The announcement of the Liberal Democratic Party’s intention to double the number of JET teachers in Japan in three years should ring alarm bells for anyone familiar with Japan Exchange and Teaching, and set off red alerts for anyone familiar with English education in Japanese public schools. While JET has accomplished much since its inception, its outdated structure remains an example of wasteful government spending. The LDP’s choice to expand a program that is fundamentally inefficient indicates a continuation of the flawed policies that have stalled Japan’s growth.
When the predecessor to the JET program started in 1978, Japan was enjoying fantastically high growth and expanding ever more into foreign markets. The ability of Japanese businessmen to invest and attract customers overseas was deemed dependent on their English language ability. Thus, at first, the program focused on English language teaching, and was open to British university graduates. From 1987, the JET Program united various similar exchange programs into a single organization open to numerous countries, and the program goal became “to increase mutual understanding between the people of Japan and the people of other nations, to promote internationalization in Japan’s local communities by helping to improve foreign language education, and to develop international exchange on the community level.” In these goals, the JET program continues to make a valiant effort. With what results, however, and at what cost?
First-year JETs are compensated at 3.32 million yen per year, or 280,000 yen monthly, and fourth and fifth-year JETs are compensated at 330,000 yen per month. The average 300,000 yen monthly salary paid to JETs must seem extravagant to many native citizens. According to the 2011 Japan Statistical Yearbook, the average Japanese male in his early 20s was making just 225,000 yen per month, and females less. Even workers in their late 20s were making roughly 25,000 yen less per month than their average JET counterparts. Consider also that a majority of JETs are new graduates when you examine the same statistics showing entry-level teachers in Japan making just 203,000 yen per month.
A comparison of JET and non-JET English education salaries in Japan shows similar discrepancies. The average compensation at English conversation schools is a mere 250,000 per month for a teaching job with longer and later hours (typically 12 p.m.-9 p.m.). Assistant Language Teacher jobs (i.e. the same as what 90% of JETs do) with dispatch companies like Interac and Borderlink start at even less: 230,000 and 200,000 respectively. Furthermore, as government employees, JETs are not subject to city tax, are accorded free transportation to and from Japan, and sometimes receive subsidized housing.
What kind of educators and cultural representatives is Japan buying with this money? No. 9 on the list of JET’s eligibility requirements states that the applicant must not have lived in Japan for more than six years. This clause illustrates simultaneously the Japanese government’s embrace of internationalization (the participants should be as foreign as possible) and its contradictory wariness of immigration. The same reasoning is behind the free trip out of Japan that JETs get when their contract is up. The JET program is a one-off deal: participants come, share their culture for a couple years, and go home—and the government likes it that way. Limiting the applicants’ exposure to Japan also ensures they have not become “too Japanese” to serve as cultural ambassadors. By exorcizing JETs in this way, however, the program violates all three of its primary directives. The fact that there is no interview conducted for the program in Japan — effectively discouraging applicants who already live or work here—is simply further evidence that JET is not interested in people who are overly familiar with the challenges of teaching in Japan or with the culture.
What kind of work does the JET Program fund in pursuit of its goals? ALTs, who make up the vast majority of JET participants, typically start work at around 8 a.m. and finish at around 4 p.m., with roughly an hour break for lunch. JTEs, the Japanese English teachers, sometimes work with the JETs to devise lessons and activities to help the kids learn English, but many use the native speakers as “human tape recorders.” With no classes, prep finished, and head teachers and administrators too busy or linguistically incapable of assigning them tasks, it isn’t uncommon for JET ALTs (especially in rural areas) to be left with nothing to do for large parts of their days.
During summer vacation, many ALTs typically attend school and do nothing for a couple hours before going back home — while getting paid at full salary. Not all JETs have these experiences, but they occur often enough that administrators peddle the phrase, “Every situation is different” every chance they get. Does this mean then that JET compensates participants for their ability to adapt to different situations, or their ability to work with an organization that after three decades still has no clear idea of how to use them properly?
Of course, it’s pointless to debate the efficacy of the JET Program and its participants by its contract terms and work environment without considering its results. According to the 2012 EF Global English Proficiency Index, Japan is ranked 22nd out of 54 English-speaking countries. That’s below Korea, whose version of JET (EPIK) was launched as recently as 1995. Average TOEFL score comparisons from 2011 also reveal that Japanese scored below Koreans and indeed test-takers from every other major Asian country in which TOEFL is offered except for Cambodia and Laos. In fact, Korea has consistently ranked above Japan in TOEFL scores, despite similar numbers of test-takers. Whether because of a lack of overall quality in the native teachers being brought in or because of the problematic system into which they’re placed, most observers can agree that Japan’s English education hardly seems to have improved.
Concerning JET’s internationalization directive, increases in the number of Japanese TOEFL test-takers points to an encouraging development, but the decrease in study abroad participation does not. Between 2004 and 2010 the number of Japanese students studying abroad plunged more than 20%, and though it started back up in 2011, the trend raises questions about how effective the JET program’s internationalization campaign has been. It is difficult to justify expanding JET while Japan continues to struggle in areas JET is supposed to be improving.
This piece does not necessarily advocate scrapping the JET program or replacing it with private contracting companies. The JET Program is a good idea. Exposing Japanese kids to foreign culture and instilling curiosity about the world beyond Japan’s shores is important. So is giving them the tools to interact with that world. The JET Program is a tool that can be used to pursue these endeavors — but it is not being used effectively. The Democratic Party of Japan government recognized this initially when they targeted it for wasteful spending and threatened to discontinue the program in 2010. While the program’s pay structure was revised afterward, nothing was done about the problems at its core: 1) Ineffective teaching, 2) Poor management and training of ALTs, 3) A salary system that still fails to reflect the nature or strenuousness of the work involved. Expanding the program will only exacerbate these problems.
There is no reason to bring an extra 4,000 native English speakers to Japan at government expense if they can’t teach or represent their culture effectively. There is no reason to put a native English speaker in every school if the school doesn’t know how to use them. There is no reason to spend billions more yen on expanding the JET Program before addressing the fundamental flaws in the system. For that matter, there’s no reason to set TOEFL scores as graduation requirements without first addressing the effectiveness of Japan’s test-centered English education. If Japan is ready to take the plunge, then they should take it. Pull the plug on the current English teaching system and rebuild it from scratch. It will save time and a whole lot of money. Only then will the JET Program truly prove its worth.
The LDP thinks TOEFL is a silver bullet that can help propel Japan back into global competitiveness, and that the JET Program is the silver inside of it. Japan’s trouble is not only with the ammunition, however, but with the gun as well. The TOEFL is a valid motivational tool for learning English, and the JET Program has the potential to multiply that motivation and learning, but only a properly shaped program and a properly calibrated educational structure can direct it all to where the LDP wants to take Japan.© Japan Today