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Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012
HAVE YOUR SAY
Paid leave, advice for foreign parents, JET's value: readers' views
Uncompetitive Japan Inc.
Not being a Japanese person employed in a private Japanese company, it is hard for me to imagine the hardship experienced by the writer of the July 17 Have Your Say letter ("Working employees to death"). I can, however, say with a high degree of confidence that laws mandating time off from work will not be effective, as the author suggests.
As mentioned in previous articles, companies are already required by law to provide paid vacation days, but workers don't use them for a variety of reasons, including the ones cited by the author. The lifetime employment system is to blame for this; for better or worse, employees are trapped.
In general, government policy is a blunt instrument that has a very hard time overcoming the forces of economics (if you don't believe this, just look at how tax laws cause people to change their behavior).
The way for Japanese employees to enjoy the time off they are due is by changing the dynamics of business in Japan so that Japanese companies are forced to become more competitive. If Sony won't let you take a vacation, you should be able to move your labor to Samsung. The concept that companies must compete with one another in order to attract and retain the best employees is common sense in the U.S., where virtually everyone changes employers many times throughout their career.
Unfortunately, changing the business culture is likely to be an impossible task, because "Japanese business culture" is actually "Japanese culture as manifested in the business setting." Just as U.S. business culture has a long history dating back to English common law and the foundations of Western individualism, Japanese business culture has an equally long and rich culture based on collectivism and loyalty.
For some people, harsh conditions in return for lifetime employment is a good deal. For others, a high degree of uncertainty in return for the freedom to negotiate one's working conditions is a good deal. My advice for Anonymous: Vote with your feet for the future you truly desire.
Turning indispensability into cash
I wonder if the reasoning that a long absence of an employee might affect the workplace works both ways. Are there any cases where an employee successfully negotiated a higher salary or bonus because he is indispensable for his company ?
Curiosity is natural, healthy
Re: "Gawking children are tolerable, but adults have no excuse" (Have Your Say, July 31): Felt I had to comment on the discussions so far. I was actually amazed to read this as my experiences couldn't have been further from this.
My brother has lived in Japan for more than 20 years and I have visited on a number of occasions, by myself and with a child. I have always found the people to be unbelievable friendly, tolerant and gracious even though my Japanese is very limited.
Yes, children do sometimes stare, but it is only normal curiosity and is absolutely no different to children in any other country. Anyone who doesn't recognize this is simply equating their experiences in Japan with the converse, in which in their own country they were not the foreigners.
If you choose to visit or live in a country in which you are distinctly different, you will be a point of curiosity. The difference in Japan is that it is genuine and without malice or red-necked xenophobia, which is highly likely in many other countries. The fact that so many people feel free to approach us validates this.
Children should be educated to create and communicate their own boundaries without aggression. Until they are able to do this independently, it is a parent's responsibility.
I would suggest that some unwanted attention by adults, in particular the story relating to the two older ladies, was perhaps inadvertently endorsed by the parents, rather than politely accepting their attentions but specifically requesting that they do not touch.
Set the limits for kids, adults
An interesting debate about manners in Japan. I suppose the answer to many worries is to exercise tolerance but establish clear limits. Where are those limits?
I am Spanish and my children move around, talk sometimes in louder voices than I would like and that, in some places, is very much frowned upon. If we lived in Austria or Germany, we would probably get reprimanded every now and then (which, from my cultural standpoint, is very intrusive and rude). In France or Italy, people would find other things about my children worth noting and we would get some "Oh, qu'ils sont doux!" ("Oh, they are sweet!") or, as we got in Trieste once, "Benvenuto alla vita!" ("Welcome to life!"). Call it different styles of joie de vivre, if you want.
Here, they look at you, they want to take photos with them. And actually, even when they obviously don't like louder voices, they tolerate them for a little while in order not to be — like the Germans — intrusive or rude. I like that. And I tolerate their cultural mannerisms, as they tolerate mine. My children, when the Japanese interact with them, they actually interact with them. We consider this normal behavior, with a responsible parent supervising.
Limits are a matter of common sense. I find it enriching for my children to learn about different cultures and behaviors.
(In response to the "Think, ask before you touch" writer:) It is normal that after a lot of "hair curiosity" a child might get cross, but it also depends on the tolerance framework parents instill in him. He will naturally evolve towards kinder techniques when he doesn't want to be bothered, and our duty as parents is to help him in that way.
News flash for prima donnas
Japanese society is by no means a perfect one. But seriously, pointing to a small number of "gawking children" is beyond petty. Would anyone seriously argue against the case that Japan is the most well-mannered society on the planet?
As a frequent traveller to the USA, Europe and Australia, I would gladly endure the occasional gawk in exchange for respectful and effective service in shops, restaurants and hotels; subdued passenger behavior on clean public transport; and quiet, tidy and safe neighborhoods — to name a few examples.
Here's a news flash for those reluctant celebrities and prima donnas out there: Other than Westerners standing out in an almost homogeneous country, have you considered that there may be another reason that you are "gawked" at? Japanese children have it drummed into them that they ought to behave in a restrained and respectful manner towards others. They find loud and extravagant behavior in public quite the spectacle.
If you pay attention you will notice that Japanese adults and children are apt not only to stare at loud Westerners, but also at poorly behaved Japanese, Korean and Chinese folk — in the same way that one can't help but take notice of an unfolding car accident.
I live in a small countryside city where I suspect I'm just about the only Westerner. Once in a while I cop a shy glance from a child. I might give them a quick wink or a smile in return, after which we go our separate ways, unscathed and none the worse for the experience.
What price ignorance?
In regard to the July 31 Have Your Say column, "Debate rages over value of JET program, assistant language teachers," how do you put a price on rising levels of cross-cultural understanding in Japan? How do you measure the impact that an exchange teacher's humor, intelligence, talent or simple humanity will have on his or her eager ESL students in years to come?
Back in the early 1980s, before the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program got underway, I was invited to visit a local high school in Ibaraki Prefecture to simply "meet and greet" students in their English language classes. Most of these students were keen to learn English but had never had the opportunity to actually meet a native speaker of their target language. All had seen Hollywood movies, of course, and a few had taken short trips overseas to places like Hawaii or Los Angeles. But most had never met with a native English teacher in their classroom setting.
The students were very excited to meet me on that autumn day back in 1984. I was only able to spend a few hours visiting the school but it was a very memorable experience for both the students and myself.
There's much more to the JET program than merely learning rudimentary English conversation skills. If nothing else, the young students have a chance to interact with a gaikokujin (foreigner) in an educational setting where such interaction can be both rewarding and motivating. "Real" English is always much more fun to school-age kids than mere textbook exercises, rote memorization or watching English DVDs.
Whenever someone asks if the program is too expensive, I would respond by asking, "What price ignorance?"
How different history might have been if Japan had had a major JET program in its schools during the turbulent period of the 1930s. Just a thought.
Open debate on JET needed
I agree that it is better if the English teachers also know the Japanese language well. How well one must know is a matter that must be open to debate.
Also, as one reader mentions, JET is mainly about "exchange." So either the purpose of this program must be made clearer for the layman to understand, or the purpose must be changed to the study of English in order to achieve a certain degree of competence in the language. Once the goal changes, roles, requirements and selection processes will automatically change. At this moment many people seem unclear about the whole thing.
I liked the letter headlined "Qualifications no guarantee" very much. But the author must realize that this holds true only if you are a "native" speaker of English. And,we all know that the country where one's passport is issued is all that it comes down to in this case.
Moreover, as part of the debate, when qualifications cease to matter, it is in a sense a denial of our own education systems. Though ideally speaking it is only ability that should count, we must question what our educational institutions stand for and how much importance we need to give to educational qualifications.
JET must have a better purpose. The whole system needs to be revamped and improved rather than done away with. For that we need to sit down and debate, ask some hard questions and provide well-thought-out answers. Then there is implementation of the new ideas. That last one would seem to be a tough call!
Big impact in rural Japan
A lot of the arguments I see about the JET Programme talk about the quality of language teachers, and a slew of other issues, but these arguments ignore one key fact: The first line from the introduction to the program on the official website reads, "The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, now in its 26th year, is aimed at promoting grass-roots international exchange between Japan and other nations" (www.jetprogramme.org/e/introduction/index.html)
While it is true ALTs are foreign language teachers, and schools want them for that purpose, that is not the overriding purpose of the JET Programme. JET was developed as a way to bring young adults from around the world to experience Japan, then go home and share their experience, thus enabling a more informed view of Japan in business, diplomacy and other areas. The fact that it gave far more boards of education access to native speakers was and is a great side effect. There are many boards of education, especially in rural areas, that could not afford to fund an ALT on their own, and it is these places that benefit most from the program.
As a JET participant now starting my fifth year, I've been lucky to live on very small islands in rural Japan. I've seen the impact I've had culturally, and have worked hard to repay the amazing opportunities I've had. I work hard to teach English to the best of my ability and within the constraints of the system, but it is in areas of exchange that we are most useful to many schools.
It's true there will always be bad experiences along with the good, but working through those issues is what the program is about. The unfortunate experiences, the unenthusiastic teachers and bumps along the path are all opportunities for improvement. In a country as large as Japan, there will always be plenty.
Yet the original article is about money. The world economy is hurting, Japan is hurting, so does Japan still need to bridge cultural and linguistic gaps, and expose its young to the world? It's for Japan to decide the economic worth of having their children better prepared for a globalizing world, but in my opinion the benefits outweigh the costs.
With continued positive change, the JET Programme will continue a process that has helped thousands of people throughout the world better understand a country with a unique culture and heritage. As for teaching foreign languages, if schools truly want improved foreign language abilities, they need to take responsibility for training and hiring capable teachers, be they native or not.
Baseless, broad generalizations
Ryan's response, "JET Program is a dinosaur" (Have Your Say, July 10), struck me as unintentionally humorous. He goes from making broad generalizations and baseless statements about the tens of thousands of current and former JET participants to accusing Mr. Budmar of making broad generalizations and baseless statements.
I will also highlight some quotes from Ryan's letter that I feel deserve a response:
• "Private ALTs and JET ALTs are essentially the same thing; the only difference is that unlike JET ALTs, private ALTs can be fired for not doing their job, whereas JET ALTs simply get ignored while the school waits for the next intake."
This is a flat-out lie. JET ALTs, just like private ALTs, can indeed be fired. There is a section in every contract focused on discipline and it explicitly states that the contracting organization may discipline the JET by a number of means, up to and including dismissal. As a former JET, Ryan himself should know this (unless he didn't bother reading his contract).
Whether or not a contracting organization wants to go through the trouble is another matter, yet this very same thing can be said of private ALTs or full-time teachers. To act as if it is unique to JETs is a misstatement at best or an outright lie at worst.
• "Some private companies require applicants to have some TESL/TEFL training."
The key word here is "some." Berlitz, Interac and many others do not require TESL/TEFL training, noting that it is "recommended, but not required." And given the number of private ALTs I've known without any training, this "recommendation" doesn't seem to be very high on their list of priorities.
Moreover, there are plenty of JET applicants who do have a background in TESL/TEFL training, and CLAIR (Council of Local Authorities for International Relations) itself is now offering study grants to ALTs who wish to pursue certification (I myself received TESL certification through one of these grants).
• "This is a lovely image, but I wonder, how many of those ALTs really understood Japan? How many actually looked past their celebrity-like status and saw Japan? The majority of ALTs I have encountered were more interested in looking cool and being seen to be cool than actually connecting with Japan."
Quite a few, actually. JET ALTs are frequently encouraged to get involved in their town and many of them participate in local festivals and events. Some of them teach volunteer eikaiwa classes to parents of students, some join in after-school activities unrelated to English, some take up cultural pursuits such as taiko or ikebana or martial arts — some even work with local governments to organize internationalization events.
In the four years I have been in Japan, every JET ALT I have ever known has made an effort to study Japanese, either through the CLAIR-provided correspondence course, local classes, private tutors or self-study. An increasing number are coming over with some degree of fluency in Japanese.
Yes, there are JETs who don't take the job seriously and who have no interest in Japan. But these, at least in my experience, are in the minority. Ryan paints a picture of JET ALTs vs. private ALTs, as if these sort of issues never arise among private ALTs. I have met many private ALTs who didn't care about their job, who didn't care about getting involved in their community, and who did not explore Japan in the least. In some cases, it's because they have no interest. In others, it's because they're too busy working to keep their heads above water.
And that is the one thing Ryan completely disregards in his article: the unscrupulous practices of many of these dispatch companies. In 2009, the Yomiuri Shimbun discussed the high turnover rate of many private ALTs and how many of them were denied enrollment in shakai hoken (social insurance) because of their illegal contracts. A simple web search will expose a massive amount of horror stories from current and former private ALTs about the practices of these dispatch companies.
One thing Ryan and I can agree on is that English education does need reform. But to paint the JET program as inferior to the private dispatch firms, all the while completely ignoring the numerous problems with these companies, is extremely disingenuous.
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