WASHINGTON — When current participants in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program gather, the discussion often focuses on English teaching methods. When the program’s U.S. alumni get together, however, talk often turns to a weightier subject: U.S. foreign policy toward Japan.

Since the program was established in 1987, it has brought tens of thousands of young Americans to Japan for cultural exchanges with a focus on teaching English.

Although the program has an uneven track record when it comes to improving Japanese students’ English, it has quietly and unexpectedly become a powerful tool for achieving another objective: grooming the next generation of American leadership in U.S.-Japan relations.

Michael Auslin, a former JET and prominent Japan expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said recent attacks on the program by Japanese budget screeners have focused on the quality of its English teaching while ignoring the more important element that it is one of Japan’s most valuable tools for conducting “public diplomacy” both with the United States and other countries.

The program’s success in this regard is perhaps best demonstrated by the number of former JETs occupying Japan-related positions in both academia and in the U.S. government. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo alone employs 25 former JETs, and JET returnees have done Japan-related work at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

“The JET program created a fairly large cadre of people who had Japan experience,” says Ben Dolven, a former JET and current director of the East Asia division at the Congressional Research Service, the official think tank of the U.S. Congress.

“You’ve got a core of people who have had this experience all over, who are now part and parcel of U.S. policymaking on Japan,” he said.

Dolven’s point is illustrated by an anecdote told by Michael Green, the head of Japan studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former head of the Asia team in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.

Green, who participated in a precursor to the JET program, was tasked with putting together a group to examine how the 2001 election of Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister might affect Japan’s relations with the United States.

The task force consisted of Japan experts from various government agencies, ranging from the CIA to the Treasury Department.

“The interesting thing about it was that you had all of these people from all of these agencies, who had been JETs . . .” or, like Green, had participated in similar programs in Japan, he said.

The group put together a set of recommendations that “became, in many ways, a blueprint for President Bush’s first meeting with Koizumi,” Green said.

Dolven said that because JETs often work in rural areas, the program gives them a more nuanced view of the “real” Japan, a background that provides crucial context for better understanding the country and making informed policy decisions.

“There are lives being lived all over the country, and if you are just focused on Tokyo, you miss so much,” Dolven said.

Auslin said the program is probably the most successful institutionalized and organized way to get young foreigners to obtain a deeper understanding of the “real” Japan.

This sentiment is embodied by Andrew Ou, a former JET now working in the U.S. Embassy’s political section.

While in the program 10 years ago, Ou developed a relationship with Ichita Yamamoto, now a leading figure in the Liberal Democratic Party.

Ou cites this connection, as well as his JET experience with Japan’s local politics, as invaluable to his current work analyzing Japanese politics.

“You can’t put that into an equation and come out with a figure of how important it is for bilateral relations,” he said.

But he believes his own and others’ experiences in the program “add up to invaluable benefits for the U.S.-Japan relationship.”

Recent criticism of the program comes at a time when many scholars have observed an increasing tendency in Japan toward turning “inward,” contributing to what the Japan Center for International Exchange, a New York-based think tank, has called an erosion in the “the institutional base of U.S.-Japan policy dialogue and study.”

Ou finds criticism of the JET program especially disappointing.

“I think as a group, JET alumni have a bigger impact on bilateral policy than any other,” he said.

And that is what makes it essential to “emphasize how important the JET program was and is for me and countless other diplomats,” he said.

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