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Why are we here? Is the JET Program really necessary?

What are we doing here?

No, seriously. What are we doing here in Japan? Us Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) employed by the JET (Japanese Exchange Teaching) Program, why are we here? I’ve been here a while and I often wonder what exactly is the point of me? I’m an unqualified Westerner teaching your children English because I was born in the right country at the right time. The reasons I often hear for my existence in this country usually come from some young person holding a microphone at an ALT orientation or conference. They chant with bright, shining eyes “internationalization! English education! Globalization!” Yeah, yeah but nah. Chinese speakers are not being offered jobs in America with no qualifications even though Chinese is the most spoken language in the world. Smells like bullshit to me. So, let’s ask that question again. Why are we here?

Let’s start at the beginning, folks.


We’ve been coming to Japan since 1987. That was about the time Japan decided to implement Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) practices into the educational system. This style of teaching moved away from grammar translation and encouraged students to actually use the language in the classroom for more practical purposes. Lessons were designed around grammar that would be helpful for different kinds of interactions; “at the airport” or “ordering at a restaurant”. The JET Programs’ goals were 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 at the community level”. Sounds legit. Japans’ foreigner population was and is incredibly small; I can see the Government wanting to kill two birds with one stone with the program. Internationalize Japan and also improve Japanese students’ and teachers’ English ability. To enter into the program you only need a university degree and the time limit was short so these fresh-faced westerners would breeze in, English on everyone and then breeze out again, telling tales of how wonderful Japan was to their fellow countrymen.


The JET Program costs 45 billion yen a year (US$ 400 million) and some people think that it should be cut because Japan spends so little of  its GDP on education (3.8%) which must mean that the JET Program is an extravagance and we should cut that shit right out. But actually Japan spends plenty on Education; for example they spend $9957USD on each child in secondary school. Way higher than the OECD average. Japan has like no young people, Google it and it’ll make sense I promise.


 The weird thing is that Japan is spending a lot of money but Japanese teachers are very, very overworked. High school teachers spend about 35% of their time actually teaching, the rest is taken up with office work, club activities, club activities and more club activities. Teachers are required to do many things that outside workers would usually be hired to do such as sports coaches or school counselors. Classes have about 40 students (Junior and Senior High) which are tough for one teacher to control. There are few opportunities to become more qualified as well because most teachers are too busy.

sadtimesSummer vacation is for being in the staff room

So, the JET Program costs money and maybe the Japanese government can afford it. Neat. But why are they focusing on bringing us English speaking westerners over here? Japanese teachers really REALLY need some attention, like seriously. Did they do it to torture them? “Here have this English speaker who may or or may not be able to speak Japanese. Do everything for them plus your regular duties. Kthxbye.” I can’t work out what the logic is. To me bringing ALTs into the classroom is like a quick fix, the Japanese government could spend more time and money training teachers, making the class size smaller etc but instead they would rather just throw money at importing foreigners to assist their over-worked and under-qualified Japanese teachers of English.


 But what about “internationalization”? The beloved buzz-word of MEXT and all Japanese government departments. Yes, bringing different kinds of people into Japan is a nice idea. The population stands at 98.5% Japanese, so foreigners are scarce. JET participants are usually placed in rural communities which gives the Japanese people there a chance to interact with someone from a different country. Cool! But in all honesty, it’s lip-service to what the word internationalization actually means. Having some dude come live in your town for two years and interact with the kids and then fuck off back home is like a pantomime of what real multi-cultural communities look like. If we had foreigners in normal jobs, in the community in various roles it would actually be real internationalization. But the majority of jobs offered for non-Japanese are ALT positions. The only skill that ALTs are required to have is to be a native speaker of English and because of that ALTs are regulated to a special job that only they can hold. By keeping foreigners in an outsider role but letting them work here it seems on the surface to be “international” but it really, really isn’t. How can you fully integrate into the community when your job is done only by foreigners?


The lack of qualifications for this job has always made me suspicious; being a native speaker is enough to let you educate other peoples’ children. Granted, the role of an ALT is to assist the Japanese teacher but sometimes we end up doing a lot more. The non-native teacher has put a lot of work into learning English, they understand the fundamentals of grammar, for example they know what a gerund is and you probably don’t (this happened to me). They are also aware of what areas will be problematic for their students. They can be effective teachers because they sympathize with their students’ struggles and have a cultural awareness of what their students will or won’t react well to in a classroom situation. By hiring unqualified native speakers it’s saying that they are intrinsically better than non-native qualified teachers. It undervalues the effort and work the non-native speakers have put into learning that language.


Native speaker English teaching jobs are everywhere, to be an English teacher in some countries all you need to be is born in a place where English is the mother tongue. English is apparently “the language of the world” but native speakers still have premium for English teaching jobs. Why? The answer may lie in an interesting concept called “the native speaker fallacy” coined by Richard Phillipson in his book “Linguistic Imperialism.“We believe that the native speaker is the best teacher of the language but the research done in applied linguistics over the years says this is completely false (this guy has a pretty good explanation). Actually a non-native teacher can do an amazing job because teaching requires a variety of skills. Phillipson believes that the preference for native speakers is more about economics and cultural imperialism rather than language ability – I feel like this topic requires another blog post so I’m gonna leave it vague.


The JET Program has people from forty countries participating but the majority of participants are from America, Canada, Australia and NZ. I’m not sure if that’s due to the popularity of this program in those countries or the Japanese government is less keen to hire non-native speakers. But there is still that idea “native speakers are better” coursing through the center of this program regardless of how many countries participate simply because you don’t need a teaching qualification to gain entry. I’m really grateful I’m on this program as it made me find my passion for second language education but I can’t deny that one of the only reasons I’m here is because I’m a from a country that speaks “correct” English. Gross.


Those who work hard in their jobs as ALTs and do their best to promote internationalization are still fucking great people. But these achievements are based within a system that says “you can be here because you are a native speaker of English”. It adds an element of ick to all good deeds done in your role as an ALT. That’s at least how I feel, a deep sense of uneasiness with my own privilege. I look at the English teachers around me who had to learn another language to get this job, pass tests, study hard. I didn’t do that.


The JET Program could still be valid if the “international” aspect was the real deal. Creating a more internationalized Japan means having more foreign workers in a variety of jobs, not just English teaching positions. The obsession with the native English teacher as being necessary for teaching English hurts non-native speakers, if it were truly equal we would need to be qualified teachers before coming here. We wouldn’t be assistants, we would be a regular, normal teacher


In the words of awesome human Robert Phillipson:


“Governments have tended to clutch at a quick fix, such as importing native speakers, or starting English ever earlier, either as a subject or as the medium of instruction, in the hope that this will make the learning of English more effective. Such demands should be challenged by ELT when both the demand and the response are unlikely to be educationally, culturally or linguistically well-informed.”


The JET Program is a quick fix solution to a bigger problem of education in this country. Throwing money at young university graduates isn’t the best bet to make Japanese people become better learners of English. Investing in your own teachers; making sure they actually have time to teach and giving them access to better resources and qualifications would be a far more logical way to raise English education in Japan.


So go home, y’all. Oh wait, that means me too. Crap.


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  1. Joey says:

    Yes, yes, YES at this flawless article! I spent a year teaching English in rural (read: THE END OF THE EARTH RURAL) Hokkaido and well the experience was obviously great, the actual job was a complete waste of both my, the students’ and especially the teachers’ times who had to go out of their way to include me in lessons. I was able to be of good assistance for grade 1-4 students, but any higher when they have a proper curriculum to follow, the teacher’s have to find ways to squeeze you in. Truly I felt like an inconvenience, and it was more than obvious that really I was there as a token gesture, a token “real English speaker” person. It was a rude awakening, but I didn’t allow myself to get too jaded – I mean I wasn’t a teacher, and I had no qualifications, why should I be teaching? But it did leave the sour taste and question of “What is the point of this?”

    It’s a very outdated and ineffective programme, and it would make a lot more sense to employ fluent English teachers in Japan, or hire Japanese/English bilingual foreign qualified teachers to entirely run the classes rather than dabble in and out it, and be a real part of the school, and a legitimate part of the society.

    I think the saddest part of living in Japan was the realization that, should I choose to permanently live there, I would always be the outsider and always have bizarre “Wow you’re so good at using chopsticks,” and “Wow your Japanese is so good!” moments whenever I speak even the simplest terms. I know it’s tacky to complain about Japan as a foreigner and it’s been done to death, but like you wrote in this article, if they really want internalization they’d hire foreigners (that spoke Japanese to a good standard of course) and allow them to enter into a variety of job markets.

    1. Joey says:

      (I wrote ‘internalization” when I meant “internationalization” – oops.)

  2. Christophe Murdock says:

    I teach up in Hokkaido currently and a lot of what you said was true and it kinda hit me hard. I mean I’m a qualified TEFL/TESL instructor but damn I feel like I am hindering rather than helping the current crop of students and teachers. Once I finish my term of JET I will probably be heading for a country where I can integrate and won’t be a burden to my co-workers. Thanks for the post and look forward to reading more!

    1. Tessa says:

      Yeah I feel the same way (hence I wrote this post!) and will be heading home at the end of my term as well. Rural Hokkaido is pretty tough and I can imagine it’s even worse because you are qualified and can’t integrate as well as you would like to. Like I said in my post, our job can only be done my native speakers so it makes it even harder to actually fit into the community. It’s weird because I know that my position is kinda bull shit but I still (at times) enjoy my job and like being with the students and feel that I am doing “good things”. After leaving JET I’m going to continue studying for my Masters and will probably try and focus on what I’ve talked about here – the flawed nature of the ALT system in Japan.

      Thanks for your comment and I’ll be doing my best to post pretty regularly.

      1. Christophe Murdock says:

        Yeah and I do have my moments of doing good work definitely as well. Just finished up a four day camp at Nepal Sunagawa and felt like the kids improved a little and went home with concrete ways to keep up their English. But I really feel like we should eventually phase out the language teacher part and hand it over to qualified JTE’s and make the cultural part our eventual full-time job because if we are all Japan is gonna let in we need to work HARD to open up the kids minds to eventually letting more foreigners in and approximating integration.

  3. Scooter Campbell says:

    Wanna show me on the doll where the JET Programme touched you? I love how quick you are to bite the hand that feeds you when it is clear that you do not understand the purpose of the JET Programme. The Japanese education system has its flaws, and not all ALTs are the best teachers, but there is more going on with JET than just teaching English, and it is completely apparent that you have either not learned that or are ignoring it.

  4. John Summerlin says:

    There are several key issues that we should discuss about the ALT system, but you are jumping to conclusions to say it should be done away with. I gather that your situation is difficult and unenjoyable, but you need to look at what is making the roadblocks. The main issue in the team-teaching system at hand is that ALTs have no authority over lesson content, and JTEs have no systematic obligation to include challenging, language-production activities in class.
    Your post comes off as angry and emotional, and you appear to be attacking loose concepts while not putting forth any objectives in response to those changes you desire. I believe people will find it difficult to take you seriously if you do not state your objectives to challenging the system at hand. It’s very good to challenge the system, and I do agree that it is broken, yet my essential point is that the goal of importing ALTs is to get real English in the classroom, but JTEs constantly suppress any material that they think would be too hard for the students.
    I think we need to weaken the systematic clinging to grammar translation by advocating educational standards that pressure JTEs towards productive English lessons. People will not take us seriously if we make sweeping remarks that come off as rage-driven rather than purpose-driven.

  5. Rosie says:

    To my sister; who always looks at things and says ” really?” Without her this place we call home would be a sad place to live. Long live Tessa and her truth wielding fingers.

  6. Takahara says:

    Well i won’t deny that they have a legitimate concern to how ineffective ALT’s can be, especially with communication problems between the teachers and students. The JET program can provide immense help for Japan’s english curriculum, but there are too many factors that impede this. We have to remember that Japan is what they call a Gakureki Shakai 学歴社会, a society where your life is dependent on your educational background.
    So if Tanaka Kun wants to get into a good company he will most definitely need to get into a good college. In order to to get into that college he needs endure the hell of Juken 受験、and pass. Finally to get through it he must study content based upon those entrance exams from as early as elementary school (depending how crazy Tanaka kun’s family is or how hard the school is) Though to truly help these students develop better english proficiency, they have to pull away from the style they used to learn english for decades, or Yakudoku 訳読。But they can’t because of the pressure of this Gakureki Shakai on these entrance examinations for the students.
    This is only the tip of the iceburg. There are ALT’s who can’t speak Japanese, Japanese teachers who can’t speak english, lack of resources and training for the teachers, after school programs, teaching anxiety, clashing of social norms and culture and so on…..
    The thing is that it can work and it has. There have been ALT’s or people equivalent of a ALT who have successfully communicated and taught with Japanese teachers. Of course the teacher had to know enough english and the ALT had to know enough japanese. More importantly, both teachers wanted to make it work and found ways to utilize each others strengths to make up for each others weaknesses. Sounds like a myth, but it can happen. It’s a two way street, both sides need to cooperate, find middle ground, a consensus, even a chicken sandwich, anything! gotta look at both sides. Plus as a Japanese American raised in both countries….can’t help but see it.

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