports exchange advisers (SEAs) coach and help plan sport-related projects.

Interested observers typically divide into either JET-lovers or haters. Supporters, underlining the word “exchange” in the program’s title, defend it for helping internationalize Japan. Critics, pointing to the word “teaching,” attack it for failing to improve students’ English proficiency and wasting money.

How much money? A spokesperson for the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR), which oversees the administration of JET, couldn’t gather the required figures from the relevant ministries before press time, but a 2015 Japan Association of Corporate Executives report estimated national and local governments spend ¥40 billion annually on the program.

JET’s multiple goals result from competing aims of the three government ministries responsible. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC), formerly the Ministry of Home Affairs, came up with the idea and controls the purse strings. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) instructs schools on team-teaching. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) recruits participants from around the world. The quasi-governmental CLAIR oversees administration. It also has close connections to MIC; CLAIR’s present chair of its board of directors is a retired MIC vice minister.

Japan today is a different country from the Japan of 1987, which created JET partly in response to trade tension with the U.S. But none of the four organizations involved has undertaken a comprehensive evaluation of JET. Therefore, it’s impossible to objectively determine if its successes outweigh its failures.

Swapping black ships for JETs

The Home Affairs Ministry conceived the plan for JET as a top-down attempt to get communities to open their gates to foreign nationals. As JET’s website explains, it is “aimed at promoting grassroots international exchange between Japan and other nations.”

Only 800,000 foreign residents lived in Japan when JET started. Many participants received assignments in rural mountain villages or remote islands, often being the first foreigners the residents had met.

Therefore, some claim success in the goal to internationalize Japan. Toshihiro Menju, managing director of the Japan Center for International Exchange, argues in a Nippon.com article that participants “made a great contribution to changing attitudes toward other countries and their citizens across Japan.”

Proof of such internationalization, however one defines the term, appears elusive. JET alumna Emily Metzgar, associate professor at Indiana University’s The Media School and author of the soon-to-be-published book “The JET Program and the U.S.-Japan Relationship: Goodwill Goldmine,” says, “MIC’s performance with respect to meeting its goals for participating in JET hasn’t been, as far as I know, evaluated in a way available to the public for review.”

The uniqueness of JETs has also faded, making it more difficult to investigate their impact. In addition to Japan’s now-2.23 million foreign residents, the number of visitors increased from 2 million in 1987 to over 24 million in 2016, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Nor is JET even the main source for classroom ALTs. MEXT figures show schools used 18,484 ALTs in 2016 but only 24.5 percent were JETs. Those hired directly by boards of education, through dispatch and outsourcing firms or other programs, made up the rest.

While budget cuts often get cited as the reason behind switching from JET to private ALTs, local-allocation tax payments transferred from the national to local governments subsidize JETs. Prefectures using JET ALTs can receive up to ¥246 million. Small cities and towns can get a lump sum of ¥1.18 million plus ¥4.7 million per JET, with the majority of that latter total going toward the participant’s salary. One Shimane Prefecture city estimated that with tax transfers, they paid only 10-20 percent of the cost for their five JET ALTs. Using dispatch company ALTs leaves the tax money on the table and 100 percent of the cost comes out of the prefectural or city budget.

Perusing city assembly minutes and other sources, you get the sense that reducing civil servants’ workload is a more important reason for communities shunning JET. Even after 30 years, many teachers, schools and cities still apparently find managing foreign staff troublesome. Arranging apartments, using CLAIR templates to write English contracts, having to discipline problem employees, and generally being responsible for young foreigners with little Japanese ability often proves an unwelcome nuisance.

Using disposable dispatch-company ALTs became the solution. Government bureaucrats, recognizing the problem, announced plans in 2014 to create 450 JET Coordinator positions, also funded through local-allocation taxes. Coordinators spend 20 hours a week offering support to about 10 ALTs each. The need for special coordinators shows the JET Programme has failed to open the gates of Japanese communities quite as wide as MIC bureaucrats had hoped it would.

We don’t need no education

With over 90 percent of JET participants working as ALTs in classrooms, their contribution to English learning attracts the most attention — much of it unwanted.

In theory, Japanese teachers work in tandem with foreign assistants to create and teach useful and engaging communicative lessons. In reality, overworked teachers often don’t have the time required to properly co-plan a team-teaching lesson — especially when dealing with an inexperienced ALT fresh off the plane. The common practice of rotating an ALT around different schools throughout the week or month makes planning even more difficult.

The practical difficulties should come as no surprise to MEXT officials, since they introduced team-teaching on a mass scale with no idea of its effectiveness. Japan’s father of team-teaching, an education ministry bureaucrat named Minoru Wada, acknowledged in a 1994 essay that it “began without any form of pedagogic research to validate it as an effective educational innovation.”

Other education ministry officials didn’t want JET to get off the ground in the first place. David McConnell, a professor of anthropology at the College of Wooster in Ohio, explains in his book “Importing Diversity” that ministry officials delayed approval for months. To avoid threatening the status of Japanese teachers, MEXT officials insisted on classifying participants as “assistants” and that little emphasis would be placed on recruiting trained teachers. They then fought to keep participant numbers low.

MEXT administrators subsequently showed little desire to ensure their team-teaching experiment worked. In a 2004 interview with a university professor, Wada lamented MEXT’s neglect of team-teaching, protesting, “Overall, I’m afraid team-teaching has been ignored.” Today, MEXT still doesn’t require any training in team-teaching for future Japanese teachers of English. This results in the 30-year-old complaint that too many ALTs work as breathing tape players.

Naoki Fujimoto-Adamson, associate professor at Niigata University of International and Information Studies, says there has been a lack of studies into how effective team-teaching is for raising English proficiency, but she adds, “I believe that students’ motivation to learn English definitely improves through team-teaching lessons.”

Some critics of untrained JET ALTs say money would be better spent sending Japanese teachers abroad. MEXT bureaucrats considered it but decided sending large numbers of teachers overseas and hiring substitutes would prove too costly. Nevertheless, they sent small numbers abroad through programs such as Regional and Educational Exchanges for Mutual Understanding (REX). Starting in 1990, REX sent young teachers overseas to teach Japanese. Never growing very large, MEXT cut it with little fanfare in 2013.

Others defend sending exchange-program youths into schools. “I think there’s something unique and special about the opportunity to work in the Japanese public school system,” says Steven Horowitz, a JET alumnus and creator of the JETwit website. “The Japanese education system is about socialization as much as it’s about education. To be directly involved in that process is to understand and connect with Japan and Japanese culture in a way that is difficult, if not impossible, to match in any other way.”

It’s also unfair to blame JET ALTs for Japan’s English proficiency woes when you consider their limited classroom role. MEXT’s 2016 data shows junior high schools use ALTs in only 22.1 percent of total English class time. The figure drops to 9.7 percent for high school classes.

Making friends in high places

The strongest defense of JET comes from those who view it as a diplomatic soft-power tool. MOFA officials agreed to support JET because they believed participants would increase their understanding of Japanese society and return home sympathetic toward Japan.

In his book, McConnell identified MOFA’s goal as JET’s greatest success in its first decade. Nearly 20 years later he believes it remains so, explaining, “It’s created a cohort of young people in many countries who, if not pro-Japan, at least understand the realities of life in Japan far better than the average citizens in their respective countries.” He adds that many JET alumni went on to become academics specializing in Japan or career diplomats.

Metzgar says, “the JET Programme has been wildly successful as a public diplomacy effort for Japan.” Calling it a “vital diplomatic tool,” she explains: “Because it’s created a generation of people with interest in and knowledge of Japan, it’s done a great deal to promote Japan abroad. Ending the program might serve short-term term political interests at home, but it would do so at the cost of Japan’s long-term interests abroad.”

This diplomatic role of ex-JETs faces competition from a larger source of foreign nationals with Japanese experience — international students. According to the Japan Student Services Organization, 22,000 foreign students attended Japanese universities the year JET was founded. Thirty years later there are 152,062 foreign students — and nearly 210,000 including those enrolled in Japanese language schools.

A soft-power ‘happy accident’?

Despite claims of its diplomatic value, the Foreign Ministry’s strategy to benefit from 65,000 Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme alumni remains inchoate. With responsibility for the program split, no ministry took charge of gathering quantitative data on JET applicants, participants or alumni. Bureaucrats know little about who participates in JET and why, or what happens after they return home.

Emily Metzgar, author of the upcoming book “The JET Program and the U.S.-Japan Relationship: Goodwill Goldmine,” believes the extent to which participants wanted to remain connected to Japan was a “happy accident.”

“It took the government time to realize what an amazing resource this is and figure out ways to tap it,” she says — especially in a way that doesn’t leave ex-JETs feeling exploited.

According to Steven Horowitz, who has served in JET Alumni Association (JETAA) leadership roles since 2000, “The Japanese government hasn’t really been in a position to harness the soft power of JET alumni until the JET alumni community really found its own footing.”

The independent JETAA has 53 chapters in 16 countries but until recently was highly decentralized. Horowitz says JETAA’s experience responding to the March 11, 2011, disasters “led to greater awareness of the need for some way to organize more centrally and establish a unified identity.”

Back to the future

By 2019, JET participant numbers will rise from the current 5,000 to 6,400, just over the peak figure reached in 2002. Many will assist in elementary schools.

In 2020, English becomes an official subject in grades five and six and foreign language activity classes mandatory for grades three and four. There are no plans for any drastic reforms, according to a CLAIR spokesperson.

¥3.36 million Annual pretax salary for a first-year participant. Rises to ¥3.6 million in second year, ¥3.9 million in third, and ¥3.96 million in fourth and fifth
¥5-6 million Approximate annual cost to employ one participant and pay for their airfare, salary, health insurance, training conferences, etc.
20-30% Success rate for U.S. JET applicants
4,952 Number of participants in 2016 (4,536 ALTs, 410 CIRs, six SEAs)
50% Percentage of total participants from the U.S.

The author worked as a JET ALT in Saitama from 1998 to 2001.

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