“How many Islamic people are there in the world?” Andrea Landis asks a class of 11th-graders at Ohara High School.

The American comes to the school in Hiratsuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture, once a week to teach in the English program. But her work covers much more than just grammar and vocabulary: today’s lesson, for example, is on “Races and Religions of the World.”

Landis is one of 5,470 assistant language teachers (ALT) invited to Japan as part of the government’s Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. “But,” she stresses, “it is not only about teaching English. My presence in the classroom is about communication culture.”

This, she believes, is what language learning is really all about. “We are now working to develop programs that encourage students to begin thinking logically and to express his or her ideas openly and clearly,” she says.

Every year more than 6,000 young people from nearly 40 countries around the world come to Japan under the JET program, not only to teach foreign languages as ALTs, but also to help coach school and community sports teams, and to promote international activities at the local level in government offices throughout Japan.

JET, says Robert Juppe, the first adviser to the program, is “the biggest education program in humankind’s history.”

Established in 1987 as part of then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s agenda to improve Japan’s image on the international stage, the program boasts an annual budget of more than 50 billion yen.

According to the Foreign Ministry, the program’s current target is to put a foreign JET participant in every one of Japan’s more than 3,000 municipalities.

Critics of JET are quick to point out the many problems of the program, such as its questionable effectiveness in improving Japanese students’ skills in speaking foreign languages.

Landis, however, prefers to stress the positive. “Some things take a long time to change. But with having foreign teachers in the schools, there certainly is less gaijin [foreigner] phobia.

“With young people from many countries around the world coming and living in Japan’s rural communities, the common stereotype of every foreigner being an American will also change,” she adds.

With a degree in Asian studies from the University of Colorado, Landis is no stranger to the field of cultural awareness. She worked for the Social Science Education Consortium in Boulder after graduation, preparing information packets and cultural programs related to Asian cultures. She arrived in Japan three years ago and spent a year as an undergraduate at Kanagawa University.

“The opportunity to come to Japan has been a way for me to continue my interests in cross-cultural affairs,” she says.

Now based at the prefecture’s education center in Fujisawa City, she also translates and puts together course materials related to language education in addition to teaching at two local high schools.

Besides her regular work she frequently visits children’s hospitals and facilities for the disabled to give one-day English programs.

“What is really special about these visits is to walk into a hospital room full of sick children, some of them quite ill, and feel their eyes light up when they see me,” she says. “Their enthusiasm for English is something remarkable.”

For many years in Japan, “internationalization” has been a buzzword with little substance, but through the efforts of Landis and other young people in the JET program, it is slowly becoming a reality.