In her address at the United States-Japan Council’s annual conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that in terms of maintaining the people to people interactions that support the positive relations between the US and Japan, “few opportunities deliver the lifelong impressions and friendships as sending our young people to each other’s country to learn languages and cultures.” Of the numerous exchange programs sponsored and developed by the Japanese government over the years, few have been as successful as the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme(JET Program) in bringing young people together, both in “internationalizing” Japan’s municipalities and spreading understanding of Japan abroad. Each year since its inception in 1987, more JET participants have come from the US than anywhere else.
Entering its 25th year, the JET Program aims to improve international interaction and cultural understanding within Japanese communities, as well as advance foreign language education in Japanese schools and municipal governments. Each year young foreign college graduates are hired through the program to serve as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) in classrooms across Japan, or assist local governments as Coordinators for International Relations (CIRs). The program started as a creative solution to several, seemingly incongruous problems. In the mid 1980s, a Vice Minister for Home Affairs, Nobuo Ishihara, was troubled both by the stories he heard of the difficulty young graduates in the United Kingdom were facing finding work during an economic downturn, and by the poor ability of the Japanese to communicate effectively in English, despite it being part of Japan’s educational curriculum. Meanwhile, rising US-Japan trade frictions had become a major political issue for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The program helped address each of these by offering a job opportunity for young native speakers to help Japan’s local communities with English language education, while defusing trade tensions through a de facto increase of domestic spending.
The United States was one of four sending countries in the JET Program’s inaugural year in 1987, when nearly 600 Americans participated. That number has grown almost four-fold to 2,322 for the 2011-2012 term. While the program has expanded its foreign language offerings beyond English and has broadened its pool of applicants to include nearly forty countries, the majority of JET participants have consistently been from the US–this year 54% of the 4,330 JET participants are Americans. Over the course of its life, 55,651 Americans have lived and worked in Japan through this program.
One of the unique aspects of this exchange program is its emphasis on distributing JET participants throughout the country beyond the vast metropolises, in towns and villages which have the most limited access to foreigners. Every prefecture in Japan hosts at least a few American JETs, who make up the majority of JET participants in all but 16 of the 47 prefectures. While Tokyo and Kyoto are the typical destinations for American tourists to Japan, it is Hokkaido, the country’s northernmost region, that is home to the largest number of JETs from the US, followed by Hyogo and Aomori. This distribution has particularly benefited rural Japan, where the local ALT might be the first foreign interaction that local Japanese youth may have. In turn, JET participants have spread an understanding of Japanese life and culture to their home countries.
In addition to sharing their Japan experiences with family and friends, some JETs teach their home communities about the life and culture in Japan while they teach their students about their own, serving as dual ambassadors. Laura Popp, an American ALT from Owosso, Oklahoma, was featured in a recent edition of AJET Connect, a magazine for the JET community published by the National Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching (AJET). Since joining the JET program as an ALT stationed in Mie Prefecture, Laura has written over fifty articles that highlight and explain all aspects of Japanese culture, from history to holidays, for her hometown newspaper, the Owasso Reporter. She also maintains a blog that teaches foreign audiences what to expect while living in Japan.
The strength of the bonds and commitment that develop between the JET participants and their Japanese host communities were revealed in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake disasters as the JET community came together to aid the people of the Tohoku region. Active JETS volunteered their time, talents, and resources, with many providing assistance to evacuees that took shelter in their host schools. In the US, the JET Alumni Associations (JETAA) raised over $75,000 for the disaster recovery efforts. Meanwhile, #Quakebook, an ambitious project by current and past JETs to compile and distribute a free electronic book of their thoughts and reflections on March 11, has raised over $19,000 in donations for the Japan Red Cross.
The most poignant reminder of these connections however, is that the only two American victims of the disaster were two JETs, Monty Dickson and Taylor Anderson, who died trying to get their students to safety. In memory of their sacrifice, the Japan Foundation has launched the JET Memorial Invitation Program for US High School Students, an exchange program intended to cultivate the next generation of Americans engaged in grassroots person-to-person interaction between the two countries. It is the close, personal, interaction fostered by programs such as these, which Secretary Clinton pointed to, that form the foundation upon which strong bilateral relationships are built.