The man who gave the JET program liftoff


The JET program marks its 15th anniversary this year. Today the country’s largest teacher-exchange program, it all started from the simple dream of a young British banker called Nicolas Maclean.

It began with an inspired conversation one afternoon in October 1976 on the steps of a ruined temple in Nara, where Maclean, on a business trip to Japan, sat with his friend, John Hamilton, a former banker who had come to Japan to teach English.

The two friends were arguing about what could be done to improve the sad state of affairs between Britain and Japan. Relations between the two countries were in crisis. Japan was aggressively penetrating European markets with consumer products, and British industry was unable to compete. Public hostility was brewing and compounded with lingering feelings of animosity from World War II. The two countries stood on the verge of a trade war.

When a Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organizations) delegation visited London that year, the elite Japanese executives were met by a public outcry. In the Sunday Telegraph’s business section, the headline read: “Economic Pearl Harbor.” Outraged by the cold welcome the delegation received, the Japanese press retaliated with its own media barrage.

Maclean, who had concentrated on 20th-century East Asian political affairs while studying at Oxford, argued that he did not want to see history repeat itself. As a result of World War II, his father had lost his lucrative trading business in northern China at the hands of Japanese Imperial aggression.

Maclean asked: “Why just criticize other people? Better yet to try to do something and change the situation.”

A teacher-exchange program was Maclean’s elegant solution to the widening rift between the two countries. “The idea came from a spirit of reconciliation, so that we could avoid future misunderstandings and antagonisms,” says Maclean.

Maclean’s own experiences working with British investment bank Samuel Montagu in London had shown him how dealings with Japanese businessmen were repeatedly beset with misunderstandings.

“We were dependent upon interpreters to do our business,” Maclean explains. “Without sharing a common language, there was little ground for us to build truly effective business and social ties.”

After that talk with Hamilton, Maclean returned to Tokyo where he met with Keidanren leaders and representatives of the British Embassy and the Japanese Foreign Ministry. At these meetings, he presented his teacher-exchange idea. He argued that in order for Japan to deal more effectively with the international community, the verbal English skills of Japanese people needed to be improved. As for Britain, due to the economic downturn, there was a surplus of highly qualified young people available for the job of English-teaching. The problems both countries faced could be addressed in this way.

Maclean’s arguments were well-rooted in his own extensive knowledge of Japan. After graduating in 1967, he joined the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Three years later, he became a member of its first postwar Japan study group. His activities brought him into the world of political affairs and to the attention of such prominent politicians as Conservative Party leader William Whitelaw. In the ’80s, he was to serve in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s private office, where he wrote policy papers supporting cooperative efforts between Britain and Japan in areas such as science and technology.

But in Tokyo, the response to Maclean’s maverick idea was not encouraging. “Everyone was extremely cautious,” Maclean says. “A similar program, the Fulbright Program [a worldwide youth-exchange program started in the United States after WW II], was already in place, and there was internal debate about its effectiveness.”

Back in London, Maclean met with Hugh Cortazzi, then deputy undersecretary of state and later ambassador to Japan. Cortazzi appreciated Maclean’s idea and recommended he write a detailed proposal. He also met with Japanese Ambassador Tadoe Kato, a diplomat known for his foresight. Maclean explained the multiplier effect of his proposal, whereby young people would go back to England, or other places in the world, with a better grassroots understanding of Japan.

In late ’77, Maclean’s detailed proposal was brought up by the British government in foreign ministerial talks with Japan. It was a disappointing experience for Maclean. With the downturn of the British economy and serious budget cuts being initiated, the Japanese Foreign Ministry viewed the proposal as working in Britain’s favor. Why should the Japanese foot the bill for young British people to work in Japan?

“The Japanese teachers’ union also worried that with the English-speaking levels of Japanese teachers being low, young foreigners coming into the classrooms could cause the teachers to lose face in front of the students,” says Maclean.

Yet another obstacle was a law prohibiting foreigners from teaching in Japanese public schools.

But events took an upswing when Maclean’s program was introduced to the Japanese public in the Asahi Shimbun’s popular tensei jingo (Vox Populi, Vox Dei) column. A young and upcoming politician who had studied at the London School of Economics, read the article and thought it outlined “a wonderful idea.” He was none other than Junichiro Koizumi.

As a member of the British-Japanese Parliamentary Group, Koizumi talked to key British and Japanese politicians about the proposal. By spring 1978, the pilot scheme was launched. The initial group comprised 22 young Britons who were, according to Maclean, “sensitive to cultural differences, interested and committed to raising the standards of English and improving mutual understanding.”

In response to the positive results that first year, the Japanese government sought to expand the program, naming it the British English Teaching Programme.

In the mid-’80s, Toshiki Kaifu, twice minister of education and a former prime minister, was impressed with the program’s success. With the support of then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and Kaifu, the BET and Fulbright programs merged in 1987 into what is now the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme.

Since its inauguration, more than 20,000 young people from nearly 40 countries have participated in the program. In schools and municipal government offices throughout Japan, these young people continue to play a vital role in not only language education but also promoting grassroots internationalization.

Robert Juppe, one of the first advisers to the JET program, calls it “perhaps the greatest [certainly the biggest] educational program in humankind’s history.” Yet it is an idea that germinated on the steps of a ruined temple in an impassioned argument between two friends.