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Wednesday, June 14, 2000

How Japan's JET program got off the ground

IMPORTING DIVERSITY: Inside Japan's JET Program, by David L. McConnell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, 328 pp. (paper).

Stung by international criticism that Japan was too insular, the government decided in August of 1987 to initiate "one of the largest educational programs in the history of mankind" -- the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program. In its inaugural year, 848 graduates from America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand were brought to teach in public schools all over Japan.

The Japanese government offered the program as a gift at a summit in 1986 between Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. When the first recruits arrived a year later, all of the major newspapers and television networks gave extended coverage to this event.

These "foreign ambassadors," as they were called, were wined and dined; as one American participant recalls, "We were treated like stars and felt really special."

Three years later, the program was beginning to unravel. An article in The Japan Times was headlined "Apathy rampant in JET program." Tokyo Journal suggested that there had been cases of "teacher torture." And the San Jose Mercury News reported that "the Japanese government is spending millions to create potential enemies . . . which is exactly contrary to what it intended to do."

David McConnell's "Importing Diversity: Inside Japan's Jet Program" does not attempt to sidestep any of these thorny issues. In fact, he takes us into the eye of the storm. Drawing on 10 years of field work, he has carefully researched both the "fallout created" by the program and its extraordinary achievements in English and cross-cultural education.

As we follow McConnell's balanced and accurately reported descriptions of the fascinating and sometimes frazzled relationships between the JET program supervisors, the Japanese Language Teachers and the English teaching assistants, the real significance of his scholarly contribution emerges.

As he describes the history of the program with an immediacy and honesty uncommon in academic research, we feel like participants in an unfolding drama.

How does the generic catch-phrase "internationalization" actually end up being played out in the trenches of the classroom? Can a relatively small group of young Western teachers really help Japan to internationalize? How would these teachers fit into entrance exam-oriented prefectural schools? And how would teachers with strikingly different linguistic and cultural backgrounds collaborate both in and outside of the classroom?

McConnell helps us understand the intense emotional and psychological strain felt by those JET program teachers and administrators who are in the front line of the internationalization process.

We empathize with Kristin's desire for students to learn more about multiculturalism in America; or Richard's confrontational style with unruly students; or Tracy's assertiveness, which would cause her to denigrate other teachers.

As well-intentioned as their zealous attempts were to be "honest to their own feelings," however, they were inadvertently violating the norms that hold Japanese society together. In fact, some of the Japanese English Language teachers became so exasperated during the early years that they would "half-jokingly refer to the JET program as 'the second coming of the black ships (kurofune raishu),' drawing a parallel with Commodore Matthew Perry's uninvited 'opening' of Japan to Western trade in 1854."

McConnell carefully balances his detailed account of the escalating miscommunication and friction experienced in the first few years with a full appreciation of the potent counterforce that held the program together; that is, on a person-to-person level, there was a deep reservoir of good will and tolerance.

Although the initial impressions that the JLTs had of the English teaching assistants might have been negative, their experience together provided an avenue for growth and a means for shedding stereotyped notions of propriety. This is one JLT's description of her teaching assistant:

"Kristin had bad manners when she first arrived, too. Her nails were too long and her earrings too big and flashy. When I first met her, she was sitting in the board of education waving a fan, chewing gum, and wearing a T-shirt with no sleeves and a miniskirt. I was both depressed and shocked at the same time. . . . But, you know, gradually she changed her behavior. I think it was experience more than my advice."

We might be tempted to suggest that some of these misunderstandings could have been avoided if there had been more extensive orientation by the JET program or if more research had been conducted by the teaching assistants themselves.

The sobering truth about cross-cultural encounters is that they are difficult to anticipate. When two parties bring radically different assumptions and expectations to a situation, it is hard to bridge the resulting gap in communications by good will alone.

No matter how many books JET participants may have read about the "do's and don'ts" of teaching Japanese students or the secrets of how to live successfully in Japan, there is no substitute for the incremental learning that takes place through trial and error and interaction with Japanese people.

Although most JET teaching assistants do not have the luxury of an extended stay, the miscommunication problems that plagued the early years of the program have diminished.

The JET program continues to be a shining star in the Japanese public education system: Over 20,000 foreigners have visited over 16,000 schools throughout Japan. As the author notes, the fact "that virtually every public secondary school in Japan has a chance to see, hear, and talk to a foreigner is an accomplishment not to be underestimated."

Philip Zitowitz is a lecturer at Shukutoku University in Saitama.

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