Jul 7

JET ROI: Englipedia and Why Japan Should Care by Kirsten Phillips


JET Return on Investment (ROI) is a new category on JetWit intended to highlight the various economic, diplomatic and other benefits to Japan resulting from its investment in the JET Program.  Why is this important right now?  Because the JET Program and JET Alumni Association may be cut by the Japanese government, as explained in this post by Jim Gannon (Ehime-ken, 1992-94) titled “JET Program on the Chopping Block.”

Englipedia and Why Japan Should Care

By Kirsten Phillips (Niigata-ken, 2005-08) who is currently a teacher in the NYC Teaching Fellows Program.


The JET Program is on the chopping block.

To quote my friend, Steven’s article on JetWit:

As far as they know, we just taught a little English and drank a lot of beer.

Which says unto me maybe the JET Program should take a finer toothed comb to their selection process. But that’s being snide.

Really, how is anyone to know in any quantifiable terms which candidate will contribute and which will just go through the motions? Who will eventually cope and who will leave embittered? Who will end up resenting Japan and who will fight Cyborgs to go back? Foreign countries are enigmatic places that do very enigmatic things to people. Just listen to TOTO. ^^ In the interview, they’re not looking for the transformation of souls. They’re trying to determine how gutsy you are. Will the first sight of ika pizza make you bolt for the nearest plane ride home?

When faced with the pressure ALTs and CIRs get on a daily basis, can’t say I completely blame the few who wake up one morning and realize their only hobby is nomihoudai. I’ve been insulted before. Whenever culture shock slapped me in the face and I reacted, Japan said:

“You should go home and do what you did before.”

“Maybe you have something better in America.”

“I want you to be happy.”

That grade of happy isn’t instantaneous. Surely, the selection process is not made on any whim. Though the JET Program has always been considered the Rolls Royce of English language instruction in Japan, other private Eikaiwa certainly do not select their work force from the bottom of any barrel. The application process for JET takes almost a full year to complete and is very intense. We come with good intentions and that’s the quickest road to hell.

There was an ALT named Patrick when I was there. He was the Kariwa ALT (cheeky git). He put it best:

“If I had come to Japan only for the green tea and the onsen, I’d have washed my hands of this place years ago.”

Well fucking said.

Patrick went on to return to Japan after his contract was up. He was hired by a local Kyoiku Inkai to work as a consultant and trainer for ALTs. He also started the first general website for ALTs by ALTs covering every issue from lesson plans to VISA changes. Englipedia saved my ass more than a few times. It’s not like ALTs are handed any instructions. It’s not like we have much more to work from than a dated Japanese textbook at the chuu level. In Elementary school we are truly fucked. There is NOthing to go on. If we’re lucky, some well-meaning individual in the 80’s has compiled a book of dusty, cryptic lesson plans that the school has been using for years. We can adapt it? Some schools actually go so far as to enforce it? But in my case, I burnt it and did my own thing.

The fact is, we did not just teach a little English.

When I left Japan, times were in a state of upheaval. The Ministry of Education was putting into effect a policy that would mandate English instruction at the elementary school level for 5th and 6th grade.


アカン! Someone write a textbook!

The impression I got from the pilot schools I worked with was that the Ministry’s terms were very broad and unclear. “Just do whatever it takes to make the transition. You have three years and no budget. Ready, set, GO!”

In other words, milk your ALTs for all the information they have.

Though I am happy to report the hiring trend in elementary school teachers is changing (more young people, more males), for the most part your typical example is a dynamic obaasan who can make pickles using only a daikon and the POWER OF HER MIND!

Can she speak much high-falutin English? Well, that’s not always a given in the long list of Mystic Obaasan Powers. Some do. Some don’t. Most will. Some won’t.

Suddenly requiring Japanese elementary teachers to instruct in a language they themselves have little training in is like sending someone off to war with only a rubber chicken to defend themselves.

A large percentage of our monthly meetings with the Kyoiku Inkai were spent in drafting lesson plans for standard English curriculum for the pilot schools. The officials implementing this change were not in a classroom on a daily basis, we were. We discussed and debated content, technique, strategy, etc. We argued for the inclusion of basic phonics to break up the trend of indecipherable katakana English. We voted against activities and assessments that would only require students to memorize long passages of katakana English. I once saw a group presentation done by 5th graders on a local business they had to research. Not only were they handed a script, it became obvious that the students themselves had no idea what they were talking about.


By the time they hit 5th and 6th grade, English would no longer be a game but another scale by which to measure aptitude. More pressure, more headaches. But ALTs are a common sight. We encourage the students AND their teachers to persist. We make ourselves into clowns, tacticians, writers, publishers, counselors, etc. for this.

We use our free time to instruct adults. We plan and execute seminars for English teachers. We coach elementary teachers in English language inclusion and instruction. We help our colleagues (who so often help us) in planning English assessment. We host “Eigo Dake” events at Shimin Plaza. We invent games and activities for our students. We speak with parents and PTA members (if our Japanese is serviceable enough). We judge speech contests and school recitals. We host cultural events and participate in daily school life.

And THEN we drink some beer. ^^

If the JET Program has served in any way, it is to highlight necessary changes in the Japanese education system itself.

Indeed, the JET Program seems indulgent. With Japan’s economy struggling as it is with unprecedented numbers out of work, a diminishing labor force and a government so erratically headed its as though the title of Prime Minister is being won with dice, devoting so much yen to any exchange Program that appears on the surface to be supporting a bunch of
frat kids on a 3-year vacation seems like a pretty damn good idea.

Which is why, perhaps, it is on the JET Program to tighten its guidelines. It is on its employees from the people at MEXT to that ALT roughing it up in Shikoku to reflect the impact JETS have on community. Japan benefits us just as much as we benefit Japan. We take away only what we put in and that’s a hell of a lot more than just some 百円おみやげ.

The JET Program creates fanatics. JETAANY is living proof of this.

Remember, in the historical grand scheme of things half the world looks at Japan as an enemy and the other half mistakes it for a much larger land mass called China. That’s one hell of a generalization but it seems to have endured somehow. American children, scuse me, ADULTS whose only concept of Asia is a Chinese take-out and MAYBE an anime have much to learn about the world outside. If any country has been more willing to share of its culture and people with the rest of the class, it is Japan. JETS are agents. We go back home and become mouthpieces–teachers, authors, politicians, editors, dancers, journalists, etc–eager to take what we’ve learned and spread it like some virus back home. We’ll spill all your secrets, share all your business until those around us start to wonder…

…what IS Japan?

We’re helping your PR in more ways than you can imagine, Japan. Don’t cut us off. We’re just getting started.

Have your own story to tell about JET?  Post it in the comments section here.

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