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Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010


The final word on JET, for now

Arudou misses the mark

Debito Arudou's recent article on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme (Just Be Cause, Sept. 7) and many of the responses which followed (Have Your Say, Oct. 12):

I do agree that there are some systemic challenges educators must attempt to overcome in order to provide these kids with the English education they deserve. But Mr. Arudou's arguments are so simultaneously inflammatory and reductive that I cannot believe a reputable publication would venture to publish them.

He is right to have concerns about the very real institutionalized handicaps in the Japanese educational system, but his ideas are so ill-articulated ("Group psychosis?" Are you kidding?) and, frankly, ignorant that I fear the real problems (and solutions) become lost in the muck.

The article itself misses the opportunity to shed light on what is actually happening in Japanese schools. Mr. Arudou is right to worry that cutting the program and withdrawing the significant foreign presence in Japan might be counter- productive, but I do not believe that that is because the Japanese are suffering from "eigo psychosis," whatever that means. The "problems" are institutionalized at this point — a reflection of the greater cultural conflict Japan faces as it strives to look forward while staying rooted in history and tradition.

The push/pull between The Way Things Have Always Been Done and the goals of competitive internationalization is perhaps most obvious in the classroom. I teach in a senior high school, and I have found that the students are incredibly overworked. In most subjects, they are not encouraged to have opinions or speak up in class, which in a course that requires participation for effective learning, is crippling. They are already ranked and categorized by their supposed ability and often made to believe that they are not capable of being anything more. They are driven by the need to pass absurd tests that will determine the course of the rest of their lives.

Simply put, these kids are downright exhausted — and maybe a little demoralized. As are the teachers; they are bogged down with huge amounts of responsibility and juggle the demands of too many classes, too many club commitments, and too much red tape. Both students and teachers often devote hours a day just to commuting back and forth to school, and teachers often shuffle between multiple schools. With all the other balls in the air, both the students and teachers can hardly be expected to pick up the slack of a limping foreign language educational system on their own.

This is where the benefits of the JET program are clear. Though the JET program is not perfect, I do agree with Mr. Arudou that it is not to blame for the problems of English education in Japan, and in fact alleviates some of the pressure on both students and teachers.

Still, his characterization of JET and Japanese schools misses the mark. The primary goal of the JET program is indeed to couple internationalization with English instruction, but that is not a "vague" goal to those to whom it applies — it is instead a powerful mandate to ALTs working across the country. It compels us to not merely show up to work every day and toss out vocabulary words, but to get involved in our schools and communities in a substantial way.

We JETs do not take our purpose lightly, nor do we treat our time in Japan as an extended vacation. Perhaps the author of the comment "Taking more than we gave" forgets that it is not easy to uproot oneself and start a new life, alone, halfway across the world — especially since many of us are isolated either geographically, socially or both.

Also, his or her statement that "any foreigners . . . brought to Japan . . . should be trained and experienced teachers" betrays the true meaning of multiculturalism in education: That diversity and richness of experience is what makes truly well-rounded educators — not necessarily a B.A. in education.

Bringing in foreigners with the same experiences and education defeats the purpose of bringing them at all. My experience with gender studies at the University of Virginia varies greatly from my predecessor's background as an advocate for children with special needs in Australia. And yet, my students have gotten to know us both, and I believe wholeheartedly that they have taken away pieces of those experiences from us as we give of ourselves in and out of the classroom.

We can only do so much, of course, but that's all anyone can do — and if we are opening one student's mind, or exposing one Japanese person to a different way of thinking, or taking home with us a part of the Japanese spirit, for that matter — then we've done our job and it's worth it.

Pushing bold statements that "once the fun is over, however, we wheel the human tape recorder out of the classroom and get back to passing tests," or that there exists some sort of "rent-a-gaijin phenomenon," only betrays the little victories we fight for in Japan and makes it harder for anyone to believe that anything can ever change.


How little has changed

I was a JET program teacher in rural Hyogo Prefecture in 1990-91. Reading over the responses and general discussion regarding the original column, I feel a mixture of shock and yappari over how little seems to have changed in 20 years.

In my time and at my (middle) school, we practiced what seem to be the same or similar "team teaching" techniques as are done today, with the assistant English teacher charged with teaching "conversational" English and my Japanese counterpart obliged by The System to crank out class after class of exceptional, or at least competent, test-takers.

Because the high school entrance tests (nyugaku shiken) had almost no relationship to actual English, conversational or otherwise, the two teachers wound up "team teaching" two different courses. And, naturally, the parents were most concerned with their children doing well on their high school entrance exams.

So little seems to have changed in almost a generation. How sad. How disconcerting.

Birmingham, Alabama

Government fears English?

Having worked as a high school JET from 1998 to 2001 and then continuing as a private contract ALT at the elementary and junior high school level from 2002 to the present, all in backwoods Japan, I can say that Mr. Arudou's assessment, though a little too inflammatory for my liking, is mostly accurate.

The JET Programme's goals are, as stated, to internationalize, with teaching English a second and secondary goal. But the question we should be asking is: Why hasn't the ministry of education shifted these goals when there is such an opportunity available to teach English in a way that would actually give the taxpayer more return on their investment?

A program that roughly costs ¥30 billion a year and has been running for more than 20 years should have more to show for it (i.e. better English speakers and the economic benefits that come with). So why doesn't it?

When you boil it down, there are really only two answers. Either the ministry of education is completely incompetent and incapable of implementing an English curriculum that would work better than the current one, or they, and the government as a whole, do not really want Japanese students to learn English.

Despite the ministry of education's many failings, I do not think it so derelict that it cannot create a curriculum that turns out better English speakers. After all, officials and teachers have traveled the world and observed other countries, such as Israel and the Netherlands, which have excellent ESL programs. If the ministry of education wanted to implement a truly great program, they have the information and knowhow to do it.

That leaves only the prospect that the ministry doesn't actually want its citizens to learn English. Sadly, this has been my conclusion. So, why would this be?

I can only speculate, but I feel the government fears that if its citizens were to become fluent in English, they may take advantage of the benefits and freedoms that a world language offers and make for "greener pastures," never to return.

Of course, I don't think this would be the case. But if this is the government's stance, it is selling Japan and its citizens far short. This hasn't proven to be the case in other countries that have embraced world languages. And I don't think Japan such an inhospitable place that Japanese would be clamoring to get out. On the contrary, I actually think that improved English ability would empower Japanese and give them a feeling of equal footing with the rest of the world and a further enhanced sense of pride as Japanese.

I would hope that the JET program is not done away with, but that it is refocused and that English language learning is elevated to a primary goal of the program. Then, I would like to see a curriculum redesign that tries seriously to create English communicators. This curriculum would of course clarify the ALT role and ensure that all are being fully utilized. Only then will the JET program reap the rewards a government program of its size should be expected to provide.

Yamanashi Prefecture

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