Recently, I wrote a short piece titled, “Is the JET Program right for you?” This was a short article, just intended as a very brief primer on the JET Program, based mostly on my own experiences and the experiences of other JETs I’ve personally known. Some of the comments on that piece questioned the validity of the JET Program and it got me thinking—is the JET Program really necessary for Japan?
As the official website states, JET “aims to promote grassroots internationalization at the local level by inviting young overseas graduates to assist in international exchange and foreign language education in local governments, boards of education and elementary, junior and senior high schools throughout Japan. It seeks to foster ties between Japanese citizens (mainly youth) and JET participants at the person-to-person level.”
Over the years, especially in recent times, the JET Program has fallen under criticism. One of the major critiques is that the English level of Japanese has not improved much since the JET Program began in 1987, and this is true. But this is a larger problem with English education in Japan as a whole. The JET Program is also quite expensive to maintain—over four thousand participants who make over three million yen a year and may also receive housing and transportation subsidies, as well as their airfare to and from Japan at the beginning and end of their stays. There are some problems with the JET Program and reforms that can be implemented.
For starters, the aim is quite broad. Promoting grassroots internationalization at the local level certainly sounds great, but what exactly does that mean? And how will this grassroots internationalization be implemented? While many JETs participate in community events, run English clubs or English conversation classes outside of their regular work duties, this isn’t true of all. There are some JETs who become very involved in their communities and become quite proficient in Japanese, but there are also others who rarely interact with the locals outside of work duties.
Another issue is the teaching of English itself. As I stated in my previous article, JETs who work as assistant language teachers (ALTs) can have a variety of different classroom experiences. Japanese teachers of English (JTEs) are across the spectrum on ALTs—some love working with ALTs, some have little use for them, and some would like to use ALTs more in class, but don’t know how. English instruction has expanded to elementary schools as well, but without much thought given to properly preparing the teachers for it. Sometimes, the instruction falls to the homeroom teacher who frequently won’t know much more English than the students or it falls to the ALT. And while there are some ALTs who may have had teacher training in university or in previous careers, it’s by no means a pre-requisite for the program.
The root of these problems comes down to one of JET’s famed acronyms, ESID—Every Situation Is Different. The more one thinks about ESID, the more it seems like a crutch. If the schools don’t know what to do with the ALT and the ALT isn’t trained to perform properly, then naturally there will be problems. The JET Program has made some strides recently, such as by offering grants for ALTs who wish to get certified in an online TESOL course. But more could certainly be done. New ALTs arrive in late July and early August, and after two or three days of orientation in Tokyo, head to their host prefectures and cities. The students, however, are on summer vacation until the beginning of September. So for these ALTs, their first experiences in Japan usually consists of “office days,” where they go to their local board of education or their base school and sit at a desk from 8:30 in the morning until 4:15 in the afternoon and have nothing to do. There may be some local activities or English camps that they’re asked to participate in, but these can vary a lot based on location and based on contracting organization. There are some contracting organizations that won’t allow an ALT to participate in outside English camps or speech contests, even if they don’t administer any. Perhaps that two or three day orientation should be two or three weeks of TESOL instruction. Now, of course there are a whole host of issues involved with that, such as where would the instruction take place, how would it be paid for, would it be handled by CLAIR or by the contracting organizations, but it’s one suggestion. Perhaps this could be simplified by changing the requirements for JET and mandating that prospective ALTs have some training.
Another would be to have clear guidelines for the ALTs duties. Should it be mandated that they teach a community class or English club, how are they to be utilized in class, what is the role of the JTE and the ALT, etc. There needs to be more direction from the program as a whole and if Japan really wants to utilize native English speakers in the classroom, then both the JET Program and the method of English instruction should be reformed so that native English speakers can be utilized effectively.
I don’t mean this as an attack on the JET Program or its participants. The program is well-intentioned and its participants are more often than not very great people who want to live up to the aims of JET. But what I do know is that if Japan wants to improve the English ability of its citizens as well as help them develop good relationships with the rest of the world, it will take more than dropping recent graduates from English-speaking countries into the middle of the country.