19 September 2010

Should the JET Programme be axed?

Should the JET Programme be axed?
by Charles Jannuzi
University of Fukui
(and JET Programme ALT 1989-1992)

The JET Programme (official site: http://www.jetprogramme.org/index.html ) is a teaching and cultural exchange program in Japan that brings over 4400 people from overseas (for a detailed breakdown of the stats, see: http://www.jetprogramme.org/e/introduction/statistics.html ). It then places most of them as 'assistant language teachers' (ALTs) in middle schools and high schools all across the country. While there are a small number of people from countries where English is a foreign language (officially 36 countries participate), and there are posts for 'coordinators for international relations' (CIRs), who specialize in things like translation, the vast majority of JET Programme participants are natives of an anglophone country, young adults, recent graduates from university, and they will team teach as ALTs.

There has been a lot of discussion online and in newspapers recently about the purposes and usefulness of the JET Programme because the program is quite likely to be either drastically cut or eliminated altogether. In terms of money spent and personnel employed, JET is already past its earlier peaks anyway.

It should be noted that discussions like this one here at ELT in Japan are usually held because the rationale for the program is being questioned--indeed, its reason for being has always been questioned, since the program's inception 25 years ago, back in the bubble 80s. However, these sorts of discussions have no effect on whether or not the program is increased, maintained, curtailed or eliminated. Rather such disucssions are more like: Who do you think will win the World Cup next time? We are spectators who must speculate.

Defenders of the program have often argued that, even if the JET Programme is relatively low impact in terms of teaching and language learning, its main goal is something called 'cross- cultural exchange' (or often 'cross-cultural understanding'). One problem with this notion is that it is difficult to pin down just what that is or how to quantify it (even roughly quantify it). Since the program only employs people by the few thousand and scatters them thinly across the country, that really doesn't seem to be much of a population for cross-cultural exchange compared to the large numbers of Chinese, for example, who have come to Japan to work or attend school.

Another problem with the idea of the JET Program as 'cultural exchange' is that it supports a major prejudice that pervades Japan and its thinking about the rest of the world. That is, for Japan, cross-cultural exchange consists of maintaining good relations with anglophone countries like the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

A last weakness in the cultural defense of the program could be stated thus: Isn't the whole idea of foreign language education based, at least in part, on the rationale of furthering cultural understanding? So wouldn't the needs of cross-cultural exchange be met equally or better by emphasizing foreign language teaching and learning?

I predict that the ongoing economic, monetary and fiscal crises that Japan has will lead to the JET Programme being abolished or cut to a size that most will forget the program exists. However, I would like to hope that the program could be revised or transformed so that something worthwhile could be scraped up from the ashes.

Japan as a country needs a foreign policy independent of the hegemon, the United States. Perhaps a step towards that would be to achieve some sort of real mutual understanding with the rest of Asia (including Russia). This could also be expanded to include non-anglophone countries all around the world, but perhaps most significantly Latin America and Africa. However, the economic and cultural significance of developed and developing Europe (outside of the UK) would justify as much a focus as the US or the UK or other developed English-speaking countries get now in Japan in terms of 'international relations' and cross-cultural exchange. 

With that in mind, the JET Programme could be revised to something along these lines: It should become a true EXCHANGE program of EFL and foreign language teachers, from the primary to the university level. For example, language teachers from China, S. Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Italy, Russia, etc. come to Japan for one year. Japanese EFL and foreign language teachers go abroad and work in schools in such countries for one year.

All this is not to say that the current JET Programme (or its antecedents) has been a failure.    It is not really a matter for me to judge. I am only offering here an idea that might help make such exchange a venture with a deeper educational impact.

If the JET program has failed, it seems most likely just another aspect of Japan's inability to reform and improve foreign language education at all levels of education. If the ALTs comprise a 'token foreign element' at public and private schools in Japan, the same thing could be said for the foreign nationals teaching EFL at the thousands of universities and colleges in Japan. So if Japan, its education system, and its government can not come to a collective understanding of what they need in terms of foreign language education, THAT--as has been made clear to me numerous times--is a matter for Japan and the Japanese.


Note: for more detailed statistics and facts about the JET Programme, see the following sources:

>> SEA Participants Numbers by Contracting Organisationpdf    

For the goverment working group's report, which includes discussion of the JET Programme (in Japanese), see the following .pdf online at the link below (pertinent excerpt quoted below the link):


海外事務所の必要性に関しては十分な理解が得られていない、JET プログラム

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