December 1997


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Jets Fly High in Japan’s Schools

Almost 800 young Canadians are teaching in Japanese schools as part of the world’s largest cultural exchange program.


By Daniel Stoffman

It’s the beginning of the Grade 7 English lesson at Inagakuen High School in Saitama, a commuter suburb north of Tokyo. Some 40 blue-uniformed students are warming up under the direction of Sensei. First they repeat "fat" and "hat" and "fog", then move on to sounds that don’t exist in Japanese – putting tongues between teeth to get "th" and upper teeth on lower lips to get "f."

Sensei completes the lesson by having the students talk about their holidays. She gently corrects and encourages each one. "Don’t forget to make eye contact," she tells a girl. "That’s part of speaking English, too."

For Canadians who constantly read about how insular Japan is, Sensei is a bit of a surprise. She is one of 5,000 "jets" currently teaching foreign languages to Japanese students in the equivalent of Grades 7 to 9 under the supervision of Japanese teachers. Almost 800 Canadians are working as assistant language teachers (ALT) in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET).

Internationalization Program

JET, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last fall, is the largest cultural exchange program in the world, costing various levels of Japanese government $364 million a year. It is an opportunity for English-speakers with an aptitude for teaching – a teaching degree is not required – to get an inside look at one of the most powerful and fascinating countries in the world.

More important, the JET program represents a sea change in Japanese attitudes toward the rest of the world. Part of a wide-ranging movement that the Japanese call "internationalization," JET is the first serious attempt to encourage oral fluency in foreign languages among the Japanese.

It is also, according to Nancy Annibale, a recently-returned Canadian jet, respected by recruiters in other Asian countries. Annibale spent three years in Japan as a jet and is now teaching at an international school in Tampico, Mexico. She recently attended a job placement fair in Washington, D.C. and found that potential employers considered that "anyone who had worked for JET had already been through a valid screening process and was therefore a worthy candidate."

A Good Deal

Finally, JET has the advantage of being a very good deal for those who are selected to participate. The salary of 3 million a year translates into $47,000. Transportation to Japan is paid for and housing is subsidized so that most jets can either send about half their salaries home or enjoy a large disposable income during their stint in Asia.

Annibale travelled to 16 countries courtesy of her JET income. During her first year in Hikawa, a town of 25,000 people in the southwest part of the main island of Honshu, she had a two-level farm house and free use of a car.

"You do get spoiled," she said. "But like many jets, I was living in a very rural community where there were hardly any other foreigners. You are their only obligation and the policy of the Ministry of Education is that you should be as comfortable as you would be in your own country."

Annibale found her Japanese experience enriching in other ways as well. She learned to speak the language and studied the tea ceremony and traditional Japanese dance. She had to organize her own Japanese lessons because no formal courses were available in the area. "The Japanese English teachers don’t speak much English so you are really motivated to learn the language," she says.

At first, Annibale envied other jets who were in larger cities but eventually learned to appreciate living in the absence of other anglophones because it forced her to work harder on her Japanese.

Plenty of Support

On the other hand, she found that jets whose prime motivation was learning Japanese didn’t last long in the program. A jet’s prime motivation should be a desire to teach and doing a good job of teaching means lots of hard work, including preparation time outside the classroom. The JET program offers plenty of support, including professional development sessions in Tokyo.

For Annibale, the highlight of her teaching experience in Japan was organizing an exchange of letters between one of her Grade 9 classes and a Grade 5 class in Burlington on the subject of the Kobe earthquake, which happened during her stay.

"What I tried to do most of all was make learning English enjoyable for them. It’s a challenge getting Japanese students to express themselves. Many of them are shy and have a hard time taking risks and possibly losing face."

The JET program reflects the widespread belief among Japanese that their country is badly in need of reform – political, economic, social. Schoolyard bullying, an overemphasis on rote learning, extracurricular cram schools, and not enough emphasis on the creative side of learning are frequently cited as symptoms of the need for reform in the education system.

Another jet, Ashley Isaacs, tries to draw her students out by staging debates on such subjects as love marriages vs. arranged marriages. "But it’s impossible to get a critical paper out of them," she says. "And the teachers are badly overworked. Sometimes they are here from 6 a.m. to midnight."

While both reform and internationalization are generally thought to be good ideas, many Japanese are ambivalent about how far to go. For example, foreign language teaching doesn’t start until the equivalent of Grade 7. Yet it is now known that languages are best learned before puberty, and the question of inserting foreign languages into the elementary curriculum is a controversial issue.

Cultural Issue

Professor Hidenori Fujita of Tokyo University, an expert on the education system, opposes it because kids are already too busy. There is also a cultural issue, he says, namely the growing dominance of English as an international lingua franca.

English is already visible as a sort of decorative motif all over Japan, on product names, shops, and music. Much of this English makes little sense, but it strikes some as a threat to Japanese culture. That threat might be more severe if large numbers of young people started to achieve real fluency.

On the other hand, Nancy Annibale found that not all students are eager to learn English. "A lot of the young people want to get out of the rural area and they think English will be an advantage. Those are the motivated ones. But in my area, a lot of the young men were planning to work on the family farm. You don’t need English to be a rice farmer."

Another disincentive, even for the university-bound students, is the strong emphasis on written exams that every Japanese who wants to get into university must pass. "They know that their reading comprehension is key to get into a university," says Annibale. "So why labour over the oral component?"

Nevertheless, the Japanese government is very keen on the JET program and is eager to expand it. A major reason is that it thinks JET alumni will improve Japan’s international image.

JET Generation

An indication of the program’s importance is that the 10th anniversary celebration in Tokyo last September was attended by the Crown Prince and Princess. Various speakers at the event spoke of a growing "jet generation" of JET alumni now working in government, universities and business. Other ex-jets stay on in Japan to perfect their Japanese so that they can return home as Japanese language teachers.

The program now recruits from 18 countries – French, German and Spanish are also taught – but English is the foreign language most Japanese want to learn. The Canadian contingent is the third largest after those of the U.S. and Britain.

Norio Ota, who teaches Japanese at York University and is one of the selectors of Canadian jets, believes the Japanese are trying to expand the program faster than the available supply of qualified candidates. "As a result," he says, "they are getting some people with no talent for teaching and little real interest in Japan. "

But Ota was in the minority at a symposium which attracted Japanese language experts from several countries. Most supported the government’s plan to expand the program to 6,000 jets, a number equal to the total of public and private high schools in Japan.

Teachers Support Program

More important, the program is popular among Japanese teachers who, Annibale says, are ready to learn from other countries. During her third year in Japan, she worked as an assistant to the English consultant to the prefectural board of education and met many Japanese teachers who were outspoken about such problems as the overemphasis on rote learning. Many of them want to go abroad to study other systems first-hand.

Unfortunately for Canadian ex-jets, many potential employers in Canada are less international in their outlooks than the Japanese. They place little value on the foreign experience and Japanese language skills of Canadian JET alumni. Annibale, for example, is a member of the Ontario College of Teachers qualified to teach every level from junior kindergarten to OAC but has had no luck in her Canadian job hunt.