Native speakers, naive teachers: A close look at the JET Program

As readers of this blog know, I was an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) with the JET Program in Nagasaki prefecture from 2011 through 2013. During my time in Japan, I often wondered about my role as a teacher and as a JET. I was frequently perplexed and frustrated by the realities of English education in Japan, and struggled to understand exactly how the JET Program fit into this landscape.

This post, adapted from a paper written for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is the fruit of these frustrations. Consider this my attempt to understand the JET Program: Why JET exists, what it does well, and where the program must change if it truly intends to improve the quality of English education in Japan.

If you are a former JET, a current JET, or a prospective JET, this post is for you.

In many ways, Japan represents a linguistic landscape unlike any other country. According to the Ethnologue, Japan has the lowest linguistic diversity of any nation its size: As recently as 1980, the Japanese government insisted that the country had no language minorities, a claim that—although patently false—is an indication of Japan’s normative linguistic culture. This unparalleled linguistic homogeneity is at once a source of national pride and national anxiety. Since the country reopened its borders in 1853, Japan has vacillated between a desire to secure its high standing in the international community and the instinct to guard itself against the threat of foreign influence. In the context of language, this indecision has manifested as a national fascination with English, a language which Japan has invested heavily in teaching its populace–but only on carefully dictated terms.

A brief history of English in Japan

The modern history of English in Japan began in earnest in 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States sailed his “black ships” into what is now Tokyo Bay. Although Japan had been visited periodically by European missionaries and merchants for centuries, the country had been effectively closed to foreigners for over 200 years at the time of Perry’s arrival. In the presence of modern warships, however, the Japanese could neither deny nor resist the superior strength of the American military.

The reopening of Japan brought with it a tremendous pressure to modernize the country. The ascension of the Meiji Emperor in 1867 precipitated a series of sweeping changes designed to lift Japan out of feudalism and into the modern era. From a language standpoint, English rose to prominence during this period, as the Japanese embraced the language as a means of understanding the modern world they hoped to emulate.

In order to promote modernization, Japan sent small contingents of its own citizens to study overseas, but it also received thousands of foreigners as consultants, invited by the Ministry of Education to share Western knowledge with the Japanese at home. Conducted mostly in English, these early exchanges solidified the Japanese perception of English as the de facto language of both the West and the modern world at large, a perception that remains powerfully entrenched to this day.

While these human interactions represented an early emphasis on communication, translation quickly became the dominant focus of Japan’s interest in English. Since English functioned for the Japanese as a way to access the body of Western knowledge that had accrued during their period of isolation, translation served this purpose brilliantly, as it allowed a small cadre of Japanese scholars to disseminate Western ideas in the language of the populace. With English operating as the means to reach this end, translation proved to be an efficient strategy, and as the desired body of Western knowledge became increasingly available in Japanese, communicative English education began to seem unnecessary even as it was being introduced in junior high schools.

As Japan transitioned into the 20th century, the perceived value of communicative English remained low, but the demand for translation skills increased dramatically as English came to be seen as a prerequisite for higher education. Thus anointed, English came to feature prominently on high school and college entrance exams, which tested students’ linguistic understanding of English rather than their ability to use the language functionally. This promoted the teaching of so-called juken-eigo, or entrance exam English.

Although policymakers at the national level attempted to adopt more progressive instructional paradigms, such as the audio-lingual method, the looming threat of the entrance exam exerted a powerful influence on students and teachers alike. Thus, English education diverged into two distinct streams, with the government explicitly advocating a holistic approach while high schools and universities implicitly required a more narrow set of highly-testable skills. In the classrooms themselves, the immediacy of the entrance exams predictably overshadowed all other considerations, and a steadfast devotion to the grammar-translation method fell neatly into place as a natural consequence.

While much has happened in the realm of English education in Japan since the early divergence of national policy goals from high school and university testing standards, little has actually changed: As Japan attempts to transition itself into a new century, the competing interests of national policymakers and educational gatekeepers remain solidly divided, and the tensions between them have only grown more obvious with time. Now more than ever before, students and teachers find themselves caught in the crossfires, twisting in the wind as government officials and university administrators silently tussle over the direction of English education in 21st century Japan.

Political language: The birth of the JET Program

In spite of its longstanding preoccupation with English, Japan has struggled to build the proficiency of its citizenry. No less an authority than Edwin O. Reischauer, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, “seriously listed Japan’s miserable performance in English teaching as one of the [Seven Wonders of the World].” While some disagree over the source of these struggles, scholars unanimously remark on the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of Japan’s efforts to promote English.

Language vitality–the status and prestige of a language as a function of its value in society–plays an important role in whether and how a language is learned. This concept provides a useful framework for thinking about Japan’s struggles with learning English. Although English is a high status language, regarded by the Japanese as a “marvelous tongue,” its power is purely symbolic for most Japanese. Despite its high status, English is seldom used outside a classroom setting. As a result, English has suffered from chronically low levels of language vitality in Japan, a fact that is especially problematic from an instructional standpoint: Although many Japanese students intuitively understand the value of English, few of them experience this value for themselves on a regular basis. Without authentic opportunities to use English, Japanese students come to see the language as an academic exercise, a view that is emphatically reinforced by the ubiquitous pressure of the entrance exams and the methods used to pass them.

Throughout the 20th century, the Japanese government repeatedly tried to improve the vitality of English teaching by shifting the focus away from jukeneigo, generally with limited success. In 1987, however, they launched their most visible effort to date with the creation of the JET Program. Billing itself as a grassroots campaign to promote “internationalization at the local level by inviting young overseas graduates to assist in international exchange and foreign language education,” the primary function of the JET Program is to place native English speakers in Japanese public schools as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs). Arguably the biggest government-sponsored undertaking of its kind, the JET Program has brought over 55,000 participants to Japan since its inception, with current numbers hovering around 4,300 annually. The Program’s yearly budget is estimated to be upwards of $400 million.

Although a small minority of JETs perform other roles, the vast majority are hired as ALTs. As such, the JET Program would seem to be a large-scale English language initiative aimed at improving the proficiency of the Japanese populace through exposure to native speakers. Rather than a purely educational endeavor, however, the JET Program was originally seen as a political ploy, conceived of during the U.S.-Japan trade crisis as a gesture of goodwill designed to deflect criticisms of Japan. There is ample evidence to support this conclusion: The idea for JET originally came from a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Home Affairs and was ultimately championed by an official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In spite of the JET Program being ostensibly educational, Ministry of Education officials were not involved in its conception, and in fact reacted quite negatively to JET when it was proposed.

The implementation of the JET Program also suggests goals outside the classroom. From a hiring standpoint, applicants with strong academic backgrounds are given preferential treatment over experienced educators. Teaching certifications are considered only as an afterthought, and this is reflected by the small minority of credentialed JETs. Participants are thus more likely to be strong academic achievers than well-qualified teachers. While such participants are less likely to provide high-quality English instruction, they are perhaps more likely to occupy influential positions in the future. This consideration becomes crucial in light of one of the JET Program’s selection criteria: “Have a desire to proactively maintain relations with Japan, even after completion of the Program.” With this in mind, the JET Program seems to prefer high-achieving individuals over experienced teachers, perhaps betting that these alumni will act as influential ambassadors on Japan’s behalf. The nature of JET’s hiring cycle reinforces this notion: Participants are hired on a yearly contracts that can be renewed up to four times. However, given no hope of promotion and bleak prospects of employment in Japan beyond the expiry of their contract, few JETs contemplate an extended stay: About 66 percent of participants leave JET within two years and only 5 percent remain for five years.

Finally, and perhaps most curiously, the Japanese government has never undertaken a public evaluation of the JET Program. Given the longstanding nature of the JET Program, its highly-visible public profile, and its considerable cost, it stands to reason that the Japanese government would be interested in knowing whether it has improved English education in Japan over the past 27 years. To the contrary, however, government officials seem intent on not knowing the exact impact of the JET Program, preferring instead to consider it a success on the basis of participation alone. This seemingly willful ignorance of the JET’s educational value on the part of the government suggests that officials regard it as a success for political (if not educational) reasons.

With all of that said, however, the JET Program has been and figures to remain a major component of Japan’s English language education strategy: Since 2001, ALTs have increasingly been deployed to elementary schools as part of a systematic push to introduce children to English earlier in life. To meet this demand, the current administration has indicated that it plans to double the size of the JET Program by 2016. Thus, while the JET Program cannot be understood as purely an educational policy, it is certain to have significant consequences for the teaching of English in Japanese schools going forward.

Native speakers, naïve teachers

In many ways, ALTs are the human embodiment of Japan’s top-down push for a new instructional paradigm, the drive for more communicative English instruction personified. While statistics support the notion that the JET Program has been eagerly received across Japan, these numbers obscure a troubling lack of coherence at the ground-level. When the JET Program was launched, ALTs and Japanese teachers of English (JTEs) were expected to team-teach classes together, but neither group had been prepared for this task. ALTs with limited knowledge of English grammar, educational theory, or Japan itself were often hopelessly unprepared to function as classroom teachers. JTEs, many of whom had studied English literature but were unskilled at spoken English, suddenly found themselves teaching communicative English alongside a stranger, never having been consulted on the matter. As a result, many JTEs saw the arrival of the ALTs as a “second coming of the black ships,” an influx of native speakers that threatened to reduce them from teachers to interpreters. In their capacity as “assistants,” a designation insisted upon by the Ministry of Education out of deference to the JTEs, many ALTs felt underutilized, mere “human tape recorders” rather than actual co-teachers.

While the team-teaching dynamic remains a source of tensions and challenges for ALTs and JTEs alike, there are indications that conditions have improved since the early years: Surveys have shown that, while JTEs generally do not see ALTs as equals, they do tend to regard them as valuable members of the school staff. In addition, as JTEs have become accustomed to working alongside ALTs, many have benefited from this exposure as a form of professional development: Research indicates that today’s JTEs are better, more confident speakers of English than their predecessors. Data have consistently shown that classes with ALTs include far more use of English than classes without ALTs or those that were typical of the pre-JET era.

While improvements in ALT-JTE relations and classroom conditions are valuable outcomes of the JET Program, they are intermediary steps compared to the ultimate goal: Improving the English proficiency of Japanese students. From the standpoint of language vitality, there is little doubt that students benefit from the presence of an ALT, as this serves as evidence that the school values English while simultaneously providing students with key opportunities for authentic interactions that would not be available otherwise. Native speakers implicitly validate the “language-as-resource” orientation that the Japanese government has been desperately trying to cultivate: By their presence alone, ALTs inherently remind students that English is a living, breathing, useful language rather than a burdensome subject to be studied for a test. Given the dominance of Japanese in daily life, students are likely to find this resource-oriented view of English hollow or even disingenuous unless they have a reason to believe otherwise.

However, in spite of these arguments, there is little quantitative evidence to show that JET has improved the quality of students’ English. The data that is available, international comparisons of TOEFL and TOEIC test results, suggest that Japanese students continue to perform as poorly as ever.

The future of the JET Program

By the admission of its original architect, former Ministry of Home Affairs official Kuniyuki Nose, the JET Program “was never focused on the revolution of English education [in Japan],” but it has nevertheless had undeniable consequences in this area. Viewed as a foreign policy initiative, the JET Program has been a smashing success, and its continued existence and proposed expansion testify to this success. As an educational policy, JET may once have seemed like a cruel joke played on Japanese educators, the hiring of thousands of “teachers” who were scarcely teachers at all.

However, while the JET Program has changed little in the intervening 27 years, JTEs have increasingly warmed to the ALTs with whom they share a classroom. Still, while the attitude of JTEs towards ALTs has improved, the implementation of the JET Program remains riddled with problems, the enduring legacy of the Program’s political origins as well as the ongoing tug-of-war between national policies that assume long-term objectives and entrance exams that demand the immediate attention of students and teachers. While many remain optimistic about its future, the JET Program will need to consciously redefine its goals if it is ever going to deliver on its educational promise. Although Japan’s national policies are slowly shifting English education towards a more communicative approach, JET participants must be better prepared than their predecessors if they hope to contribute to this shift in the future.

(Please note that, for ease of reading, APA citations have been omitted from this post. However, a comprehensive reference list is available upon request.)