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Rethinking the JET Programme

While it feels like a JET’s job is to teach English and to teach English alone, that isn't always the case.

By 4 min read 12

The JET Program does a lot of good things. The program gives foreigners an opportunity to experience Japan while earning a full-time wage. It also gives students a chance to interact with those same foreigners, expanding their cultural understanding. It improves the country’s overall English level immensely.

The only thing is that I totally lied about one of them. Did you spot it?

While some might argue that none of them are 100% true, the one we all can agree on is that the JET Programme isn’t all that great at improving the nation’s ability to speak English.

There are a myriad of reasons as to why this is, and plenty of theories on how to improve the situation, but the point of the article today is to explain that while the programme fails to substantially improve the country’s English, it’s definitely still a successful endeavor.

To begin, let’s go back to why the JET programme was created in the first place.

From the official site:

“(The Jet Programme) aims to promote grassroots internationalization at the local level by inviting young overseas graduates to assist in international exchange and foreign language education in local governments, boards of education and elementary, junior and senior high schools throughout Japan. It seeks to foster ties between Japanese citizens (mainly youth) and JET participants at the person-to-person level.”

In the paragraph above, the word “education” is used once.


So while it sure feels like a JET’s job is to teach English and to teach English alone, this paragraph of purpose clearly tells us otherwise.

I know for some JETs it’s really frustrating. I’ve received more than a few emails from ALTs who spent years learning their craft, only to be used as a living CD player once they got accepted to the JET Programme. That, combined with the low level of English spoken by the country as a whole, can sure make The JET Programme feel like a failure.

But maybe the problem isn’t with how JETs are utilized inside the classroom. Instead, maybe the issue is how JETs fit into their new country outside of the classroom. Maybe the focus is in the wrong place.

Where do you think “grassroots internationalization” happens? Where can “fostering of ties between Japanese youth and JET participants” happen?

There are a million answers, but NONE of them are inside the classroom.

These things happen at recess, at lunchtimes, at festivals around town, and at Sports Day. They happen at local conbinis and on the street. If a JET spends all of his or her time planning lessons, there won’t be much time left to foster any of those ties with Japanese youth or internationalizing.

Teaching English (or “assisting in foreign language education,” as mentioned above) is only a small part of what the JET Programme was created to accomplish. That means that despite your best intentions to be the best teacher you can be, you’re only working on one aspect of your intended purpose.

In fact, one could argue that the more you broaden your focus beyond the classroom aspect, the more you can bite into the rest of the “reason that the JET Programme exists” pie.

I’m not saying the JET Programme is perfect; it’s far from it. But it’s definitely not a failure by its own standard. It does give foreigners a chance to interact with the community and students. It does give us a chance to assist in teaching foreign language, even if sometimes it’s only to ask “What day is it today?” once a week in the worst of cases. Whether each individual participant takes those opportunities or just complains about their situation on the Internet is entirely up to that person.

The JET Programme is accomplishing its own goals, no matter how ineffectively some teachers are being used in the classroom. It’s fair to say that some JETs are being under-utilized, or that the JET Programme could do a better job of using foreigners to teach English, but the Programme isn’t a failure. It’s just not executing its mission as completely as it could.

In the meantime, we need to rethink what The JET Programme does, and what it can do.

My advice to JETs is to work on every part of that statement of purpose. No matter how little your teacher wants to use you, you can definitely expand your presence in other parts of the school. It’s not hard to join a gym class, walk into the Home Ec room, or stay after school to try your hand at Kendo. The opportunities to work on that “grassroots internationalization” are there for you, you just have to take them.

Teaching, while important, is only a part of what JETs are hired to do. So the next time you or someone you know complains about being under-utilized at his or her school, ask that person what they did that day to work towards the other goals of the Programme. Show me a JET working towards all of the goals of the Programme, and I’ll show you a JET having a great time working in Japan.

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  • Samn says:

    Great article. I was one of those students who was lucky to have a great ALT that spent so much time outside of the classroom. He helped me getting into a foreign exchange program that changed my life. I am very much in touch with him along with many of friends and families I met through that program. After that program, I went to a Japanese University, got a BA in a different language (minored in English) and now pursuing MA in TESOL at an University in the States. People complement me on my English all the time and I have my JET(and another professor from my Japanese university) to thank for. The level of English in Japan may discourage many JETs, but I wanted to share that this program made such a huge impact on my life and this probably happens all the time.

  • one spoken word says:

    Hmmmm. Well said. James, I have followed some of your articles with interest, this is my first time commenting on one, to my recollection.
    I anticipated some of the ” ‘grassroots internationalization… fostering ties’ ” talk reading your title, and I have to say I concur. The impetus for learning a foreign language (particularly for one as linguistically different as English from Japanese) must come from the students. What relevance, beyond dabbling in American and English pop culture, does English have to the majority of students’ personal or professional lives? Obviously, this varies person to person, but let’s just say that while one could make a strong case for learning English, perhaps one could make an equally strong case for learning Chinese (or other foreign tongues). That being said, as with most subjects, students will learn if they are able and willing to kindle a personal intellectual spark for English. No amount of spending, planning, lecturing, bureaucracy, etc, is likely to change that truth significantly.
    I won’t dwell upon what other people have commented upon, but I wanted to quote Wikipedia for some more JET history (yes I know, dubiously sourced, probably, take it for what it’s worth): “The English Teaching Recruitment Programme was started in 1978 and initially was exclusively for British university graduates. This programme became known as the ‘British English Teachers Scheme’. American teaching assistants were added under the ‘Mombusho English Fellows Program’ beginning in 1977. As more countries were included, the programmes were folded into a
    single entity, the JET Programme, in 1987.” (Wikipedia, “JET Programme”). So it would seem that, at least initially, the Japanese government wanted to gather their native English educators from the OG’s of English, the British. This seems sensible- buy quality- even if one runs into the inevitable “Received Pronunciation” vs. “American English” quandary.
    With that history in mind, I would contend that the JET Program was, at its foundation, a function of empire (British, American, English speaking). Again, I’m aware that this is a Japanese program, and funded by Japan. Whatever the intended effect may have been, we take the good with the bad. The JET Program has much potential for good, and James I believe you hit upon the crucial aspect of that good. Looking at Japan, especially prior to the internet, we have a country that is international, yes, but largely culturally homogeneous. Therein lies the potential value of internationalization.
    Speaking from a personal perspective, I am from the States. I would have been overjoyed (and not alone in the student body) if American schools would have deemed it necessary to bring educators from Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, etc. to teach us some of their respective languages, or simply share their outsider’s perspective. History and things being what they are though, that’s not the way it works.
    So, when of age, we go to Japan, and hope to bring as much as we gain in the process.

    All that being said, I still think that the JETs are a net win for Japan, especially when one considers the economic benefit of Japanese-foreigner marriages, and what that brings to the country. Again, we take the good with the not-so-good (gratuitous waste).

    • james says:

      Hey one spoken word, thanks for checking out my stuff and the epic comment. I think while rethinking is important for everyone’s satisfaction now, in the long term reassessing the goals of the Programme would definitely be a good idea for all. It’s def a positive for Japan as is, but could be much more. Thanks!

  • Wood Justin says:

    James, while I think the outlook you have in your article is a positive and constructive one, I can’t help but look at what on a basic level seems to be wasted opportunity. Yes, the purpose statement truly does validate the JET programme on a different level than what is usually discussed, but in that case we can’t get away from the area the programme has chosen to work in. People are hired as ALTs – Assistant Language Teachers: If the programme’s weight was truly spread out on both language, cultural and person-to-person gains, ALTs might as well run clubs at schools with “Western subjects” instead of teaching in classrooms.

    My biggest qualm with the JET programme is not that it’s purpose is bad, but that there is a huge possibility that comes with having young, excited teachers from native English speaking countries in Japan – and that their potential is wasted on a programme that gets away with “actually being quite rewarding in other fields”. If you create a purpose statement only aiming to gain 50% of possible merits and the programme then does that, you are not entirely successful but instead rob yourself of the remaining 50% – despite whatever image is broadcasted to the surrounding world.

    I wish for the Japanese youth that initiatives such as the JET programme would canalize its effort towards giving ALTs more meaningful roles in the Japanese classroom. The current model is wearing out eager and resourceful teachers.

  • Spencer J McGill says:

    Wow, Great post. It gave me a new way to look at my position.
    The only qualm I have about the Article is sometimes I think The contracting Organization and the schools have different expectations of us. My contracting organizations view of what I should be doing is very different from My schools interpretation. I think there is a certain lack of communication as to the purpose.

  • A concern JTE says:

    Great post. I totally agree with what you have said. I’m a JTE at a junior high school and I’ve been working with JETs for over 10 years now and I’ve worked with very passionate JETs who gave so many eye opening opportunities to both students and teachers to get to know some different cultures and I’m grateful for that. But what frustrates me is that not all the JETs are here for the right reasons. For instance, they don’t communicate with students nor want to interact with them in school or out. I don’t think some of them even know whom they teach at thier schools. JTEs used to evaluate JETs but not anymore so it’s hard to let BOE know our opinions on how they do their jobs. I wish my JET is as passionate as you mentioned on this post. I’ve tried to come across mt feelings but it doesn’t seem to matter. I would love to have a JET who love to be uterlized in class.

  • Zmm says:

    One reason I’m intending to volutneer at the school and public library. hopefully starting a small kids “reading” hour on the weekends. Depending on the public library setting of course.
    but I do something like that here. and it seems like it would work tehrer

  • Jen says:

    Great post. I think you nailed it when you said ‘where the focus should be’ but that’s not only for the ALT but for the program as well. I think the hours wasted at my desk because I **had** to be in school during office hours was wasted. They could’ve assigned me to the other classes where my presence wouldn’t hinder learning but enhance cultural ties. In many small towns, there’s also plenty of opportunity in the community to utilize a JET but are missed.

  • Erik Kunz says:

    Nice well written article. This really goes well with your podcast 39 (I think?) the one about the teacher’s room. I know that alot of my focus has been on teaching simple since they don’t really want me walking into classes (at least that is the feeling I get). But perhaps I should try it and see what happens.

    • james says:

      definitely Erik. I mean it’s better to have an end goal or even ask ahead of time before going to say, a P.E. class, but just doing it is better than not doing anything at all.

  • thejade9 says:

    Being a former JET, I totally agree with working on every aspect of “grassroots internationalization”. Everyone, not just JETs, can improve cultural ties with Japanese folks while still improving the English education culture at their schools. There are a lot of lazy Japanese teachers of English (JTEs) AND English language teachers (ELTs) or assistant language teachers (ALTs), and they’ll stick with the prescribed and largely ineffective way of teaching English. “I’m only getting utilized as a tape recorder” or “A,B, and C are the only ways to teach English” won’t cut it for either group. Once JTEs and ELTs/ALTs step out of those mindsets and tailor their teaching methods to students instead of the other way around while giving students their time and understanding, how students and locals see English education will change. It really isn’t different from the States. JET Program needs improvement, and so does the way people think when it comes down to changing cultural perspectives.



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