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.)

Autumnal introspection

So as the seasons change and I creep up on three months in country, it occurs to me that I’m starting to develop a sense of this place, at least as it relates to me. In the last few weeks, autumn has come to Nagasaki, and while it lacks the breathtakingly variegated quality of fall in New England, it possesses an understated kind of beauty: the lush, verdant rice paddies that radiate throughout the growing season have yielded and been harvested one by one, leaving behind sedate, empty brown fields. The valley, which shines blindingly green in the summer sun, has taken on the tone of burnt butter cooling in the pan, muted most days by the stratus clouds that increasingly inhabit the sky. Although I have never known an October without changing leaves and barren trees, it feels like fall here, in a deeply familiar and recognizable way that I can’t entirely understand.

It has gotten cooler, especially at night, but not dramatically so. When the sun peers through in the afternoons, it still reaches the low 80s, and even at night the temperature has yet to dip below 50 (though I have taken to using a light comforter, since as advertised, the homes here are very marginally insulated). While the deciduous trees have shed their leaves, they are outnumbered in many places by conifers, so the hillsides look sparse but not barren. The beaches are deserted except for me and a handful of dog-walkers. The sun sets much earlier now, and sometimes I’m too busy to make it to the water in time, but I try to plan my runs accordingly.

Like agriculturally-dependent communities around the world, the fall has been a time of frenzied activity, which I’m told will culminate next week with a harvest festival of sorts. Soon, the region’s many farmers will settle in for the winter, and an already sleepy town will, I imagine, slip into sopor for a few months. I do not envy them their rest, however, as I have seen them hard at work in the fields for months now, often in the rain and always on weekends. Their work ethic is eminently respectable and beyond reproach, but from where I’m standing, it still doesn’t look like the best gig in the world. Which is probably why the young people who can flee to the cities do so at the earliest opportunity.

For my part, I can’t help but smile, because I know now what I suspected when I began the long and arduous JET application process: this is a decidedly good gig. In fact, at 24-years-old, I can’t conceive of many jobs I could be doing that I’d prefer (excluding all the jobs that I really couldn’t be doing for practical reasons, like playing professional baseball or writing exotic articles for National Geographic). I have a measure of responsibility, enough to keep me honest and focused, but not so much that I feel perpetually stressed. I answer to my supervisor(s) and work with an assigned curriculum, but in spite of being an assistant teacher, I have a good deal of autonomy with respect to how I execute my lessons. I am, for the first time in a job, fairly compensated for my work (and it feels so good). I’m doing something I believe in, something that I’m proud to do well, but at the same time, I’m not afraid to fail because I haven’t been made to feel as if the weight of my students’ success hangs around my neck. There are no test scores to be answered for, at least by me. The students, teachers, and administrators all see me as a resource, in that I am there to be used and have something positive to contribute but am not the lynchpin of the operation.

While there is enormous merit in a program like Teach for America, which heaps burden and responsibility on young people and forces them to grow up in a hurry, I think I am uniquely situated to learn about teaching in an environment that tolerates mistakes and a little experimentation without castigation. This may not be true of every JET experience–in fact, it surely isn’t–but, at least in my case, I feel as if I’ve been positioned to succeed in a way that isn’t just grimly rewarding in the manner of someone trudging joylessly towards a noble, if oppressive, goal, but is actually fun and exciting.

What more could a 24-year-old ask for?

Two weeks left

I’m inside of my last two weeks in America and the reality that I’m actually leaving is setting in. My posters have been down for weeks, and now that my furniture has started to sell on Craigslist, my room is becoming increasingly barren.

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to balance getting ready to leave with enjoying my last few weeks in the States. On Saturday, I went to my second JET orientation, and like the first one, this one was optional and organized by JET alumni. It was an all-day affair at the Showa School in Jamaica Plain, a school for college-age Japanese girls who are studying English in the U.S. The event was held there in part because Showa allowed us to use their classrooms free of charge but also because it gave us a unique opportunity to interact with some actual Japanese people before departing.

The day was broken up into morning and afternoon sessions. In the morning, the two alumni organizers led us through some basic ESL teaching exercises, emphasizing how to structure speaking or listening games in such a way that the students are set up to succeed. We also discussed some of the difficulties that plague both Americans and Japanese when trying to speak one another’s language. For example, in English, the base pitch is “uh,” whereas in Japanese, the base pitch is “eh.” You can feel the difference for yourself: put your fingers on your larynx (Adam’s Apple for guys), and say “uhhhhh.” Now say “ehhhhh.” Your vocal chords vibrate in totally different places, with “eh” higher and “uh” lower. If speakers of Japanese often sound high-pitched, it’s not a coincidence–it’s because their language operates in a much higher register than our native English. This will be a challenge for me because my natural speaking voice, moderately deep by American standards, will be downright unintelligible to some Japanese. So even if I’m speaking grammatically and with proper intonation, I will probably have to elevate my pitch in order to be understood.

The morning session was informative and useful, but the afternoon was undoubtedly more fun. The Showa students joined us for lunch and were a lot of fun to have around. Everyone was a bit shy at first–not surprising given that their English, though certainly better than my Japanese, was only somewhat conversational–but we found ways to navigate the language barriers (for me, this meant apologizing a lot for accidentally using impolite imperative verb forms, though I think I was always forgiven). They told us where they were from in Japan (Honshu across the board), what their hobbies were (mostly sports or playing/listening to music), and what sights they had seen around Boston (Fenway Park and Harvard Square were popular destinations). One by one, they stood up before the group and made remarkably articulate introductions, though not without a lot of blushing and giggling.

After we ate, the Showa girls accompanied us into the classrooms, where we split into groups based on skill. In the beginner’s group, we spent the remainder of the afternoon working on two projects: the first was practicing introductions of our own in Japanese with the patient assistance of the Showa students. My sensei, Yukari, helped me learn, practice and memorize the following introductory speech, presented here in romaji to the best of my ability:

Minasama, hajimemashite. Watashi wa Joshua to moshimas. Watashi wa Amerika kara kimashita. Watashi no shumi wa hashirocoto des. Dozo yoroshikou onegai shimasu.

(Everyone, how do you do? I am called Joshua. I come from America. My hobby is running. Pleased to meet you).

Not sure how truly accurate that translation is, but it’s the gist, and some variation of this will probably serve as my rote introduction when meeting new people in Japan. Next, when I had memorized my little speech, we switched sensei and I got paired up with Yoko. She and I worked on a little skit based on an everyday situation: in this case, buying food at the grocery store. I won’t bore you with the entire transcript, but she sold me some apples for 100 (hyaku) yen.

All in all it was a pretty outstanding day and definitely put me in the mindset that this is actually happening. Yukari and Yoko, if you’re out there: arigato.